Nobody really knows history, the true reasons or methodology of anything. It’s all about the story, the romantic notion that what we live through, taste and love is solely there to create a deeper connection within the world we live. Religion has made a career of this in the way that it has built a society of greater truths and history through which it tries to bind us together or sometimes separate us.
Why am I babbling on like this? Perhaps it’s the open bottle of rye next to me, or the thought that all history is a bit cloudy. That even modern history is much like beauty being in the eye of the beholder; it is in the voice of the speaker and the ears of the listener. In short we take what we are capable of taking from history and give back only what we are willing.
That brings me to this blog and whiskey. This has become one of the most sought after beverages in the last 3 to 5 years. But the modern push for golden power has deep roots in our being. It has caused wars, toppled governments, tamed the heathens and given birth to organized crime as we know it today. It has bank-rolled politicians, divided families and created art. Whether it was the beer drunk by the ancients or the distilled spirits used to tempt the curious Irish into Christianity, which they in turn used to convert the Scots, we are all just looking for a better time, a better understanding of our nature and many times we use this to hide from it.
Whiskey, the child of distilled beer, is an ancient word in and of itself – – or at least its meaning is. The original word for whiskey is Agua Vitae or water of vitality (much like the French “eau de vie”). This is an old Latin word but the process predates the ancient Egyptians who used distillation to create essential oils for religious ceremony.
Greek Alchemists had made massive improvements to this process and created the first stills as we know them today over 2000 years ago to help speed warring Europeans along their bloodthirsty path. As they were embroiled in fighting the crusades, it was actually the Arabs who began perfecting the art to produce its perfumes. Then during the Renaissance in an effort to combat the plague the Dutch began distilling wine to create what they called Brandeweijn or “Burnt Wine”, which later became brandy. Over the centuries the produce changed to suit the needs of the consumer.
So now back to Whiskey. Roughly 600 years ago Spanish monks brought with them brandy to help convert the Irish to Catholicism. It was an instant hit. In no time Aqua Vitae became locally known as uisce beatha (pronounced ishka beyha) or water of life. This later became… (drum roll please)… WHISKEY Because grapes were not easily grown in such a cold climate the monks who set out to convert the heathen Gaelic culture quickly turned to distilling beer. Doubtless, this process helped to convince the Celts that Christianity must truly be a great religion if its priests could create such a fine beverage. It didn’t take long before the Irish monks would do the same for the Scots. Maybe there is a reason for the obligatory shot of Jameson on St Patty’s day.
Much later when the colonies were founded it was actually rum and apple brandy that were first made into spirits. You may ask, why did we drink so much? Alcohol was the safest thing to drink; actual drinking water was the luxury. It did not take long for tilled grains to be consumed for inebriation. Rye was really the main grain used to make whiskey this side of the pond. Later as we settled the southern states where the climate was warmer and corn more readily available the ever resourceful entrepreneurs began producing what is now known as Bourbon. Even George Washington distilled rye, so no matter what the moral majority may think, it is in our heritage.