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Kitchen Index Irish Kitchen Library



Uisce Beatha - The Water of Life!
by Bridget Haggerty

Whether it's a wedding or a wake, what Irish celebration would be complete without "uisce beatha" or the water of life - Irish whiskey!

As a child growing up in London of Irish parents, I remember that my mother always had "a drop" in the house, just in case our parish priest paid us a visit. My dad wasn't allowed to touch it, unless it was a very special occasion, as in toasting a newborn at the christening reception. At other times, such as Christmas, he'd drink Guinness - never the whiskey. This was true of many Irish households - the man would do his drinking at the pub and the priest would do his drinking in private, as would be the case in wealthier homes where whiskey was considered a lot more respectable than either wine or stout.

The word whiskey comes from the Irish "uisce beatha" which came from the latin words, aqua vita - water of life. According to the history books, it's said to have been created around the 12th century, but there are many historians who believe it dates back much earlier. In any event, whiskey was widely distilled in Ireland by the 15th century, and during the 16th century, it had earned a remarkable reputation, as evidenced by the following excerpt from a pamphlet called "The Commodities of Aqua Vita." It was written by Richard Stanihurst, an Anglo-Irish writer. In it, he quotes Theoricus, another writer, who offers this description of whiskey's magical properties:

"Being moderatlie taken, saith he, it sloweth age, it strengneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it cutteth flegme, it abandoneth melancholie, it relisheth the heart, it lighteneth the mind, it quickeneth the spirit...it keepeth and preserveth the head from whirling, the eies from dazeling, the toong from lisping, the mouth from maffling, the teeth from chattering, and the throat from rattling; ...it keepeth the stomach from wambling, and the heart from swelling, the bellie from wirtching, the guts from rumbling, the hands from shivering and the sinews from shrinking, the veines from crumpling, the bones from aking, and the marrow from soaking."

Used as a cure for a multitude of ailments, the whiskey of long ago would have been flavored with liquorice, aniseed, raisins, herbs or spices. Since then, it has evolved to become the internationally acclaimed spirit we know today, except that Irish and American brands of whiskey are always spelled with an e. This is a relatively recent variation because, prior to the First World War, the word whisky without the e was used for any whiskey, Scotch or Irish. A friend of mine says the Irish added the e because they wanted to extend the celebration!

Whichever way it's spelled, the difference between Irish whiskey and Scotch goes far beyond the word. The malt for Irish whiskey is dried in a closed kiln and not over open peat fires which give Scotch its smoky flavor. Also, because copper is the only metal known not to leave its taste on the ultimate product, Irish whiskey is distilled three times in a copper coil or "worm." This triple distillation and a three-year maturing period are also uniquely Irish.

In the words of Stanihurst: "...truly it is a sovereigne liquor, if it be orderlie taken." But, according to an American friend of Irish writer Anthony Bluett, "God created whiskey to prevent the Irish from conquering the world!"

In parting, here's a popular Irish toast: May God give you good luck and put a good man in your way, and if he is not good, may the wedding whiskey be drunk at his wake. Sláinte!

Sources: A Treasury of Irish Folklore, edited by Padraic Colum, Things Irish, compiled by Anthony Bluett, The Traditional Irish Wedding, and The Irish Whiskey Distillery Project.

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Thu, Jul 9, 2015

"...the freshest of food and
the oldest of drink"
- Irish Proverb

Over 200 pages, with way more than a drop devoted to Irish!
Click for Whiskey


The New Irish Table
by Margaret Johnson



Margaret Johnson’s love of Ireland permeates page after glorious page of mouthwatering Irish dishes, from Smoked Salmon Chowder to Raspberry Buttermilk Tarts. Lavish color photographs of the food, the landscapes, and the people are woven through the text, making The New Irish Table the next best thing to sitting down to dinner in Ireland itself.
Click here for New Irish Table.

 

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