“The light music of whiskey falling into a glass — an agreeable interlude.” – James Joyce
Nomenclature is important in the world of alcohol. Terms matter. Confuse a digestif and an aperitif at your peril. So let’s start this conversation by noting that “whiskey” is made in Ireland and the USA and “whisky” is made everywhere else. The word “spirit” also has a long and deep history. Middle Eastern alchemists believed their distillations were leaving the spirit of the grain behind. Traveling monks passed the spirit of Jesus onto believers when they doled out sacraments at medieval services in order to bolster church numbers. Those monks were serving their early followers aqua vitae, literally the “water of life.”
When the monks’ travels took them to medieval Ireland, that spirit evolved into whiskey. Surely all of our souls are better for it.
In keeping with our desire to help you up your game with regards to all things alcohol, our latest guide to Gateway Drinks guide is taking on Irish Whiskey. Let’s look at how some wandering monks deliver this incredible elixir to the world.
IRELAND AND JESUS
“What whiskey will not cure, there is no cure for.” – Irish Proverb
The word whiskey is a direct Anglicization of the Irish Gaelic uisce beatha — roughly pronounced ooshkay bedah. It’s a direct translation of aqua vitae. Uisce morphed into the word whiskey as time went on and English became the prominent language in Ireland. Try pronouncing uisce like Sean Connery a couple times and you’ll likely end up saying whiskey after a few tries. Especially if you’ve had a few sips of the stuff.
Italian monks borrowed the process of distillation from the Islamic enlightenment era Arabs who, in turn, refined the practice from Greek and Chinese alchemists. Those Italian monks had been brewing beer and barreling wine for centuries, but the addition of distillation meant they could distill that wine into brandy — which got them way drunker way faster. They called their concoction aqua vitae and it was a cornerstone of the sacrament in medieval days. Around 1000CE, Irish and Italian monks were traveling back and forth from Ireland and Rome to help bolster the religion’s hold in converting the Celtic pagans of the British Isles — it was a recipe for cultural exchange.
Peter Mulryan points out in The Whiskeys of Ireland that this traveling meant that distillation was brought to Ireland sometime between 1000 and 1200, possibly to start making perfumes at first, but definitely to start distilling grains, too. The area lacked barrels for aging (again, no wine culture) so aging in barrels was not a necessary component of whiskey yet. Imagine a product a lot closer to undiluted vodka or Everclear than anything remotely close to a whiskey we drink today.