The art of distillation spread to Ireland and Scotland no later than the 15th century, as did the common European practice of distilling “aqua vitae”, spirit alcohol, primarily for medicinal purposes.The practice of medicinal distillation eventually passed from a monastic setting to the professional medical practitioners of the time, The Guild of Barber Surgeons. The earliest mention of whisky in Ireland comes from the seventeenth-century Annals of Clonmacnoise, which attributes the death of a chieftain in 1405 to “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae” at Christmas. In Scotland, the first evidence of whisky production comes from an entry in the Exchequer Rolls for 1495 where malt is sent “To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae“, enough to make about 500 bottles.
James IV of Scotland (1488–1513) reportedly had a great liking for Scotch whisky, and in 1506 the town of Dundee purchased a large amount of whisky from the Guild of Barber-Surgeons, which held the monopoly on production at the time. Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries, sending their monks out into the general public. Whisky production moved out of a monastic setting and into personal homes and farms as newly independent monks needed to find a way to earn money for themselves.
Now we come to the crux of the matter;
With a royal licence to distil Irish whiskey from 1608, the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. However – Ballykeefe Distillery is situated in the heartland of Ireland, and its medieval capital, Kilkenny city. It is steeped in a historic heritage and tradition, holding the unique distinction of being the birthplace of Irish Whiskey. It is from this area that the first written account of distilling in Ireland comes in 1324 in the Red Book of Ossory. The word “Whiskey” is an Anglicisation of the Gaelic phrase, uisce beatha, meaning “water of life”. Today, Ballykeefe Distillery brings a truly special “water of life” from centuries past to a new generation for their pleasure and good health. OK I am a wee bit biased, my mums’ family are from Kilkenny, the best tow n in Ireland by the way.
The manuscript book contains 79 vellum leaves, and was composed largely in the 14th century during Ledred’s time. Later entries were added, the last of which are dated from the reign of Elizabeth I. The Red Book derives its name from the colour of the leather binding, faded on the outside, but still visible inside the cover. Like other medieval episcopal registers, it contains a wide range of documents that defy classification, the choice of which depended on what was important to individual bishops, in this case by Ledred, whom Dr Empey makes clear in his presentation was ‘one of the most extraordinary bishops ever to occupy the see of Ossory’. The volume is internationally renowned for a number of reasons: it contains, for example, numerous documents of legal interest, such as the provisions of Magna Carta. More exceptionally, it contains a lengthy medical treatise on aqua vitae, or what we would call cognac, that occupies three and a half closely written pages in Latin shorthand. While such a treatise is perhaps very seasonal, the reasons for its inclusion in the register were more medicinal, perhaps in some way linked to the Black Death that ravaged Kilkenny in 1348. Nevertheless it does provide the earliest known recipe for distillation known to exist in any Irish manuscript and its content of is particular contemporary interest to Ireland’s whiskey industry.
PAUL MCLEAN; PERTH, SCOTLAND