Smuggling Holy Water: A Short Renaissance History of Whisky

Cassidy Cash

Aqua Vitae, or uisge beatha, and whisky as it is known in English

Aqua Vitae, or uisge beatha, and whisky as it is known in English, (spelled ‘whiskey’ if you are in Ireland or the United States), started out as a drink made by monks, and was known as a kind of holy water. Aqua vitae covers a wide range of spirits, being made first from distilled wine, and ulti¬mately forming the foundation for drinks like vodka, brandy, and bourbon. Translated as ‘the water of life’ in Latin, the liquid was celebrated as a pow¬erful medicine. After the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII in England, monks with distillery experience moved underground, producing aqua vitae illegally in what was essentially moonshining establishments. The dissolution of the monasteries provided a conduit for whisky to be moved into the mass market as the now displaced monks used their skills to not only make aqua vitae for the general public, but to teach those outside the friary how to make it themselves. In addition to its’ medicinal applications, aqua vitae quickly became valued as a drink for pleasure. Individual homes were known to have private stills, while taverns and inns made their own aqua vitae to offer to travelers. As early as the 1400s, whisky was largely undiluted and as a result was very raw, strong, and rather brutal to try to swallow. What it lacked in the smoothness enjoyed from modern whisky, aqua vitae made up for as an ex¬cellent disinfectant, being used by Tudor herbalist for the treatment of every¬thing from palsy to smallpox, the common cold, and was even applied as a general stress reliever. We see this stress relief application of aqua vitae in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, written in the mid 1590s, when the Nurse says, ‘give me some aqua vitae’ in Act III Scene 2. She is responding to a stressful event, and calls for liquid fortification.
Smuggling Holy Water: A Short Renaissance History of Whisky
16th century still called an “Almbec.” An almbec was an alchemical still used for distilling liquids, like aqua vitae.

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Smuggling Holy Water: A Short Renaissance History of Whisky
King James IV of Scotland

One of the earliest records of whisky in Scotland comes from the Exchequer Rolls.

In this 1494 record, a Franciscan monk named Friar John is mentioned with the line ‘Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.’ That’s enough ingredients to make over 1500 bottles of aqua vitae. It was a tremendous order! Friar John’s concoction of aqua vitae was ordered by King James IV of Scotland, and the result must have impressed the King, because he started ordering more, and even larger amounts. King James IV even sets up the Royal College of Surgeons with the exclusive rights to pro¬duce aqua vitae. While the large order to Friar John for aqua vitae may seem to be about a big party, or perhaps supplying liquid courage to the King, it turns out this record could also indicate preparation for battle. Aqua Vitae is an essential ingredient for the corning process during the production of gunpowder. As an expert alchemist, James IV (1488-1513) would have known about this usage and his considerable collection of canons would have required gunpowder. In order to mix up gunpowder in the 16th century, you needed salt peter, char¬coal and sulfur, which was then mixed with aqua vitae. The Exchequer Rolls record may not have been just for whiskey to drink, or even medicinal rea¬sons, but could have potentially been preparing for war. Later, James V celebrated the birth of his son and heir with a huge party in 1540 that included fireworks. The royal accounts from this event say that the fireworks were produced using aqua vitae along with mercury, walnut oil, brimstone, lint, hemp, and tallow.
Ancestry UK

Aqua vitae was produced in Scotland for centuries

Aqua vitae was produced in Scotland for centuries, but the first reference to a still used for making whisky comes from 1504, when a chaplain in Ab¬erdeen, Scotland lists among his property ‘ane stellatour for aquavite and ros wattir’ (Middle Scots language for ‘a still for aqua vitae and rose water’). By 1644, the government was instituting a tax on the aqua vitae, charging a tax by the pint which led to a sharp increase in illicit stills across the United Kingdom when individuals sought to avoid the tax by making, and distribut¬ing, aqua vitae secretly. The smuggling of whisky was done without any apparent moral dilemma, as it was Ministers of the Kirk, Scotland’s National Church, who would make space in their houses of worship for storing illicit whiskey. There are some records that aqua vitae was even transported inside the coffins of the dead as an effective means of transporting the liquid secretly. After all, they say dead men tell no tales, and it seems that especially true if you first offer them a dram of Scottish whisky.
Smuggling Holy Water: A Short Renaissance History of Whisky
Distillation apparatus for aqua vitae from Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte Distillandi (1512).
Smuggling Holy Water: A Short Renaissance History of Whisky

Cassidy Cash

Cassidy Cash is a Shakespeare historian, history map illustrator, and host of That Shakespeare Life, the #2 Shakespeare history podcast in the world. Cas¬sidy’s documentary shorts and animated films about Shakespeare history have won international film awards for both history and animation. Cassidy is a mem¬ber of the National Council on Public History, The American Historical Associa¬tion, the Renaissance Society of America, and the Shakespeare Association of America. Her work has been published in multiple academic journals and on ma¬jor history platforms including History Magazine, HistoryHit, and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
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