Sláinte: a Brief Origin of Irish Whiskey

Our program on Whiskey in the appalachians was a big hit for our adult patrons last year, so we thought we’d give Kyle Johnson, an Adult Services Clerk here at the Johnson City Public Library a chance to teach us all a little more about whiskey for Saint Patrick’s Day!

On the 17th of March, Irish diaspora will be celebrating their patron Saint Patrick’s Day (Lá Fhéile Pádraig) as their cultural and material heritage is put on display the world over. Like other holidays celebrated in the United States, Saint Patrick’s Day is often criticized as a garish display of national stereotypes boiled down to its most basic of elements. In particular, “drunken debauchery” seems to be among the most prevalent. Like most stereotypes, this lays ignorantly in a bed of half-truths. While drunkenness is always to be abhorred, drinking is in fact a legitimate part of the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day, when the Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking are lifted.

Despite whiskey’s association with his holiday, the drink postdates the death of Saint Patrick by almost a thousand years. Knowledge of distillation (the process of making heavy spirits) fell into obscurity in Europe during the Middle Ages, only returning through Islamic trade and conquest during 10th and 11th century. Soon after, clergy began to experiment with the distillation of alcohol (primarily wine into brandy) to produce what they referred to as aqua-vitae (the water of life) for its propensity to stop the spread of necrotic flesh.

This technique spread to Ireland and Scotland most likely in the late 14th century, where they began producing uisce/uisge-beatha, Irish and Scottish Gaelic for aqua-vitae. Pronounced varyingly as “ish-kay-bah” or “oosh-keh-bah”, uisce-beatha would be shortened over time to uisce and then Anglicized to “whiskey.” It’s uncertain which nation was the first to produce whiskey, but both are synonymous with the drink. Ask any Irishman where whiskey originated, and they’ll say Ireland. Likewise, ask any Scotsman and they’ll insist upon its Scottish origins. Both consider the water of life to be a matter of national pride. Should you insist on one or the other, tread carefully!

It should be noted that this early form of whiskey was a far cry its modern cousin. Fresh whiskey hot off the still is a raw, untempered beverage devoid of color. Historically, the whiskey of our ancestors had more in common with our modern conception of moonshine or Irish poitín. It wasn’t until the 19th century that we would begin to see amber-colored whiskey tempered by ageing within wooden barrels – an innovation introduced in the southern Appalachians. Appalachia’s own whiskey distilling culture owes itself to Ireland’s diaspora, and to that we should raise a glass this Saint Patrick’s Day whether you’re green, orange, or anywhere in between.

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