gavin smith

 home    about    forum    tasted    features    whisky A-Z    directory    books    links    sign-up    beer    wine

    stories features


Whisky tales

by Gavin D Smith, 04/08

Some snippets from Gavin D Smith's latest book, Whisky: A Brief History (2007, price £5.99), with thanks to AAPPL for permission to reproduce this material.

See for further details or visit to purchase a copy of the book!


O thou, my Muse! Guid auld Scotch drink,
Whether through wimplin' worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream o'er the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp and wink,
To sing thy name!

Robert Burns - Scotch Drink (1785).

Scotland's greatest poet - and most passionate advocate of whisky - also served as an excise officer, being based in Dumfries from 1789 until his untimely death in 1796. As well as writing several fine poems on the subject of whisky, he penned the tongue-in- cheek song The Deil's Awa' Wi' The Exciseman in 1792, reputedly while hiding in a salt marsh on the Solway Firth, keeping a boat suspected of smuggling under surveillance.


Irish or Gaelic coffee has served to raise the profile of Irish whiskey in recent years. Actually a variation on the traditional Irish drink of sweet tea with whiskey, it usually consists of coffee, sugar, whiskey and cream. The drink was invented in 1952 at Shannon airport in the west of Ireland by chef Joe Sheridan, who served it one cold evening to an American journalist. The journalist introduced it to the 'Buena Vista' on Fisherman's Wharf, overlooking San Francisco Bay, and Irish Coffee was rapidly embraced across the USA and far beyond.


We have all, at times, got carried away and partaken of just a little too much of our favourite tipple. One of Scotland's most popular hangover cures is a bottle of the country's 'other' national drink, Irn Bru. The Japanese apparently eat a pickled cherry the morning after a bout of over-indulgence, while a voodoo cure from Haiti involves sticking 13 pins into the cork from the bottle that caused the trouble in the first place. More conventional is the Cognac-based Prairie Oyster, while the earliest recorded hangover cure dates from 479BC, and is the work of the Greek philosopher Antiphanes:

“Take the hair, it is well written
of the dog by which you are bitten
work off one wine by his brother
one labour with another.”

US actor and humorist WC Fields was an enthusiastic drinker, particularly of whiskey, and his favoured hangover cure was a martini, consisting of one part vermouth and four parts gin, not to mention an olive.

“Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of a snake bite,” Fields advised. “And furthermore, always carry a small snake.”

Legendary 'Rat Pack' crooner and serious imbiber Dean Martin had a simple way of avoiding a hangover. “Stay drunk.”


Writing of whisky in his Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577) Raphael Holinshed observed that “Being moderately taken it cutteth fleume, it lighteneth the mynd, it quickeneth the spirits, it cureth the hydropsie, it pounceth the stone, it repelleth gravel, it puffeth away ventositie, it kepyth and preserveth the eyes drom dazelying, the tongue from lispying, the teeth from chatterying, the throte from rattlying, the weasan from stieflying, the stomach from womblying, e harte from swellying, the bellie from wirtching, the guts from rumblying, the hands from shivering, the sinews from shrinkying, the veynes from crumplying, the bones from akying, the marrow from soakying, and truly it is a sovereign liquor if it be orderlie taken”.

Now there's an endorsement!


In his 1775 publication A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, Dr Samuel Johnson wrote “They are not a drunken race but no man is so abstemious as to refuse the morning dram, which they call a skalk.”

Johnson's companion on that expedition to the Hebrides was his friend and biographer James Boswell, who recalled in his own account of their travels (published in 1784) the first time Johnson tasted whisky, while staying at an Inveraray inn.

“We supped well; and after supper, Dr. Johnson, whom I had not seen taste any fermented liquor during all our travels, called for a gill of whisky.

'Come (said he) let me know what it is that makes a Scotchman happy!'

He drank it all but a drop, which I begged him leave to pour into a glass that I might say we had drunk whisky together.”


During the American Civil War (1861-1865) both Union and Confederate generals drank whiskey on a daily basis, though Confederate general Robert E Lee once declared “I like it: I always did, and that is the reason I never use it.”

Whiskey served both to raise morale among the troops and also as an anaesthetic when limbs had to be amputated. US President Abraham Lincoln famously said of his bibulous yet strategically brilliant general (and subsequent president) Ulysses S Grant, “Let me know what brand of whiskey Grant uses. For if it makes fighting generals like Grant, I should like to get some of it for distribution.”


The connection between horse racing and whisky may seem tenuous, with the obvious exceptions of drinking it while backing losers, or the sponsorship opportunities it affords, but this is not always the case. The County Cork racehorse trainer Fergie Sutherland regularly applied poitin to the legs of his 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Imperial Call after exercise, echoing an age-old tradition believed to have begun with early Christian monks in Egypt, who rubbed alcohol into the stiff legs of their mules.

More recently, after winning the prestigious King's Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot in June 2006 with his horse Takeover Target, Australian trainer Joe Janiak announced that he would probably spent the evening “having a few drinks with the horse.” He went on to explain that the seven-year-old sprinter enjoyed a few 'tinnies' of lager after a big race, adding “and he occasionally has a Bourbon on the rocks, too!”


 home    about    forum    tasted    features    whisky A-Z    directory    books    links    sign-up    beer    wine