Irish Whisky

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XV

There is a nice distinction between aqua vitae and aqua vini in the Red Book of Ossory, which was rescued by Dr. Graves from a heap of rubbish, the result of a fire in Kilkenny Castle in 1839, MacGeoghegan, in his annotations on the death of the chieftain above-mentioned, observes that the drink was not aqua vitae to him, but rather aqua mortis ;and he further remarks, that this is the first notice of the use of aqua vitae, usquebaugh, or whisky, in the Irish annals. Mead was made from honey, and beer from malt; and these were, probably, the principal liquors at the early period [8] of which we are now writing. As to the heath beer of Scandinavian fame, it is probable that the heather was merely used as a tonic or aromatic ingredient, although the author of a work, published in London in 1596, entitled Sundrie Newe and Artificial Remedies against Famine, does suggest the use of heath tops to make a "pleasing and cheape drink for Poor Men, when Malt is extream Deare;" much, we suppose, on the same principle that shamrocks and grass were used as a substitute for potatoes in the famine year, when the starving Irish had no money to buy Indian corn. But famine years were happily rare in Ireland in the times of which we write; and it will be remembered that on one such occasion the Irish king prayed to God that he might die, rather than live to witness the misery he could not relieve.


[8] Period.—Accounts will be given later of the use of aqua vitae, or whisky, after the English invasion. The English appear to have appreciated this drink, for we find, in 1585, that the Mayor of Waterford sent Lord Burleigh a "rundell of aqua vitae ; and in another letter, in the State Paper Office, dated October 14, 1622, the Lord Justice Coke sends a "runlett of milde Irish uskebach, " from his daughter Peggie (heaven save the mark!) to the "good Lady Coventry," because the said Peggie "was so much bound to her ladyship for her great goodness." However, the said Lord Justice strongly recommends the uskebach to his lordship, assuring him that "if it please his lordship next his heart in the morning to drinke a little of this Irish uskebach, it will help to digest all raw humours, expell wynde, and keep his inward parte warm all the day after." A poor half-starved Irishman in the present century, could scarcely have brought forward more extenuating circumstances for his use of the favourite beverage; and he might have added that he had nothing else to "keep him warm."