Religion's Surprising Influence On Whiskey - The Whiskey Wash

Religion’s Surprising Influence On Whiskey

Editor’s Note: Our author on this piece, John Rayls, is well versed on this topic as he currently is an Episcopal priest out of Texas.

Throughout history, the whiskey experience has been heavily influenced by organized religion as both its supporter and its detractor. The earliest stills were found in Pakistan, where they were used to form medicinal products and perfume. However, the first recreational distillates were found in the Middle East, specifically in Babylon and Mesopotamia. It spread slowly from civilization to civilization until it finally made its way into the European way of life. However, this is where religion’s surprising connection with whiskey began to exert its subtle influence.

It was there that distilling fermented grains found its home securely behind monastery walls supervised and handled personally by the monks. The stability of the orders, the isolation of the work and the use of the products by the monks and their followers helped create an apparent, beneficial co-dependent relationship between organized religion and distillates. The practice of distillation finally reached Ireland and Scotland somewhere between the 11th and 13th centuries. It was brought to the island kingdoms by monks simply practicing what had worked for them all over the continent.

Both whiskey and religion have long histories with sometimes have intersected through the ages. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

Both whiskey and religion have long histories which sometimes have intersected through the ages. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

The term “whiskey” comes from the Gaelic “uisge beatha,” which means water of life. The grapes needed for wine-making did not grow as well in the climate of Ireland and Scotland, and the monks learned to distill their barley beer into this new water of life. Making whiskey was limited to apothecaries and monasteries until the 15th century. Whiskey consumption continued to grow (particularly in Scotland) until Henry VIII abolished Scottish monasteries in 1541 (struggling with The Christian Reformation) and forced the distillation process into private enterprises. Of course, the European kings, with their divine rights, also made other significant religious decisions which changed the whiskey making landscape dramatically and which naturally led to some whiskeys being labeled Protestant and others labeled Catholic. (i.e. Bushmills and Jamesons)

As the royalty continued to prove that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” a significant emigration out of Ireland and Scotland began to occur through the 18th and 19th centuries. This was closely tied to significant religious movements and resulting persecution happening across northern Europe. As a result, the knowledge of whiskey and how to make it quickly made the leap to the new country. This leap also dictated certain changes in production technique – just as it had in the past – in how the whiskey was made due to the new and easily available resources. Of course, the flavor changed as well as the Native Americans shared their knowledge of the local grains.

Initially, the religious influence did not work against whiskey or its consumers. In fact, in the nether regions of America whiskey was used as currency. However, as the more conservative religious leaders in each of the religious sects began gaining control more and more laws began to shape how and when whiskey could be created and consumed. These laws tended to serve as irritants, but could be worked around. Alexander Hamilton, for example, fanned this into flames when seeking to raise money for the new US government by taxing whiskey, which led to the famous Whiskey Rebellion.

Elijah Craig is an interesting exception to the religious control of alcohol. As a Baptist minister, he purchased 1000 acres during this time period in the new territory known as Kentucky and eventually established Georgetown, Kentucky and his new whiskey enterprise. He used his proceeds to finance his church work and to develop his new community. He was also arrested for distilling without a license as he refused to yield to the new government flexing its tax muscles.

As another unique part of the American whiskey experience, these laws eventually became known as The Blue Laws. These laws attempted to legislate “proper” behavior on “The Lord’s Day,” or Sundays, and involved many areas, but emphasized behavior involving alcohol. They began before Prohibition (1920-1933) and still continue today in some states. Although Prohibition was a national disaster for the many distilleries dotting the land, the ultra religious and other well intentioned people continued to attempt to control drinking through legislation. These laws were based on the idea that every Sunday should be spent in church, with family, in sober reflection. They included laws to prevent buying alcohol or limiting the types of alcohol or restricting the permissible times for purchase.

A recent map of states and related Blue Laws. (image via Distilled Spirits Council of the United States)

A recent map of states and related Blue Laws. (image via Distilled Spirits Council of the United States)

Billy Sunday, a popular fire-breathing evangelist in the early 20th century, said “whiskey is all right in its place – but its place is hell.” WC Fields saw it differently, noting that one should  “always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake.” These quotes exemplify the wildly differing perceptions of whiskey within our culture and within religion, even by pastors and priests.

Throughout its history, whiskey has been intimately influenced by religion for good and bad. This seemingly mixed up relationship, possibly better known as dissociative identity disorder, continues today in America through Blue Laws dating back over 300 years in some places; although, we also have the Elijah Craigs, priests and monks and their monasteries to whom we owe our debt of thanks.