History

National debt

Without Ireland, there would be no whisky in Scotland. Giles Macdonagh traces Scotch back to its Irish roots.
By Giles Macdonagh
Though it will make me unpopular in some parts of Glasgow to say so, whisky, like Christianity, reached Scotland from Ireland, possibly in a coracle. Whiskey (as the Irish now insist on spelling it), was supposedly made as early as the end of the first millennium. No-one knows how the Irish seized on the secrets of distillation – they were at that time only known in the theoretically teetotal Muslim world. One unsubstantiated theory would have it that the Irish benefitted from the knowledge of Coptic or Christian Egyptian monks, who started the first religious houses on the island. Their origins would have meant they were up to date with the developments of Arab science. It was King Henry II of England who was unwise enough to want to annex Ireland to to his kingdom. The Romans had left it well alone. Now apparently whiskey found admirers in England too: those soldiers who went to help sort out the quarrel between two Irish kings which gave the Plantagenet the idea of acquiring the Emerald Isle in the first place. As the story goes, they were unable to pronouce the Irish words ‘uisce beatha’ or ‘water of life’ which provided them with a little inner warmth on their campaign, and rendered it as ‘ooiska’, ‘iska’, and eventually (after another shot perhaps), whiskey. That process was a long drawn out one, however. In the early eighteenth century whiskey was still being advertised for sale in London as ‘uisce beatha’. Some modern writers pour scorn on these early instances of spirits drinking on the edge of civilization. Conventionally it was the likes of the Catalan Arnau de Vilanova who brought back the secrets of distillation from southern Europe, which had closer contacts with the Arab world. Vilanova published his findings in the first years of the fourteenth century, which makes another story vaguely contemporary. Sir Robert Savage is meant to have prepared his soldiers for battle in Antrim in 1276 by offering them whiskey. He latinised the term as ‘aqua vitae’, and the same words are specifically mentioned in the license granted to Sir Thomas Phillipps at Bushmills in 1608 which claims to be the oldest distillery in Britain, possibly in the world. In both Ireland and Scotland that early ‘aqua vitae’ was frequently flavoured with aromatics, much like its Scandinavian namesake today. It seems clear that the Irish took their invention to Scotland. There distillation kicked off in the Western Isles, and not for nothing are Campbeltown and Islay, two of the historic centres of Scottish whisky production, just a stone’s throw from the Antrim coast, or a few hours in a coracle. There is also the legend of Finn McCool, who is said to have built the Giant’s Causeway near the whiskey distilling town of Bushmills in Antrim in order to walk to Scotland. As it happens, the Hebridean island of Staffa in Scotland has similar geological formations. When two peoples were so culturally and geographically close, the existence of a new and surefire source of pleasure can have been difficult to conceal from one another. There must have been whisky going backwards and forwards over that narrow strip of water. It is impossible to believe that Islay did not contribute something to the revels on the Irish side once their distilleries began to boom, and in the early years of the nineteenth century the Irish were still shipping whiskey to Scotland; some of it illicit poteen in exchange for tobacco. A photograph of Boer War veterans taken at the turn of the century in Falkirk shows that the local innkeeper had no problem even then in advertising Old Bushmills whisky in the window, but by that time the partiality may have had something to do with the fact that Bushmills has always been a Protestant whiskey popular with the descendants of the Scottish families who were established in Ulster by James VI of Scotland and I of England. The practice of triple distilling is another thing which the Irish are said to have exported to Scotland. With the exception of the recently refounded Cooley Distillery in Co. Louth, Irish whiskey is distilled three times, which makes it taste smoother while robbing it of some of the flavour compounds which would give it a more pronounced character. In the old days some Lowland malts were also triple distilled, including the late and much lamented Rosebank. The only survivor is Auchentoshan, near Glasgow. The process is meant to speed up the process of maturation, but triple-distilled whisky is rather dull in its younger manifestations. It can excel with time, however. Another gift the Irish made to the Scots was made by the Dublin excise officer Aeneas Coffey in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Excise men used to have plenty of time on their hands: Robert Burns wrote dialect poetry, and Aeneas Coffey invented the ‘patent’ or continuous still. This allowed for a cleaner, stronger, but more anonymous whisky to be distilled from grain. He was so pleased with his invention that he left the King’s service and opened a distillery in Grand Canal Street in Dublin. Ironically, the Coffey still was infinitely more successful in Scotland than it was in Ireland. The Irish thought Coffey’s whiskey bland, and preferred the flavour they got from pots. The Scots were cannier and took it to their bosoms. It would eventually allow them to elaborate the process of blending the distillates of different pot stills, pinning them onto a backdrop of patent-still grain. When that happened, good blended whisky was born, a drink which would virtually phase out Irish whiskey at a time when the newly independent Irish Free State was too absorbed by its internal contradictions to realize it was about to lose its export markets. Coffey’s still also proved a great boon in America, where whisky distilling was established around the time of Independence. They may, however, have had little need of the Dubliner’s contraption, as American engineers were already hard at work looking for an efficient alternative to the pot. The distillers of America were culled from the Protestant ascendancy, which meant Irish Presbytarians, Scotsmen (Bill Samuels of Maker’s Mark likes to see himself as a Caledonian, and spells whisky that way), Germans (Beam was Boehme) and others. Catholic Irishmen were to make their mark in Boston later. They were never welcome in the South. Canada too was a Scots Protestant colony from the outset.It was to take time before the Scots got grain whisky right. The first grain whiskies were virtually flavourless and anything but inspiring. The 30 or so Irish distilleries felt no need to heed the lessons they might have learnt from Coffey’s still. They were vastly successful and dwarfed the individual productions of their 130-odd counterparts in Scotland. Dublin whiskey had a reputation which completely outstripped both its Hibernian and Caledonian rivals. Coffey’s stills caught on only in the north of Ireland, which had been settled by Scottish Presbytarians in the seventeenth century. To this day, Ulster whisky as exemplified by Bushmills, remains a stylistic halfway house between Ireland and Scotland. In 1878 a Scots company estimated the popularity of Dublin whiskey to be five times that of Scotch. Irish whiskey was then riding the crest of the wave. In Jerome K. Jerome’s 1889 novel Three Men in a Boat, Harris knows of a place, ‘round by the square, where you could really get a drop of Irish worth drinking.’ Jerome was writing just before the new Scotch blends began to come into their own. As these used a high proportion of imported grain – maize and rye – as well as malted barley, the stills were set up in the Scottish ports, notably Glasgow. This made it convenient when the time came to ship the spirit out to the Empire. Later the Scots would successfully infiltrate the American market. They consolidated their position after the repeal of the Volstead Amendment, which brought Prohibition to an end; they were able to do so because by then the Irish whiskey business was on its knees. Not only was it suffering from the loss of the Imperial markets where it had formerly excelled, but it was wracked by a political climate at home which gave no encouragement to an industry where most of the distillery bosses had come from the Ascendancy families whose mansions were even then going up in smoke. The Irish didn’t catch up until long after the War. It wasn’t until the mid-fifties that the now closed Coleraine distillery stopped making its popular malt and went over to grain. Irish whiskey did not really begin to recover before the creation of the Irish Distillers Group in 1966. With the new, streamlined business grain whiskey was made using a high proportion of unmalted barley in the new Midleton distillery in County Cork in the South; malt was made at Bushmills in the North. Lorries transported the grain needed for Bushmills’ blends up to Ulster, and came back loaded with malt for Jameson’s, Paddy’s, Power’s and the other remaining brands produced by a system of Heath Robinson-like compexity in the South. However successful the many brands may be, neither geographical nor geological factors can be said to play a part in the taste of the whisky. Unlike Scotch malt, there is no mystique – the whiskies are simply made according to recipes. The difference between one and the other is entirely dictated by style. So there’s some consolation for the men of Glasgow: they may have come second, but Irish whiskey production in our day is tiny compared to Scotch. And rationalization has removed those nuances that add just about everything to the excitement we experience when we taste a great malt.