The medieval name for distlilled spirits was ‘aqua vitae’ (water of life). This translates into scottish Gaelic as uisge beatha and the earliest English rendering, uskebeaghe (1581) eventually evolved into the word whisky.
Sounds like a dry fact but hidden in this is a suggestion that the product from the Gaelic heartland was quite a different drink from aqua vitae. If it had been the same then there would have been no need to borrow the Gaelic term into English.
What do we suppose the explanation to be. Well possibly two factors, local water and maturing in used oak barrels.
From ancient times the western fringe of Europe had a thriving maritime trade encompassing what are now Spain and Portugal at one end and what is now Scotland at the other. The earliest wines and spirits were stored in stoneware but oak barrels became the preferred option in some areas such as southern Spain where sherry production developed.
We know that sherry was a popular tipple in medieval Scotland under the name of sack. Thus a surplus of used sherry barrels. What better than these to store the local uisge beatha. But no-one could have predicted the magical result. Giving us Whisky, a distinct and refined drink with endless variation spawned in each area from a mix of barrel, local water and techniques.
Yesterday’s accident of history leading to today’s sophisticated pleasure.