The Alternative Origin of Whisky
It is widely accepted that the Irish are to blame for the invention of whisky. The early church somehow invented it and Irish missionaries spread the Gospel to Scotland – at least this is what you will find regurgitated in every whisky book right down to the first recorded description of whisky being in 1494 by Friar John Cor.
Here’s an heretical view then, an alternative suggestion. The first distillation of whisky might have been 650 years earlier than Friar Cor’s record, and courtesy not of the church, but of their arch enemies, the Vikings.
The Viking Age is generally considered to be from 793 to 1066, though from genetic studies the Vikings are believed to have arrived in the Irish Sea even earlier, around 400 AD.
Their first recorded appearance was when the sea-faring warriors attacked the monastery of Iona on the Isle of Mull in 794. And again in 802, and just to be sure, in 806. And there were possibly three more raids after that, but unfortunately there wasn’t anyone left to note it down.
The Vikings not only ‘summer-travelled’ westwards from Scandinavia, the Varangians, “sworn people”, with their oaths of loyalty, voyaged eastwards too. Using the mighty rivers of central Europe – the Volga, the Dniester, the Danube and the Dneiper – through what is now Russia, Belarus and Ukraine – they reached the Black and Caspian Seas, and on to Istanbul and even Baghdad.
By 839, the Byzantine Emperor, Theophilus, impressed by these mighty warriors, paid Varangian Vikings as mercenaries. Arab authors tell us the first Viking attack on Constantinople took place in 860. Basil II subsequently employed them as his own personal bodyguard, The Varangian Guard.
The Varangian Guard fought in the Syrian campaigns of 870, 910 and 943 during the Byzantine – Arab wars that started in 780. And it was here, in Syria, around 800, that Gerber the Arab became the first person to record the production of the water of life, the process of alcoholic distillation.
The celebrated Arab alchemist, buoyed by his success of extracting gold from rock by the liquid medium of acids, was now seeking another to transform ordinary metal in to gold. He theorised that if a liquid could facilitate that change, corrupt metal to incorruptible gold, it could do the same for life – eternal life. The liquid would be ‘the water of life’.
Could the Varangians have looted Gerber’s new secret potion? The wonderful, magical, Water of Life? Pretty useful for a warrior. They were certainly there at the right time. Could that knowledge of Gerber’s apparatus, a clay alembic, and the raw ingredient, a few bere seeds (the precursor to barley) have been brought back and on to Ireland?
Bere, the ancient Mesopotamian cereal discovered and now propagated on Orkney, can be botanically traced to Norway. Another clue is the pseudo-gaelic word trestarig, a triple-distilled spirit recorded by Martin in 1695. Entomologists believe it may be a composite Norse/Arabic word for protection spirit:
While Treas is Gaelic for triple, the Norse trost, infers protection. The second composite ‘arig’, pronounced arak, may well be Arak, the Arabic for spirit, literally sweat, a descriptive of condensed alcohol beads. To the pagan Viking warrior, “protection spirit” would be an ideal security from death or missionaries.
So what about Christian missionaries being the origin of whisky? St Columba set out from Ireland in 563, 240 years before alcoholic distillation was invented and the First Crusade occurred in 1096, 240 years after it. The monastic grip on spirits of the alcoholic kind (Benedictine, Chartreuse etc) dates from after the Crusades.
But a Viking Sitric, according to Gerald of Wales, arrived in the great sheltered harbour of Waterford in 853 by which time the Byzantine empire already had Viking mercenaries and Syria had al-kohl. Further Viking longphoirts were made at nearby Woodstown in 860, and others in 892 and 914, while their first raid of Constantinople took place in 860 and Syria in 870.
Perhaps a bunch of berserkers are the true originators of whisky? Might they have seen an alternative potential for the water of life to the t-total Muslims or party-pooping pious priests? Besides, Surely for the men of God the very concept of ‘water of life’ would have – or should have – been heretical?
The Vikings were certainly the right guys at the right place at the right time.
And in Waterford they left perhaps a further recently discovered clue, some silver and gold coins, coins minted in the eighth century… in Syria.
1. Dinar – Umayyads, Damascus / Syria; dated 93 H (AD 711-12)
2. Dirham – Umayyads, Kufa / lraq; dated 79 H (AD 698-99)
3. Dirham – Umayyads, Darband / Caucasus; dated 119 H (AD 737)
4. Dinar – Abbasids, near Baghdad / Iraq; dated 167 H (AD 783-84)