Skip to main content

Why did whisky mean ‘water of life’ in Scotland?

Where does the term whisky originate from?

It derives from the Gaelic word uisge beatha (in Scottish Gaelic) or uisce beatha (in Irish Gaelic). It’s pronounced “ish-ka ba-ha” and they both translate to water of life

The creation of uisge beatha 

Quite the compliment. Nobody has ever called me anything as flattering as “the water of life” before. But that’s a reflection of the esteem in which distilled spirits were held. This was back in the early days of distillation in Europe. While there’s evidence of a distillation-like process in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt for the production of perfumes and aromatics, and Greek alchemists developing an early form of the alembic still, the knowledge and practice of distillation made significant advances during the Islamic Golden Age and this technique likely brought over from the Arab world after the Crusades.

It soon became commonplace in the Middle Ages in Europe. The process of distillation was introduced to the whisky heartlands of Scotland and Ireland by monks in the early mediaeval period, initially employed in the making of medicinal spirits.  These early distillates were believed to have healing properties, capable of prolonging life and treating a variety of ailments. It would also have formed the basis of religious rituals. 

But if you ventured into the Highlands of Scotland or the Irish country you would find ordinary folks with a still, however, rudimentary, and botanicals and water to create their own spirits. 

Early whisky distilleries looked like this

From the medicinal to the social

While making spirits stemmed from its medicinal use, its cultural and social significance soon took precedence. Hector Boece’s words, written in 1526, reflect this. “When my ancestors were determined of a set purpose to be merie, they used a kind of aquavite, void of all spice, and onelie consisting of such herbs and roots as grew in their own gardens”. 

This was not the whisky we love now, it almost had more in common with gin, a distilled spirit (usually from cereals) that was flavoured with herbs, roots, and fruits – or botanicals. Think marjoram, hyssop, sage, rosemary, heather etc. Over time it developed and changed, eventually becoming a clear spirit aged in barrels. 

The medicinal side of whisky has been all but decried in the modern day and it’s extremely rare to see any recognised health organisation recommend alcohol in any form, the other interpretation of the water of life speaks true to us*. Whisky was then, as it is now, a vital element of social gatherings, celebrations, and ceremonies.

Lindores Abbey makes Aqua Vitae today as a nod to its history and provenance

Uisge beatha, usquebaugh, aquae vitae

You might be thinking at this point: “That’s all well and good, but what the hell does the term uisge beatha have to do with the word whisky?”. The answer lies in the way words evolve through various phonetic simplifications and approximations. 

During the mediaeval period, we see uisge beatha become anglicised and morphed into usquebaugh. The ‘b’ in “beatha” transformed more into a ‘v’ sound.  From usquebaugh came “usquebae” or “usquebea” in Scotland and then “usky” or “usque”. Humans love abbreviating words to simplify them and in this final form, we can see the connection: usky to whisky is not a complex transformation. 

Parallel to the evolution of uisge beatha in the Gaelic-speaking regions, the Latin term aqua vitae was used in many parts of mediaeval Europe to describe distilled spirits and has the same meaning: water of life. Monks spoke Latin and wrote a lot of the early recipes so aquae vitae was a term used across the continent. Over time, aqua vitae was adapted into various languages, giving rise to terms such as eau-de-vie in French and akvavit in Scandinavian languages.

Whisky: the water of life

Whisky as the water of life

Whisky’s designation as the “water of life” underscores its historical importance, from its origins as a life-sustaining elixir to its contemporary status as a drink cherished for its complexity, tradition, and depth of flavour. Something worth raising a glass and saying Slàinte too, we reckon. 

Yes, we can explain why we say Slàinte too. 

*Of course, some people still whisky swear is good for a head cold. No comment here.

The post Why did whisky mean ‘water of life’ in Scotland? appeared first on Master of Malt Blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.