Uisge beatha is just the Gaelic name for whisky – right? Well, not exactly. The truth is that while uisge (meaning water) is probably the source of the word ‘whisky’ – and uisge beatha (water of life) was certainly a distilled spirit usually made from barley, it probably did not taste much like whisky as we understand it today. We don’t actually ‘know’ what it tasted like, because none survives, but the vast majority would have been consumed young, soon after it had been made. The Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte has an illicit still on display (see picture). Much of the new make spirit from stills like this would probably have been stored in clay jars rather than wooden casks anyway.
Modern day Scotch whisky however, has to have been matured in an oak cask for at least three years before it can even legally be called whisky – and of course that time in the cask imparts a huge amount of colour, flavour and character to the spirit. Without that maturation process, uisge beatha would have been a very different drink.
There are some historical references which suggest that it was infused with herbs to make it more palatable, to give it more flavour and character – in other words uisge beatha was closer to gin. Our X4, a quadruple distilled un-aged new-make spirit was not uisge beatha, but it was a nod in that direction. An acknowledgement of history.
There are other gin-like connections too. At one time, wild juniper was common throughout much of Scotland. It was perfectly suited to the climate and soil types that developed in the highlands and islands after the last ice age. Sadly, it has now all but disappeared. Why is this? Well the reasons are complicated, but in the 18th century, the illicit distillers who populated the countryside in their thousands were trying to evade the excise man – and they needed a fuel that burnt clean and hot with little smoke. Juniper was perfect, burning with a clean, smokeless flame so was exactly what they needed to avoid detection. The juniper berries too must have been attractive as a flavour enhancer. So all the juniper was quickly used up. Sadly, it was not able to regenerate either, because of the march of the sheep over the glens as people were pushed off the land during the Highland Clearances to make way for the profitable ‘woolly maggots’ that still polka dot our hillsides to this day. Juniper cannot survive being heavily grazed – and so now only a few juniper bushes cling precariously to inhospitable cliffs where even the wild goats find it hard to get to them.
So, indirectly, uisge beatha made a contribution to changing the face of the Scottish countryside in that it was probably one of the causes of the demise of juniper, one our our best-loved and most useful native plants. Maybe it is time that modern whisky companies started to think about how we might work towards bringing it back?
You can help the conservation organisation Plantlife with its Scottish juniper survey here