Enjoying a dram of Irish whiskey at Iggy’s in Kincasslagh, Donegal, is the late Dan Lynch JP of this parish, also in the picture is a selection of Scotch and Irish whiskey from the Celtic Whiskey Shop in Dame Street, Dublin, and Friar John Cor, who is the monk who first marketed it. Top of page picture is of Hiram Walker’s whisky  distillery in Castle Street, Dumbarton.

Some like it hot. Whiskey if it’s Irish that is, or whisky if it’s Scotch.  Others like it smooth and creamy with a zing to it as the foundation for an after dinner Irish coffee, writes Bill Heaney.

And there are those who enjoy it as the base for a shaken, not stirred refreshing cocktail aperitif before they sit down to eat.  It is no longer frowned upon to have whisky and cola or even lemonade with your whiskey.

Nor is whisky the province of old men in moleskin breeks stood at the bars of dark public houses drinking “boilermakers” – haufs of whiskey and beer.

Whisky has become civilised and fashionable in the extreme to meet the sophisticated demands of 21st century.

Whiskey is cool.

Whisky is ancient.

Whiskey is a wonderful antidote to the stresses and strains of fast living in the modern world.

Whisky is Scotch, never Scottish, and whiskey is Irish.

The art of distilling was perfected in Scotland.

Uisge beatha has evolved into Scotch whisky – a drink made only in Scotland, but enjoyed around the world.

The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland occurred as long ago as 1494, in the tax records of the day, the Exchequer Rolls.

An entry lists ‘Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae’ (water of life).

This was sufficient to produce almost 1,500 bottles, suggesting that distilling was already well-established.

The primitive equipment used and the lack of scientific expertise means the spirit produced in those days was probably potent, and occasionally even harmful.

However, distillation methods soon improved, and in the 16th and 17th centuries considerable advances were made.

The dissolution of the monasteries at the time of the Reformation contributed to this since many of the monks, driven from their sanctuaries, had no choice but to put their skills to use.

The knowledge of distilling then quickly spread to lay persons.

Initially whisky was prescribed for the preservation of health, the prolongation of life, and for the relief of colic, palsy and even smallpox.

Whisky became an intrinsic part of Scottish life – a reviver and stimulant during the long, cold winters, and a feature of social life, a welcome to be offered to guests upon their arrival.

However, the introduction of taxation was to drive it underground.

Guinness is the most popular choice of drink in pubs in Connemara in the West of Ireland – but whiskey is exceedingly popular on high days and holidays. One man, asked how he enjoyed his dram is quoted as saying: “It went down like a torchlight procession.”

Increasing popularity attracted the attention of the Scottish Parliament, which introduced the first taxes on malt and the end product in the 17th century.

Ever increasing rates of taxation were applied following the Act of Union with England in 1707, which led to moves to tame rebellious Scottish clans.

That is when distillers were driven underground and clandestine stills were hidden in the hills and glens, where smoke spiralled from crude copper stills hidden in the heather.

Smugglers organised signalling systems from one hilltop to another whenever excise officers were seen to arrive in the vicinity.

Long and often bloody battles arose between the excise men, or gougers as they were known, and the illicit distillers, for whom the excise laws were alien in both their language and their inhibiting intent.

Smuggling became standard practice for about 150 years.

Even Ministers of the Kirk made storage space available under the pulpit, and the illicit spirit was on occasion transported by coffin – any effective means was used to escape the watchful eyes of the excise men, of whom the poet Robbie Burns was one.

By the 1820s, despite the fact that as many as 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated every year, more than half the whisky consumed in Scotland was being enjoyed without payment of duty.

This flouting of the law eventually prompted the Duke of Gordon, on whose extensive acres some of the finest illicit whisky in Scotland was being produced, to propose in the House of Lords that the Government should make it profitable to produce whisky legally.

In 1823 the Excise Act was passed, which sanctioned the distilling of whisky in return for a licence fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit.

Smuggling died out almost completely over the next decade and a great many of the present day distilleries stand on sites used by smugglers of old.

The Excise Act laid the foundations for the Scotch whisky industry as we know it today.

A major factor in the success of Scotch whisky came unwittingly from France. In the 1880s, the phylloxera beetle devastated French vineyards, and within a few years, wine and brandy had virtually disappeared from cellars everywhere.

The Scots were quick to take advantage, and by the time the French industry recovered, Scotch had replaced brandy as the preferred spirit of choice.

Since then Scotch whisky has gone from strength to strength. It has survived USA prohibition, wars and revolutions, economic depressions and recessions, and even President Donald Trump’s recent tariffs, to maintain its position today as the premier international spirit of choice, enjoyed in more than 200 countries throughout the world, and generating more than £4 billion in exports each year.

There is friendly rivalry between the distillers associations of the Celtic nations.

Former Dumbarton whisky executive Ally Alpine who runs the Celtic Whiskey Shop.

For instance, the Irish Spirits Association met the Scotch Whisky Association in Edinburgh on eve of the Six Nations match at Murrayfield on Sunday. The Irish won narrowly.

Scotch whisky produces exports worth £4bn while the figure for Irish whiskey is €505 million.

Top of the agenda was a discussion of products, new opportunities and the challenges posed by Brexit.

It was revealed there that the industry in Ireland has experienced huge growth over the last 10 years and that there are plans for two new distilleries in Derry and Dublin.

This brings the number of distilleries in Ireland to 16 in production and a further 14 in planning with many other projects at other stages of development.

With 118 distilleries in operation in Scotland and exports of Scotch whisky valued at £4 billion a year, the sector is considerably bigger than the Irish whiskey sector.

It is also a major employer with 5,000 people in whiskey-related jobs in Ireland and 40,000 in Scotland, including more than 500 at the Chivas bottling and packaging plant at Kilmalid in in Dumbarton.

Dancing at the Crossroads in Killala, County Mayo, where Humbertians met at the Golden Acres. Pictures by Bill Heaney

Miriam Mooney, Head of the Irish Spirits Association said: “Whilst Irish whiskey is the fastest growing premium spirit in the world, the Scotch whisky industry is more established and is the largest net contributor to the UK’s balance of trade in goods, creating £5 billion annually for the economy.

“As the Irish whiskey sector continues to prosper we only have to look at Scotland to see what’s possible for the industry in terms of growth and potential.

“The sector is a significant contributor to rural employment, supporting often fragile local economies including 7,000 jobs in rural Scotland alone.

“Irish whiskey is undergoing a renaissance which is being driven by both existing and new players alike and global recognition for high quality Irish whiskey has never been higher.

“We look forward to working together with our counterparts in Scotland to promote further growth and to discuss the challenges facing both sectors including the uncertainty around Brexit.”

So, it’s both Whiskey Galore and Whisky Galore, the choice is yours, Scotch or Irish, it’s up to you.

One very surprising discovery in my research for this article was that the Protestant Reformation in Scotland greatly benefited the Irish whisky industry.

This was because the monks who were evicted in Scotland fled to Ireland and set up their stills there.

Irish police raid and destroy an illicit still in Connemara in 1990. Moonshiners – people have found their own illicit ways to make whiskey over centuries.

The first commercial distilleries probably sprung up around Belfast and Dublin, but there were moonshiners making illegal poitin from Dungarvan to Donegal.

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was known to be a fan of Irish whiskey. She had stocks of it delivered to her court and was instrumental in making it a fashionable beverage of England.

By the 18th Century, Czar Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725) declared, “Of all the wines of the world, Irish spirit is the best.”

Then, in 1755, Samuel Johnson had put the word whiskey in The Dictionary of English Language, commenting, “…the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavour.”

So there we have it. Slan or Slainte. It’s whatever you are having yourself to keep your spirits up.

Edward Gaughan’s ancient pub in Ballina, Co Mayo, where he sold whiskey, stout, cigars and pipe tobacco until his recent retirement. Pictures by Bill Heaney

One of Ireland’s newest distilleries is situated on the banks of the River Moy in Ballina, Co Mayo.

Ballina is best known for its salmon and sea trout fishing by celebrities such as Jack Charlton but there is a new spirit pervading the province of Connacht.

Salmon and whiskey are the main attractions in Ballina. Picture by Stewart Cunningham.

The smoky aroma of burning turf or peat has replaced the aroma of freshly baked bread from Duffy’s old bakery on the riverside.

And the bakery has been completely renovated and refurbished to create Connacht Distillery, which is adjacent to the town’s football fields and Belleek Forest Park, a 200 acre reserve which has over six miles of walking and cycling trails.

Connacht is an Irish-owned distillery which employs 40 local men and women.

They enjoy sharing their love of Irish whiskey with visitors.

Their guided distillery tours bring you through their process of making whiskey.

You will soon from their enthusiasm understand why they are so passionate about pure pot still Irish whiskey.

For just 20 euro you can enjoy what they call the Connacht Ultimate Craft Experience, which is a guided tour followed by a sampling of their products which include: Spade&Bushel Whiskey, Straw Boys Irish Vodka, Straw Boys Poitin and Conncullin Gin.

Ballina offers an excellent water source, which is essential for distilling, and solid infrastructure, including a rail line, which is crucial for any substantial manufacturing.

Ballina hosts a number of shops, pubs, restaurants, and hotels and is well worth a visit if you are touring the West of Ireland.

The Connacht Distillery is within a short walk from the town of Ballina and also has ample parking.

There are outside tables and seating, so that guests may enjoy the quiet beauty of the river.

The distillery sits less than three miles) from the Atlantic at a point where the River Moy gently widens into an estuary, which contains varying amounts of salt water from Killala Bay and the ocean.

The then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, along with a number of investors and friends, attended the official dedication of the Connacht Distillery in 2015.

The €10 million investment will generate 40 new jobs at the 27,000 square foot distillery.

Hot Toddy

Cold days call for a great Hot Toddy drink. We got you covered with this perfect recipe:

3 oz. blended whiskey

1 oz. honey

1 ½ oz. lemon juice

½ tsp zested ginger

Clove studded lemon peel

6-8 oz. hot water

Directions: Combine ingredients in a glass or mug. Zest ginger into a tea strainer – pour the hot water over into the glass. Stir, express lemon peel over, and stud with cloves for garnish.

Hot toddies are famous cold weather drinks that first became popular in Western Europe during the 18th century, when pubs in and around the city of Edinburgh served Scotch whisky with a splash of boiling water to fend off the bitter cold. The trade routes with India made exotic spices routine, and pubs started throwing more than hot water and whisky into their drinks. The hot toddy has also been connected to ancient India, where locals would make medicinal hot beverages out of tree sap. There is another origin story which dates back to Robert Bentley Todd, a physician in mid-19th century Dublin. Dr. Todd is remembered for his prescription of a hot drink of brandy, canella (white cinnamon), sugar syrup and water that was fondly called a hot toddy in honor of the doctor.

Irish Whiskey Cake by Marian Feeney

Guest house owner at Cleggan, Connemara, Marian Feeney, knows what it takes to make a fine Irish whiskey cake. Pictures by Bill Heaney

Make one 23 x 13cm/9 x 5in cake


175g/6oz of chopped walnuts                                  225g/8oz caster sugar

75g/3oz raisins                                                            3 eggs, separated

75g/3oz currants                                                         5ml/1 tsp grated nutmeg

115g/4oz plain flour                                                   2.5ml/1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon

5ml/1 tsp baking powder                                            85ml/5 tbsp Irish Whiskey

1.5ml 1 ¼ tsp salt

115g/4oz butter

  1. Preheat the oven to 160®C/325®F. Base line and grease the loaf tin. Mix the nuts and dried fruit with 30ml/2 tbsp of the flour and set aside. Sift together the remaining flour, baking powder and salt.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs yolks.
  3. Mix the nutmeg, cinnamon and whiskey. Fold into the butter mixture , alternating with the flour mixture.
  4. Beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold into the whiskey mixture until just blended. Fold in the walnut mixture.
  5. Fill the loaf tin and bake until skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool in the tin.


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