Who distilled the first whisky? We know distilling began in Mesopotamia, where beer was the omnipresent alcoholic beverage and a seminal product of the Neolithic agricultural revolution. The brewing of beer started more than 13,000 years ago in the Middle East. The first distillation of beer, spiritus frumenti, likely began 6,000 years ago when the first earthenware stills appeared during the late Ubaid and Uruk period. Several millennia before Europeans started distilling beer and the Gaelic word for water, ‘uisge’, entered the Irish and Scottish vocabularies – finally Anglicised into ‘whisky’ by the early 18th century – antediluvian whisky appeared in the Middle East.
Dating from 3,500 BCE, archaeological discoveries at Tepe Gawra in Iraq found clay pot stills incorporating rims to channel the condensed distillate, mounted by a Rosenhut-style head to condense the vapour. Before the Bronze Age, this clay-fired distilling technology spread to Nilotic Egypt, and the eastern Mediterranean. As households across Mesopotamia and Egypt brewed beer daily for consumption, so the use of primitive stills also became widespread in the manufacture of perfumes, pharmacological treatments, and potable drinks from beer and wine.
While much of the distillate was likely unpalatable, its consumption did not represent a health risk, as it was diluted when served as a drink. When compounded with additives, even flavoured with beer and wine, it helped mask any unpleasant tastes before consumption at religious, medicinal and social occasions.
Around 4,000 years ago, the first columnar distilling apparatuses appeared in Minoan Crete: the Phaistos still. It employed strainers or sieves between three vertical compartments where steam vapours stripped a fermented solution producing perfumes and spirit distillates – the same principle used in modern column stills. Archaeologists hypothesise that Minoans also distilled wine and grape residuum, a version of contemporary Cretan raki or tsikoudia. Structural versions of the Pyros still spread through the Aegean region, employing the familiar alembic and cucurbit assembly. By 450 BCE this format appeared in the Indus Valley.
The first distillation of beer, spiritus frumenti, likely began 6,000 years ago...
Around 2,000 BCE in Anatolia, the Hittites engineered an inverted spouted bowl still. Another still configuration with a removable conical head was similar in construction to the Pyros stills employed in Aegean islands, and the same template was recycled by Zosimos when he fabricated Alexandrian stills around 300 CE. Improved versions of this design led to the Islamic and Persian alembic configurations from 750 CE. These were copied by Medieval distillers in the West 300 years later, first using glass-blown stills, later metallic alloys and ceramics. By the 18th century, European stills and condensing worms were mostly copper, the most effective, safe and palatable metal for manufacturing spirits.
Europe’s distillation history started in Italy around 1150 CE and diffused through the Holy Roman Empire by way of monastic orders, trade guilds and specialist apothecaries. The distillation of beer began in the German principalities, spreading to the British Isles by the mid-14th century. English colonists first distilled turpentine in North America, at Virginia’s Jamestown settlement in 1608, and within a few years, distilled grain mashes used retorts from a glass foundry built at the colony in 1607.
Henan, China was the locale of Asia’s first fermented alcoholic beverages 9,000 years ago. When ancient Greek distilling technology percolated into China, they modified ceramic tripod steam cooking pots to produce ardent spirits. Then, 2,000 years later, Chinese metallurgists cast bronze and copper distilling appliances modelled on their earlier fired clay stills for distilling wine, rice, and barley mash. Flavoured with botanicals, these compounded spirits were analogous to the proto-whiskies made by Irish and Scottish distillers until the late 18th century. The advent of modern whisky arrived when more wholesome grain distillate was stored in oak containers.