Mythbuster: What whisky tasted like before the 1770s

Mythbuster: What whisky tasted like before the 1770s

Bye barley, and catch you later casks – prior to 19th century, the predominant influence on whisky's flavour was actually the aniseed of anethole

Mythbusters | 27 Jan 2023 | Issue 189 | By Chris Middleton

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Whisky before the 1770s tasted nothing like the modern-day product. This is because most proto-whiskies were synthesised with the aromatic trans-anethole, the flavonoid compound that gives aniseed, liquorice, fennel and even caraway its distinctive flavour and odour. Not only is anethole a seductive flavour, it is also 13 times sweeter than sucrose. Soluble in water and ethanol, it disguises offensive compounds and transforms acrid distillates into dulcified and delectable beverages.

The anethole-flavoured spirits market, worth more than US$50 billion, includes pastis, absinthe, ouzo, raki, sambuca, and arack. Aniseed and liquorice flavour France’s top-selling brand, Ricard pastis, while ouzo in Greece and raki in Turkey dominate respective country sales.

Aniseed or anise became distilled spirits’ principal collaborator; by the 16th century, it was the leading ingredient for flavouring so-called ‘strong waters’. Even with the English gin craze in the 18th century, compounding juniper or turpentine oil, aniseed and liquorice became secondary botanicals, contributing to regional gin styles. The Dutch also flavoured their genever with aniseed and liquorice, as did the Poles and Russians with their vodka.

Anethole ingredients enjoyed culinary demand before liquorice cultivation began in Yorkshire more than 1,000 years ago, and the 1305 anise and liquorice pontage tax helped repair London Bridge. Anethole’s boom started in the 16th century when it became the preferred botanical compound for flavouring aqua vitae. Spirits evolved from medicinal tonics supplied by apothecaries to daily fortifiers and pick-me-ups, finally arriving as recreational beverages. ‘Hotte water hauses’ competed with ale houses as venues to socialise over a dram. Increasing demand led to the manufacture of high volumes at low cost, where grain mashes replaced costly imported wine for distillation. Grain’s higher fusel oils meant the distillates were of poorer quality, and sometimes noxious unless purified by expensive rectification through multiple and fractional distillations. Compounding with botanicals masked palatability objections while promoting illusory medicinal benefits.

Flavoured ‘usque-beatha’ appeared in Ireland in the early 16th century as proto-whisky. Aniseed was the second largest commodity import to Ireland after salt from 1503 to 1600, with liquorice racing up to third place. When compounded with aqua vitae, anethole botanicals made fierce distillate sweet, flavoursome and aromatic. Adding raisins gave the usque-beatha a pleasing character and coloured the spirit with beguiling yellow-brown hues. For wealthy aristocrats and gentry, usque-beatha was an affordable and appealing sensory bridge to substitute with expensive ‘Cunyeak wine’, ergo French brandy. Flavoured Irish aqua vitae was being exported to London by the 1590s, 200 years before trade began with Scotland.

Irish aqua vitae, as ‘Vsqubach’, formed part of the first Pharmacopoea Londinensis in 1618. Later modified into concentrated tinctures in the 1650s, these were the forerunners to the popular bitters category; again, aniseed and liquorice were the most popular additives. The English embraced anethole flavour ingredients, making ‘usquebaugh’ one of the most popular recipes in British distilling and compounding books.

Aniseed, liquorice and raisins were the three backbone ingredients to prepare usque-beatha, uisce, uisge, and its many Anglicised bi-lingual Gaelic iterations. In October 1752, the Gilcomston distillery near Aberdeen advertised ‘Fine Malt Spirits’ and ‘Anise Water’. Thomas Pennant wrote of Islay distillers in 1772 using fragrant herbs, especially aniseed, in their aqua vitae. The variability in the quality of malt spirit in Scotland made toddies, punches, and cordials a necessity, especially in the absence of flavoured uisce-beatha.

By the 1780s, manufacturing advances improved the calibre of distillate, leading to desirable flavours by maturation in reused rum, brandy and wine casks – serving a new discerning consumer, and ushering in modern whisky.
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