0 Items
Seven Sips - Sip 1 The first of instalment of our Seven Sips series tracing the changing flavours of Irish whiskey down the centuries Mixologist Chris Hennessy, whiskey writer Fionnán O’Connor, and witch-hunting bishop Richard Ledred discuss the tastes of Irish whiskey’s first known sip. the sweet depth of the overflowing sips shouldn’t be too hard. That seems to be the pitch these days for our national drop. Not hard to swallow, thanks to its sellers not hard to spot, and according to their sales, not hard to sell, because in 2017 Irish whiskey is all over the place. Once confined to a handful of brands, Ireland’s distilling industry is now home to over twenty new ventures, and every other Sunday seems to herald the launch of yet another still. In 2014, this island exported almost seven million cases to over one hundred countries, a figure expected to surpass twelve million cases in the next four years and twenty-four million in the next fourteen. It’s a soft enough pitch really. From pub mirrors to poitín makers to a list of illustrious literary fans, it’s a drink that seems to drip its own Irishness like liquor off a still— a Hibernian cocktail of old-world heritage, old-fashioned craic, a few dashes of Irish cliché, and just a touch of ethanol mixed in for good luck. Even the word is Irish. Uisce beatha— invented by wandering monks in the 6th century, taught (and this part’s crucial) to the Scots by their Irish confrères, and preserved through years of rural craftsmanship on Europe’s mossy fringe as a trickling reflection of the liquid Long Ago. The only problem? There isn’t a drop of evidence for any of it. In the enormous catalogue of Old Irish histories, law tracts, poems, and cycles, there isn’t a single reference to uisce beatha or even distillation, despite numerous allusions to mead, ale, malt, and even wine. There’s never been an alembic found in an Irish monastery and all known 6th-century stills were too unsteadily heated and too crudely cooled to refine something with a boiling point much lower than water anyway. When the Irish finally do start talking about the water of life eight hundred years on, they describe a drink that was made like brandy, looked like vodka, and tasted like nothing on earth save a bizarrely made liqueur. Beneath the moon shined myths and they're shinier marketing, the closer you look, the clearer it seems that Irish whiskey isn’t so much a historical product as the product of its history and – Irish or Scottish – it was never actually invented at all. It evolved. Blasphemy, I know— but please bear with me because the story of that evolution has a lot more to tell us. It’s a story of recipes, revolutions, taxes, and trade. It’s international. It’s pragmatic. It’s a story of agriculture, of industry, and of a liquid as amorphous in its taste as the turbulent landscape of the island, it leaked out of… and for my round’s money at least, it’s far more fascinating than the mythology it sells. My name’s Fionnán and I’ve spent the last four years chasing that story from stray liquids to tax records and although I’ve still only barely sipped the surface, the well of what was there has all the sweet depth of the overflowing sips its modernity has spilt. In collaboration with Irish Whiskey Magazine, the DIT gastronomy symposium, and some fanatical friends in bars and stillrooms across this isle, I’ll be travelling through the places and tastes of Irish whiskey’s past in search of what was lost and learned along the way. We’ll be looking at history, but with one eye cocked at what all of this means, in culinary terms, for the spirit’s possibilities in 2017. If you have any private research or ideas of your own, feel free to get in touch. Irish whiskey is at a crossroads not only in its industry but in its fluid identity, and the aim of this project is to provide a brand-neutral resource to discuss the flavourful heritage and experimental future of our national drink among likeminded spirits like publicans, producers, and hopefully yourselves. No blarney. No bullshit. All viewpoints are welcome and any help (or distillates) offered very gratefully savoured. From the dawn of its creation to the dawn of its revival, we’ll be recreating seven sips in seven pubs across the next seven issues of Irish Whiskey Magazine, in search of a spirit as it could be, should be, and in many cases, actually was. Sláinte. This sip is dedicated to the participating bartenders of the Kilkenny Whiskey Guild.    - " a liquid as amorphous in its taste" -     So if whiskey wasn’t invented, where does our first sip even begin? Well, presumably with the sipping. Ireland’s been on the beer since basically the dawn of agriculture, but the first unsteady step toward a small one really starts with the distillation of fermented drinks into high proof liquor. Although our first reference to the hard stuff comes half a century earlier, the first description of someone actually sloshing it comes from the Annals of Clonmacnoise, which note the 1405 death of local chieftain Ristéard mac Grainnell at Christmas after “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae, to him aqua mortis.” What was he drinking? We don’t know. Was it an exotic elixir or a regular staple? We don’t know. Did it even resemble what we now call whiskey? We don’t know. But in all likelihood, no. What we do know comes largely from the name itself: aqua vitae. The water of life. The tourism industry has great craic telling visitors about the word whiskey’s Gaelic etymology, but uisce beatha is itself a translation of an alchemical term once used across Europe (like aqua ardens) for spirituous liquors in general. Originally, aqua ardens referred to wine distillates strong enough to burn, while aqua vitae referred to the pursuit of pure ethanol. By the time poor Ristéard let the side down on the sesh, both terms had become shorthand for a range of boozy cure-alls that had swept across the continent arm in arm with the spread of the Plague. Brandy, aguardiente, akvavit, and eau de vie all take their names from this shared medieval heritage. Although Europe had been fermenting wine and beer for centuries, the distillation of the hard stuff was still cutting edge science. By the time these liquors started leaking through the West, their stills were well oiled with the contemporary teachings of medical humourism or Galenism and the alchemical legacy of the alembics themselves. Today, alchemy is usually remembered for its desire to “purify” base metals into gold, but most of its founders were deeply inquisitive men of science (literally chemists.) Although crude distillations also arose in Persia and India, the story of Sip One really starts with the earliest alchemists in Kimiya (Egypt) itself. Using weak glass beakers, dimly lit furnaces, and slanted heads for cooling, gnostic philosophers like Zosimos built an entire science from the Greek observation that when seawater evaporated and condensed into rain, the resultant waters were miraculously fresh. Over centuries of experimentation and the absorption of Egyptian science (along with Egypt itself) into the arms of the Caliphate during the Islamic Golden Age, this led to the refinement of vinegar, perfumes, herbal oils, and even petroleum as Muslim chemists like Al-Kindi and Rhazes slowed down the heating of stills that could now separate, out of one base fluid, one essence from another. The sloppy version of the story is that Irish monks encountered distillation during their wanderings in the east. As one of the many fascinating substances used to heat an alchemical furnace, this is pure horseshit. Not only is it astoundingly unlikely that a highly literate culture would discover this technology centuries before the rest of Europe and then fail to mention it for the next eight hundred years, but even the alembics of those Egyptians, if they met them, were incapable of effectively cooling off booze. When monks in Ireland do start mentioning it (at exactly the same time as its spread through the West), they discuss it (like everyone else) as a rather novel trick. From Zosimos to Rhazes, the stills of the Coptics and their Muslim admirers relied on slow heating and long condensation pipes to separate their essences. Although wine could obviously be run through an early alembic, the results would still be too watery to burn without exceptionally subtle heating, very intentional cutting, and fractional re-distillation methods found nowhere in their writing. Only after the rise of distilled liquor in the Mediterranean do we start seeing these references spreading backwards toward the east. Even if the interest had been there, two critical adjustments would need to be made before wine could reliably drip off as high proof aqua ardens without the condensing water just chasing it down the pipes. The first was the invention of the serpentum or coiled “worm-cooler” (rather than a straight run-off pipe) and the second was the immersion of this coil in a bath of cold water for more effective cooling. Alternatively attributed to Rhazes’ 11th-century successor Avicenna or the later Italian alchemist Taddeo Alderotti, this fundamental remoulding of the thing we call a still allowed for the close refinement of alcohol just before its distillers started treating it as an essence in and of itself. It’s worth mentioning that although the word alcohol, like alchemy and alembic, is originally Arabic, the “al-kohl” of Rhazes more generally referred to any number of pulverized, filtered, or distilled substances “purified” from their source. Although Moorish physicians like Albucasis or his colleagues across Iberia may have discovered the idea independently, it’s only after its discovery at the Italian medical school of Salerno (c. 1100) that we rea
Subscribe to unlock this premium content. Existing subscribers log in

Pin It on Pinterest