From the editors

Rediscovering the wonder of whisky

  • I’d read the text before, but seeing it painted across an entire wall brought the significance of the words into sharper focus.

    ‘One Theoricus wrote a proper treatise of Aqua Vitae, wherein he prayseth it to the ninth degrée. He destiguisheth thrée sortes therof, simplex, composita, and Perfectissima. He declareth the simples and ingrediences thereto belongyng. He wisheth it to be taken as well before meate as after.

    ‘It dryeth vp the breakyng out of handes, and killeth the fleshe wormes, if you wash your handes therewith.

    ‘It skoureth all skurse and skaldes from the head, beyng therewith daily washte before meales.

    ‘Beyng moderately taken, sayth he, it sloeth age, it strengtheneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it cutteth fleume, it abandoneth melancholy, it relisheth the hart, it lighteneth the mynd, it quickeneth the spirites, it cureth the hydropsie, it healeth the strangury, it poũceth the stone, it expelleth grauell, it puffeth away all Ventositie, it kepeth and preferueth the hed from whirlyng, the eyes from dazelyng, the tongue from lispyng, the mouth frõ mafflyng, the téeth frõ chatteryng, the throte from ratling, the weasan from stieflyng, the stomacke from wambling, the harte from swellyng, the belly from wirtchyng, the guts from rumblyng, the handes from shiuering, the smowes from shrinkyng, the veynes frõ crumpling, the bones from akyng, the marraw from soakyng.

    ‘Vlstadius also ascribeth thereto a singuler prayse, and would haue it to burne beyng kindled, which he taketh to be a token to know the goodnesse therof. And truly it is a soueraigne liquour, if it be orderly taken.’

    Aqua vitae

    History lessons: In the 16th century, aqua vitae was seen as a miracle cure

    This appears in an account of Ireland in Holinshed’s Chronicles, printed in 1577. Who Theoricus was is a mystery, but that mattereth not (enough of the Old English – Ed).

    Its appearance on the wall came, appropriately enough, while I was wandering around the almost completed Lindores Abbey distillery (of which much more in a few weeks). History nuzzles up to you in that part of Fife – ancient trade routes, royal palaces, battles, breweries, beehives and, undoubtedly, distillation. What struck home when being confronted with the text again is the multifaceted way in which people used spirits.

    Is there anything to learn from this, 500 years on? I’m sure today’s distillers would baulk at ever suggesting that alcohol would stop ageing and strengthen youth. They’d probably take issue with any notion that alcohol, even if taken in moderation (how modern the two authors are), could possibly make you happier, wittier and generally more intelligent.

    Not that the Irish in the 16th century appeared to heed any suggestion of sensible drinking. Later in the section, Holinshed reports that they devour flesh:

    Without bread, and that halfe raw: the rest boyleth in their stomackes with Aqua Vitae, which they swill in after such a surfet by quartes & pottels.’

    The Irish, it would seem, had already built a reputation. ‘I will rather trust…an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle… than my wife with herself,’ wrote Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor a few years later. The absence of any mention of distillation in the Chronicles in England and Scotland infers that it had become an Irish speciality.

    But I digress. What the account shows is how aqua vitae (be it grain- or grape-based) was the cure-all, the universal panacea, the miracle drug. Today, there is no suggestion of whisky having a similarly multifaceted aspect. It’s rarely used as a medicine, though a Hot Toddy still works miracles in my experience, and compared to its early, miraculous manifestation, is a simple social lubricant.

    Holinshed's Chronicles

    Holinshed’s Chronicles: An extract of text is displayed at Lindores distillery

    It struck me, on reading the extract, how the wonder of whisky, its magical nature, is being forgotten. We rarely dwell on its transportive qualities, which magically summon up place, people and season when it is taken in exactly the right (and moderate) quantities. Even the manner of its drinking has been narrowed.

    Familiarity, while maybe not breeding contempt, has reduced whisky to a drink whose boundaries are understood and tacitly accepted. This, in turn, drives how it should be drunk, and when it should be drunk. The field of vision has narrowed and the opportunities are, as a result, missed.

    Although Scotch cocktails are now an accepted part of the whisky world, they are still restricted. As bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana said to me recently, to ‘vanilla, or smoke’? You can be creative, but only up to a certain point.

    Whether we are bartender or drinker, we need to somehow tap into the open-eyed wonder and joy of these early texts, when all the world was green and all possibilities seemed to not only be open, but the logical approach to take.

    Or perhaps I’m just mafflyng. I’ll let you know after one more draught.

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