Bruichladdich have been distilling a whisky that from an ancient cereal called Bere, to be bottled later this year, that may indicate a Viking origin for Scotch whisky.
The first recorded description of whisky production was in 1494 by Friar John Cor.
The accepted story is that Irish missionaries brought whisky distillation to Scotland, and this is what you will find regurgitated in every whisky book.
Here's an alternative suggestion: the first distillation of Scotch whisky may have been around six hundred and fifty years earlier than Friar Cor’s record, around 845 AD, courtesy of 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 on the west coast of Scotland earlier, around 400 AD.
Their first recorded appearance on the Hebridean stage was when the sea-faring warriors attacked the monastery of Iona on the Isle of Mull (30 miles north of Bruichladdich) 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. The Varangians, "sworn people", with their oaths of fighting loyalty, voyaged eastwards. 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 as far as Istanbul and Baghdad.
By 839, the Byzantine Emperor, Theophilus, used Varangian Vikings as mercenaries. We know from Arab authors that the first attack on Constatinople took place in 860. Basil II subsequently employed Varangians as his own personal bodyguard.
We also know the Varangian Guard fought in the Syrian campaigns of 870, 910 and 943 during the Byzantine - Arab wars that started in 780.
In Syria, around the year 800, Gerber the Arab became the first person to record the process of alcoholic distillation, the production of the water of life.
The Arab alchemist, buoyed by his success of extracting gold from rock, was seeking a medium to transform base metals in to gold. He believed that if a liquid could facilitate the change from corrupt metal to incorruptible gold, then it could do the same for life - eternal life. It would be ‘the water of life’.
The grain used was Bere, the precursor cereal to modern barley, which originated in the region 7,000 years ago. It spread around Europe with the earliest farmers that resettled after the last period of glaciation.
It is an intriguing possibility that the Varangians uncovered Gerber’s new secret potion - the wonderful, magical, Water of Life. Pretty useful stuff for a warrior. The Vikings, it seems, were at the right place at the right time.
And if they came down the Dneiper, Dniester, Danube and the Volga rivers they could have gone back to Scandinavia the same way. Silk, found in Viking York, came from this part of the world - so why not the knowledge (Gerber) and the wherewithal (Bere) to distil a warrior’s best friend, the water of life?
Though a variety of bere may have existed in the Hebrides already, tantalisingly, a few Bere barley plants recently discovered, and which Bruichladdich has helped to propagate and distil, can be traced by DNA to Norway.
Another clue to a possible eastern origin is the word "Trestarig" (pronounced “trace-arak”). It refers to a triple-distilled spirit first recorded in the Hebrides, as far as I can see, by Martin Martin in 1695. But the etymology of the word “Trestarig” is not entirely Gaelic; it is possibly a composite word from the Norse and Arabic.
True, ‘Treas’ is Gaelic for ‘triple’, but the Norse ‘trost’, infers ‘protection’. The second composite is even more intriguing: 'arig', pronounced arak. Its origin may well be ‘Arak’, the Arabic word for ‘sweat’ - a descriptive of the beads of condensed alcohol - used to describe a distilled spirit. To the pagan Viking warrior, "protection spirit", three times distilled for safety, may have been the ideal protection from death - or even missionaries.
So what about the old chestnut of the Christian missionaries being the origin of Scotch? St Columba arrived in Mull from Ireland in 563, 240 years before alcoholic distillation was even invented.
The ecclesiastical grip on spirits, of the alcoholic kind, dates from after the crusades and the subsequent interaction with the spread of Islam around the Mediterranean. And the First Crusade occurred in 1096, 240 years after we know the Varangian Vikings were marauding about in Syria where alcoholic distillation was invented.
Could a bunch of raucous, hell-raising, rebel-rousers-on-tour be the real originators of Scotch whisky? They might have seen the potential of this new discovery before the t-total Moslems or the pious, party-pooping clergy of celibate, reclusive monks. A bit more Keith Richards than Archbishop of Canterbury don’t you think?.
Besides, for the men of God, the very concept of 'the water of life' ought to have been heretical.
Just as well the Spanish Inquisition never got to Islay.