People enjoy their alcohol. Most people have their favorite kinds, like beer, wine, Zima, etc., but whisky is basically the foundational beverage when you are in the mood for a serious drink.

Think about it; when you go into a bar in the Wild West, what are you ordering? A Fuzzy Navel? No, you are ordering a whisky. AND LEAVE THE BOTTLE. When you see one of those fifties shows when some guy in the dark suit comes home from work to his suburban home, what does he pour for himself, and put a counterproductive piece of ice in? Right, whisky in a lowball glass, AND MAKE IT A DOUBLE. If there is a drama about some down and out person in a boxcar, what do they have with them in their bindle? A flask or pint of cheap whisky, (PASS ME THE ROTGUT).

Now, myself, I am a bit biased. I do enjoy my beer. But for spirits, I enjoy a nice Scotch Whisky.

The first thing is, you need to know I am half-Scottish, and that means I have a bit of a tendency to think “IF IT’S NOT SCOTTISH, IT’S CRRRRRRAP!” It’s just genetics; blame the Gs, Cs, As, and Ts. That is the reason I am spelling it whisky, rather than whiskey. The Irish, Americans, and Japanese, among a handful of others, spell it whiskey. But the Scots spell it whisky. In actuality, whisky (or whiskey,) is a catch-all term for a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash that encompasses many different types of preparation that have different names based on the type of grain used, the distillation and aging methods, and the storage container that it’s aged in. It can be made from wheat, rye, barley, corn, rice, or a few other grains. If it’s corn, it’s usually called Bourbon Whiskey; if it’s from rye, it’s called Rye; if it’s from malted barley, it’s called some variation of whiskey; and if it’s made in Scotland, it’s called Scotch Whisky or Scotch, for short. My highland genes tell me to mention that there is no comparable drink called “British,” or “Irish.”

My favorite name for any type of whisky is Aqua Vitae, or “Water of Life.”

The process of making these beverages has definitely advanced over time, because the original variations on the theme were only distilled once, which left in some of the more toxic or nasty chemicals that come from the process. They also did not age the spirit at all, so the taste must have not been very mellow. Lastly, modern Scotch has about 40% alcohol content, but they did not dilute the earlier versions at all, so they were more likely 80-90% alcohol. So, imagine weird chemical-tasting Everclear. It was at first made in monasteries. One must wonder about that a little, because monasteries were also the source of much knowledge about brewing and most of the inventory of beer at the time. It seems as if Brother Maynard and his compatriots had some reasons for the inspiration behind the Holy Hand Grenade, but I digress.

Whisky was, for many years, licensed and regulated by the surgeon’s guilds because it was also used as medicine. Which is odd, because there are a lot of stories from the 14th and 15th centuries about people dying of a “great surfeit of aqua vitae,” which is basically alcohol poisoning.

As an aside, whisky itself has been used as currency, as a way of making sure your grain crop would survive transportation, and it formed the greater portion of George Washington’s personal business assets. In addition to the giant weed crop he grew to produce and sell hemp rope. Kinda changes things to realize that Washington was Nancy Reagan’s worst nightmare, huh?

Eventually, by the early 17th century, the first independent distilleries were permitted (in Scotland) and they advanced the process to include multiple distillations, cask aging, copper vessels for the stills to remove most of the toxic properties, and a greater level of cleanliness and repeatability to the process. They discovered that flavor elements could be added or changed depending on how the malts were roasted and by selecting for specific malts with distinctive flavors. In the Highland and Speyside regions of Northern Scotland, they discovered that roasting the malts over burning peat moss fires can impart a specific flavor as well, further increasing the distinctiveness of the spirit.

All it requires though, to truly enjoy a nice Scotch, is to find your favorite whisky, and partake of a wee dram while reflecting on the fact that the Scots have given the world most of the inventions and knowledge and beverages worth having.

(I may have written that while doing active research on the subject of the article, through direct real world experience.)

Tony Moir is a cyborg who holds world records in synchronized luge and panda steeplechase. Or maybe he isn’t. But he lives in San Francisco with his lovely wife and three outstanding sons.

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