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The Water of Life

Published May 18th, 2011 in Bon Appetit - Just Plain Good Food

By Tammera J. Karr, PhD, BCIH, CNC, CNW, CNH

The Gaelic “usquebaugh”, meaning “Water of Life”, phonetically became “usky” and then “whisky” in English. However it is known, Scotch whisky, or Scotch, Scotland has internationally protected the term “Scotch”, to be labeled as Scotch it must be produced in Scotland.

“Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae” This entry appeared in the Exchequer Rolls in 1494 and appears to be the earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland.

Scotland’s great Renaissance king, James IV (1488-1513) was fond of ‘ardent spirits’. When the king visited Dundee in 1506, a payment to the local barber for a supply of aqua vitae for the king’s pleasure was recorded. In 1505, the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh was granted a monopoly over the manufacture of aqua vitae – a fact that reflects the spirits perceived medicinal properties as well as the medicinal talents of the barbers.

In early 2010 three crates of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whiskey were found under the floor of John Shackleton’s  1908 Nimrod expedition shelter in Antarctica. The original recipe for this particular breed of Scotch has been lost and master blenders the world over are waiting with great anticipation for the opportunity to take a sniff of this Scotch. At present authorities in New Zealand’s Antarctic Museum in Christchurch, plan to extract small samples for analysis and then the bottles will be returned to Antarctica for posterity.

I can hear the weeping now.

‘Water Of Life’

Legend says St. Patrick introduced distilling to Ireland in the fifth century, and it is believed Patrick acquired the knowledge in Spain and France. The distilling process was originally applied to perfume, then to wine, and finally adapted to fermented mashes of cereals in countries where grapes were not plentiful.

The spirit was universally termed aqua vitae (‘water of life’) and was commonly made in monasteries, and chiefly used for medicinal purposes, being prescribed for the preservation of health, the prolongation of life, and for the relief of colic, palsy and even smallpox.

The art of distilling is believed to have been brought to Europe through Irish missionary monks. The secrets also traveled with the Dalriadic Scots when they arrived in Kintyre Scotland around 500 AD.   The knowledge of distilling spread through monastery communities. The oldest licensed whisky distillery in the world, Bushmills, lies in Northern Ireland and received its license by Jacob VI in 1608.

“Sine Metu”, meaning “Without Fear” appears on every bottle of Jameson whiskey. This has been Jameson’s guiding philosophy since the founding of the Dublin Distillery in 1780.  John Jameson set new standards in the distillation of whiskey. Discovering that certain strains of barley made better whiskey than others, he persuaded local farmers to grow the desired grains by providing them with seed each spring.  By 1820, John Jameson & Sons had become the second largest distilling company in Ireland.

 

A Tot if you please

Rum was not commonly available until after 1650, when it was imported from the Caribbean. The cost of rum dropped after the colonists began importing molasses and cane sugar directly and distilled their own. By 1657, a rum distillery was operating in Boston. It was highly successful and within a generation the production of rum became colonial New England’s largest and most prosperous industry. Almost every important town from Massachusetts to the Carolinas had a rum distillery to meet the local demand, which had increased dramatically. Rum was often enjoyed in mixed drinks, including flip. This was a popular winter beverage made of rum and beer sweetened with sugar and warmed by plunging a red-hot fireplace poker into the serving mug.

 

Shaken not stirred

It was also during the seventeenth century that Franciscus Sylvius (or Franz de la Boe), a professor of medicine at the University of Leyden, distilled spirits from grain. This spirit was generally flavored with juniper berries. The resulting beverage was known as junever, the Dutch word for “juniper.” The French changed the name to genievre, which the English changed to “geneva” and then modified to “gin.”

Originally used for medicinal purposes, the use of gin as a social drink did not grow rapidly at first. However, in 1690, England passed “An Act for the Encouraging of the Distillation of Brandy and Spirits from Corn” and within four years the annual production of spirits, mostly gin, reached nearly one million gallons.

South of the Border

Tequila is distilled from the sap of the agave plant indigenous to Mexico, not the mescal cactus, as many people believe. The Jaime family in Arandes, Jalisco, Mexico has been growing “all natural” Weber Blue Agave for the tequila industry for over 100 years. No pesticides, chemical weed control, hormonal fertilizers or chemicals are used to grow or speed the distillation process of Oregon’s only tequila.

Manuel Jaime was in charge of his family Agave plantation at age 15 and grew up learning the art of creating quality Blue Agave for the big brand tequila companies. Manuel has worked to refine his family’s tequila recipe to the distinctly smooth “Zircon Azul” (“Blue Gem”). He and his family currently reside in Winston, Oregon and Manuel maintains a quality Mexican and Seafood restaurant there under the name “Carlos”.

Believe it or not

“Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan; the wine is from God, but the drunkard is from the Devil.” Rev. Mather sermon on drunkenness (d. 1723)

Protestant leaders such as Luther, Calvin, Anglican Church, and even the Puritans did not differ substantially from the teachings of the Catholic Church when it came to views on alcohol: alcohol was a gift of God and created to be used in moderation for pleasure, enjoyment and health; drunkenness was viewed as a sin.

Still is – drink with moderation and care while you are enjoying the New Year festivities.

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