Have you ever wondered just how far back the alcohol bottles found on the back shelf of the bar actually go? Believe it or not, some of these spirits are actually older than your great-great-great-great-grandparents. They’re even older than the United States! Join us as we take a look back at how these staple bar drinks came to be.
Whiskey (also spelled “whisky”) is derived from the Scottish Gaelic term for “water of life.” By the 15th century, the practice of distillation had made its way to Ireland and Scotland. Initially, the process of distilling spirit alcohol, a.k.a. “aqua vitae,” was for medicinal purposes and took place in monasteries. The first mention of this aqua vitae can be traced to 1405 Ireland with a mention in the Annals of Clonmacnoise. Whiskey production shifted to the public sector when King Henry VIII of England began shutting down the monasteries in 1536. The displaced monks found themselves in need of a way to earn a living and turned to distilling in homes and on farms. From Renaissance Europe to modern times, whiskey continues to be a favorite libation.
Vodka gets its name from the Slavic word “voda,” which means water. Distilling vodka can be traced all the way back to the Middle Ages in Poland and Russia, where it was initially used medicinally. The first time the word “vodka” was mentioned was in 1405 in court documents from Poland’s Palatinate of Sandomierz. Popularization of vodka throughout Europe came with the Napoleonic Wars. Vodka at this time was distilled from the abundant and low-cost potato mash. In 1894, a law was passed to put control of the distilleries’ production and distribution in the hands of the Russian state. The Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks’ seizure of these distilleries caused most vodka makers to flee and take their recipes throughout the world.
Gin is shorthand for the Old English word “genever,” which is derived from “juniperus,” Latin for juniper. Juniper berries contribute to the dominant flavor of gin. Production of gin can be traced to early 17th century Holland. When William of Orange, ruler of the Dutch republic, took the throne in 1689, he issued a series of statutes encouraging gin production, which caused its popularity to quickly rise. This Gin Craze saw the number of spirit shops in London explode to 7,000, with 11 million gallons of gin being distilled. The government stepped in to regulate the low quality and overabundance of the drink with Gin Acts in 1736 and 1751. Ever since, gin has enjoyed a more refined makeover associated with high society through sophisticated drinks.
Rum traces its roots back to the late 17th century with sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. Molasses, a byproduct of refining sugar, was initially regarded as waste. Soon it was discovered that molasses could be combined with cane juice and fermented to yield rum. Rum soon became a highly sought-after commodity in Colonial America and England, even becoming an accepted form of currency. Pre-Revolutionary War estimates put American colony consumption at 3.7 gallons (or 14 liters) per person per year. This drink attracted a strong naval presence in the Caribbean by the British Royal Navy, which warded off the threat of pirates. Up until 1970, the British Royal Navy gave its sailors a daily rum ration known as a “tot.” Rum is very popular to this day, with the majority of the world’s supply still being produced in the Caribbean.
As you can see, these beverages are so popular that they continue to be enjoyed hundreds of years later. The next time you are at your favorite watering hole enjoying a shot of whisky or a Long Island Iced Tea, think about all that history happening in your drink.