Measure by Measure

By Sam MacDonald on Fri 17th Feb 2017

Sam MacDonald

If the creation of whisk(e)y from base ingredients involves science and it began here in Dal Riada, then it stands to reason that there must be some sense of precision inherent in our character. So contrary to popular conceptions of ‘streams of whiskey flowing’, measurement has always been a key practise in the work of distillation. In order to define the spirit of our region and therefore the original flavour and other properties of whisk(e)y, it is necessary to discuss the subject of measurement of an otherwise tipsy subject matter.

In a 2014 Hogmanay edition of The Scotsman newspaper, it was suggested that a more measured definition was required for the word ‘dram’. The article suggested that the word originates from the Greek standard of measurement, ‘drachma’, before the word ‘dram’ inserted itself into the dictionary of ‘Scotch’ drinkers. It conveys a measurement that is as malleable as you like, relating to no specific unit of measurement that can easily be adapted and changed, depending on the location of where the whisk(e)y is being poured. A measly 25ml dram in London, therefore, is essentially the same ‘dram’ as the more generous 40ml in Rome.

I don’t know if I can accept the ‘fact’ that this ingenious unit of measurement has been adopted from the sobriety of European influence. I might be biased, but another story might offer an etymology beyond Latin and Greek.

The first records of distillation in Ireland or Scotland come to us in the form of mythology, not fact. Saint Colmcille’s record of his voyage to convert the pagans of north-west Ireland and Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, also offers us a glimpse into the shared culture of distilling in the 6th century. Distillers were considered magicians, and their clairvoyance was achieved through a ‘Magic Glass, which told all that was passing through the world.’ The ‘magic’ being dished out in Donegal sounds enticing and I think the spirit of Dal Riada should aspire to nothing less!

What is evident though, is that a sense of mysticism has historically been attached to the act of distillation, for the true nature of alcohol was not truly understood until Louis Pasteur uncovered the action of fermentation in the 19th century. Yet magic or not, practitioners of distillation should not be confused with drunken rabbles. Rather they are careful and sober manipulators of communities thirsty for mind expansion!

Like any science, measurement is not an accessory of success but rather a pre-requisite in daily routine. Therefore, where better to determine the standard unit of measurement than the place of whisk(e)y’s origin, Dal Riada?

In his 19th century collection ‘Traits and Stories of Irish Peasant Society’, the Ulster writer William Carleton referred to ‘whiskey’ being measured out in tumblers, eggshells and jorums. In his story of an ‘Irish Oath’, it was determined that Peter Connell was limited to 13 tumblers of whiskey in one day. However, in K.H. Connell’s book, Irish Peasant Society, it is said that an eggshell could offer ‘the pleasure of inebriation… without retribution, four or five times a day’. This inconsistency of volume in the lifestyle of the 19th century imbiber suggests two possibilities:

First relates to the strength of the spirit. Often when the subject of Poitín (or poteen) comes up in conversation, the issue of alcohol strength soon follows. Claims of 80% or 90% alcohol impede the enjoyment of Ireland’s historical beverage. By definition, poteen is the product of a ‘pot-still’ and therefore could never have achieved those strengths. Instead it is likely that the type of ‘hard stuff’ found around the countryside would have been much gentler, yet still benefitting from its famous fire or ‘corduroy’ texture on the throat.

A second explanation for the average quantity of spirit consumed rests in how it was served. In Carleton’s story of Shane Fadh’s Wedding, it is recounted that ‘many a good song and a hearty punch was sent around that night.’ This reference to punch suggests that the spirit was mixed with other ingredients to make it a more socially acceptable drink.

However, Carleton’s reference to the measurement ‘jorum’ is unique. In his 19th Century Ireland, a ‘jorum’ was used in popular references to whisk(e)y consumption and, just like a dram, it could alternate between generous and meagre measures depending on who was pouring.

One might even compare the phonetics of ‘dram’ and ‘jorum’ and thereby shorten considerably the route of the modern term, not originating in Greece but right here in our own territory. For, surely a ‘jorum’ measurement should be a vessel of whisk(e)y fit for the Lord of the Isles!

Regardless of what we agree to be the Dal Riada measure, however, make mine a double!

Discover the Spirit of Whisky

Book your comprehensive whisky tour of the North Coast of Ireland & the island of Islay.

Book Now