In the Scottish highlands, several men pick up firewood and brush, return to their home and stoke the huge fire raging beneath cauldrons of barley mash. It's about 1150 A.D. and the men, monks safeguarded by giant monastery walls, are brewing a high-alcohol drink called "uisge beatha," the breath of life (aqua vitae in Latin). Around Europe, the truly amazing cathedrals are just being started while using the new technique: the flying buttress. A Wonderful Crusade is underway inside the Holy Land.
The monks, when not distilling the earliest known liquor which will be commonly known as Scotch whiskey, were growing food including the ingredients of the mash: barley and the fungi called yeast. The barley is soaked for several days, or "malted," and after ground (mashed) and fermentation begins. Distilling will happen in copper vats, and the monks pour the distillate into oak casks which would have taken months to produce and seal. The casks then sit for 6 months to several years. The safety and affluence of the monastery, and the frightened reverence the populace would have had for monks, guaranteed this to be one of the few reliable places for producing whiskey in the High Middle Ages.
The earliest commercial distilleries appear at the end of the 15th century, with written invoices for Scotch documented in 1495. As Europe urbanized and materials became more accessible, people could design and build more useful stills, those not exposed to the air and losing almost all of the product to steam. Coils and other reduction devices for barley distilling came into use, as well as other grains became popular.
Meanwhile, on which would become the American continent, Indians were making spirits from many native plants, including corn. Europeans arrived to see many foods and grains, and experienced corn whiskey for the very first time. In Massachusetts, the Scots-Irish people settling in and sawing down vast hardwood forests knew what to do. They used whatever materials were available to make corn liquor, and as early as 1633 the Massachusetts Colony started requiring a license to distribute it. The fight between governments looking for revenue and the people who sought to make their own rules about distilleries had begun.
Naturally, people had made wine and ale for far longer than this. Many beverages with alcohol were available, nevertheless the private enterprise issues that continue today had started. Prior to the revolution, still owners were left almost entirely alone. Washington and Jefferson operated their very own stills. After the revolution, taxes were put on all alcohol to help pay war debt and farmers wouldn't approve. Their stills had in large part grown to be their livelihoods.
The Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania was the greatest and best known of the battles moonshiners had with federal agents, nevertheless the battles continued, big and small, throughout rural areas in the east. The Appalachian Mountains through Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee later became known for moonshine whiskey and the many legends of backwoods distilling.