Proof at last - the Irish invented whisk(e)y!

Proof at last - the Irish invented whisk(e)y!

A source of pride for the Scots – but Barry Walsh discovers the ‘truth' behind the origins of whisk(e)y

Production | 16 May 2002 | Issue 22 | By Barry Walsh

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The Irish and the Scots have always argued about who first invented whisk(e)y. It is generally accepted the noble art of distillation from fermented grain and water had Celtic origins in the British Isles – but which particular brand of Celt was first involved? Well, the Irish have always stoutly maintained that it was almost certain that well-travelled early Christian Irish monks learnt the secrets of distillation in Arabia around about 500 to 600AD; and, on their returning to the ‘ould sod’, put their knowledge to good use in turning fermented mashes of grain and water into aqua vitae, or as the Gaels would say, uisge beatha – the water of life. But the Scots will have none of it – pure speculation, typical Irish whimsy and myth. They point to the indisputable fact that, in the far off year of 1494 in Scotland, there is the well known written record of an entry in the Exchequer Rolls of ‘eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae’. Fact, not fiction, and showing that whisky making was well established in Scotland in 1494. ‘Where is your Irish equivalent?’ they cry.Well, I am happy, as an Irishman with a passing interest in whisk(e)y, to be able to report on the finding of new evidence which finally settles the age-old argument. Ancient writings on tanned reindeer skins, which date back to pre-Christian times, have been discovered during excavations beside the River Liffey in Dublin city. The crude scratchings and scribblings have been painstakingly deciphered by learned archaeological academics and appear to be the work of one ancient scribe. In fact, the skin writings constitute a diary of sorts. It appears that this distant diarist was some sort of shaman, wizard, alchemist – whatever the Celtic equivalent was in those far off days – who dabbled in a type of
distillation from grain and water. Now, while it is true that the original record is incomplete and indecipherable in places, it has nevertheless been possible to piece together a pretty clear chronological picture of what this ancient distiller was about. His name, roughly translated, was Pah-Dee, and he lived on the southern bank of the river Liffey. It seems to have been very cold while he was alive and he mentions wearing fur garments. There are drawings of large creatures, probably elks and bears. Although he records that other people lived nearby in the region (which would become the city of Dublin), it is apparent that Pah-Dee was a scribe, wise man and inventor rolled into one. I have exercised literary licence in modernising the original text to make it readable:“Resumed heating the murky bubbly mixture of grain and water, and collected a fiery liquid through worm and reed pipe. Tastes bad. Made me dizzy and sick and I had to lie down. Later, chieftain Gurk and his retinue came by. I showed them my two wooden discs joined by a straight branch I made yesterday. Gurk said he could see no use for such a device, so I threw it in the fire.I reheated the first runnings of fire water in the pot and collected through the worm as before. Taste is better, but still not good. Chieftain Gurk, tax collector Froo and others came by and I gave them some. They were not pleased. Froo became threatening but fell asleep before he could kill me. Terrible things today – a large boat arrived and savage red-haired men landed, ravaging and pillaging all morning. Dressed in coloured skirts, they shouted in strange tongues, sounds like ‘och aye the noo’ and ‘haggis, haggis’. I ran into the reeds and hid. They stole all my things – grain and bubbly brown mash and also my second-run fiery spirit. Everything. They found me in the reeds and banged me on the head with a reindeer horn. That is all I remember.Woke with sore head. My hut in a mess, everything gone. At least the strangers have gone in their boat.
They took Gurk’s wives and others with them, and all my pots and pipes and the rest of it. I will have to start all over again.Finished assembling new pot and worm to replace stolen things. Started new batch. Going to run firewater three times through this time.Gurk and Froo and the others very happy with three-times firewater. Lot of singing and dancing, some ravaging. Gurk even took some spirit away with him to share later with his new wives – but he will probably forget about it, he’s that dim. While they were over, I showed them my metal device for cutting up bread into thin slices, but they all said they preferred to eat their bread in a lump, so I threw the device into the river.”It is clear from the above that Pah-Dee’s description of three-run ‘firewater’ is the first record of Irish triple whiskey
distillation – settling the row about who was first to make uisge beatha. The sea raiders may have been from Scotland, but there is no way of telling now. Only the scribblings of a long-dead wise man survive to tell a strange story.
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