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Who invented whisky - the Scots or the irish

00:00 Mon 28th Jan 2002 |

A. The debate between the Scots and the Irish over the whisky title goes back to the Dark Ages. The first legal distillery in the British Isles was in Northern Ireland. Bushmills, on the northern coast of Ireland, has had a license to distil since 1608, the reign of King James I of England and VI of Scotland, who also laid claim to Ireland.

The identity of the first distiller will always be unclear, but it is known that when Henry II of England paid an uninvited visit to Ireland in 1174, he recorded the use of aquae vitae. In 1926, Sir Robert Savage, the lord of Bushmills, was using aquae vitae to allegedly numb the minds of his troops while they entered battle, while in The Annals of The Four Masters in 1405, Richard Magrenell, chieftain in Moyntyrolas, died of "a surfeit of aquae vitae".


Q. Who began the first legal distillation

A. In the 19th Century, Irish whiskey had established a reputation with major distilleries such as Dublin's John Jameson and John Power forging powerful export markets. In those days, Highland malts were in short supply and were heavily peated, while the Lowland grains were virtually undrinkable. The Irish pot-still brands, made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley, held the high ground and were the world's top selling whiskey. John Jameson established his distillery in Dublin's Bow Street in 1780. A Scot by birth, he had married into the Haig family and was brother-in-law of the first distiller to install a patent still.


Q. What did the Catholic community feel about the boom in whiskey

A. Father Matthew founded a temperance movement and led a decade-long evangelical crusade (1838-48) against the evils of drink and he managed to not only halve the number of pubs in Ireland in seven years, but to close many distilleries as well. Then came the Great Famine of 1845-1849, and the failure of the potato crop reduced the amount of grain that was available for the distilleries. Production slumped. The falling combination and lack of raw material was a distaster for distilling. When Alfred Barnard visited Ireland in 1887 he found 28 distilleries. There had been 2,000 less than 100 years before. Today there are three: Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley.


Q. How did whisky spread through Scotland

A. After the dissolution of the monasteries, whisky-making became a people's art. It was practised by ex-monks who became apothecaries, barbers and surgeons. It was taken to the crofts and great houses in the Highlands. By the 16th century, triple distillation was common practice in the Western Isles, and had spread to Ireland and France. By then uisge beatha (the Gaelic translation of aquae vitae, from which whisky today is derived), was a central part of Highland life.

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By Katharine MacColl

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