How best to distribute four hogsheads of whisk(e)y into rhinoceros horns

By Sam MacDonald on Tue 2nd May 2017

Sam MacDonald

In Martin Martin’s 1695 trip through the Scottish Hebrides, he discovered on the Isle of Lewis the practice of “dessil”, whereby a group would sit in a “fiery circle” and drink a bottle of spirit in succession. It was a mark of respect for the host that the bottle was finished before the circle broke. If a member had to leave the circle, it was customary for him on his return to rhyme his apology, known as a “beanichy-bard”.

On the same island, Martin discovered that the spirit was often triple-distilled and sometimes quadruple-distilled; the respective names for this were trestarig and usquebaugh-baul. More than a teaspoon of the latter, Martin pointed out, could send a drinker wild!

Apart from the existence of this liquid and its similarity to Ireland’s triple-distilled whiskey, the ceremony of drinking spirit was important to people throughout the Kingdom of Dal Riada. Whether it was gathering around a spiritual fire or a flame ceremony, the ways in which whisk(e)y was consumed were important aspects of our culture and explain how drinking became paramount in our community.

A host’s status was important in society and practices that arose from that were held onto for millennia.

In an earlier blog, I referred to Beatachs, the pre-Christian public houses (in the true sense of the term) which acted as rest-stops and libation centres for people travelling by foot around the country. The style of these drinking-houses was often as important as the drink they sold and their hosts were famed for it. Their clothing was marked by multi-coloured fabric, yellow and reds produced from exotic dyeing ingredients such as saffron, which must have offered a pleasant spectacle for those arriving to enjoy a drink and company.

So how should a glass of whisk(e)y be served in Dal Riada to best amplify the experience, doing justice to the thousands of years of tradition that has gone into its making? From eggshell measures to bowls of hot punch, the ‘serve’ of our drink has been as varied as our weather conditions. It can vary from shepherds coming in from the cold for a drink of hot ‘schalteen’ to rid themselves of ‘mountain’; to the people of Lewis having teaspoons of ‘Baul’ to rid themselves of illness; to gentlemen drinking punch after a day of field hunting. For the latter example, the following 17th recipe was used on the occasion of the Right Honourable Edward Russell’s post fox-hunt party:

Four Hogsheads of Uisce Bheath

Eight Hogsheads of Water

Twenty-Five Thousand Lemons

Twenty Gallons of Lime Juice

One Thousand ‘Hundred Weight’ (don’t ask me) of Lisbon Sugar

Five pounds of grated nutmeg

Three hundred toasted biscuits

One pipe (cask) of dry Malaga

Please try this recipe at home, but make sure to decrease/increase quantities as required!

So from convivial surroundings to threatening atmospheres, whisk(e)y has always found its place in Dal Riada. Samuel Morewood noted that “the pretender in his wanderings amongst the fastness of Scotland, was in the habit of drinking out of a cup with a glass bottom, through which he could observe his enemy.”

In most cases, however, cups were improvised from nature and modified with fashion. Shells were said to have been preferred by the Caledonians, whilst horns were said to have been preferred by those in the south (Ireland). Both instruments over time manifested themselves in more elaborate forms. Some men of stature were said to have used the horns of Rhinoceros, tying them by chains and wearing them as necklaces, whilst a ‘bollog’ was the shell of the murex species. Porcelain came later and was sourced from China.

What remains true though, was the sense of ceremony which has always existed around the practice of drinking spirits in our community.

Murex Shell

The use of skulls was also prevalent in earlier times. The head was understood to be the most important section of a human’s physique. Therefore, skulls were used as vessels for toasting successful battles. Munster’s Gerald FitzGerald (descended from the Anglo-Normans) drank out of a gold-encrusted skull. However, Morewood argued that this was a Norse tradition and therefore never took hold with most drinkers in Ireland or Scotland.

Traditions of drinking pre-dated the Celts and probably so did their cups.

Groups traditionally drank in circular formations, some would argue to avoid attack. I prefer the Arthurian philosophy that circles make those present equal, and drinking in a circle becomes communal and not hierarchical. Circles form an important image in ancient Celtic society and they were continual, recognisable and thematic feature of community, distillation and art. I would argue that a simple image to convey ‘reflux’ in a still would be this Celtic symbol:

Should there be a modern practice of drinking whisk(e)y in Dal Riada? Few could argue with the success of marketing things like Hollywood’s “Scotch on the Rocks” or Japanese modern-day bar-flare. So surely Dal Riada, the grandfather of it all, should start its own tradition of its liquid’s ‘perfect serve’.

How to drink your Japanese and Scotch

Yet consistency is important, I believe. While Dal Riada has influenced all spirits in the world, its pour should be iconic in the hands of the drinker or the bartender. However, I would say that this ‘serve’ should not be parochial, or localised, in its ambitions for our region. Rather, it should incorporate components from as varied sources as those that influenced its creation in the first place. From Asia to North Africa, Dal Riada whisk(e)y should celebrate a global sense of inclusion.

Irish historian and film-maker Bob Quinn once carried out a study in which he connected the style of traditional Irish singing to that of Berber tribes in North Africa. His argument was that there was connection between Ireland and North Africa which goes back long before Christianity in the traditional music of Ireland. He used the term ‘cross fertilization of ideas’. What better media to convey that message than Céilí music and alcohol? Both go hand-in-hand in efforts to bring people together and strip down impressions of status.

I say the perfect serve of whisk(e)y should be centred around the intimacy that exists between drinkers. Sitting around a table, listening to the region’s music and, most importantly, viewing all factors through the eye of equality – the bar-tender, the musician, your friends and yourself. Maybe let’s leave the human skulls out.

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