The gallowglass is half empty


In the late Nineteenth century, the Scots adulterated our whiskey because it was better. They passed their own off as Irish because our whiskey was better. They savaged our industry and tarriffed it out of business because our whiskey was better, and they bought up and shut many distilleries in Ulster because our whiskey was better.

The Scotch industry’s products I like a lot. Their history I despise.

The Irish and the Scots have had their disputes. Over the centuries we have slaughtered each other on the battlefield, sometimes at the behest of the same cruel master, sometimes just for the hell of it. But the truth is that for two nations divided by water, we are effectively the same people. Our histories are intertwined to the point that it is hard to tell which where we begin and they end. Many of our names, such as MacSweeney and MacCabe came from the gallowglass, elite aristocratic mercenaries who settled here in the 13th and 16th centuries. Not long after this second influx of exiled gallowglass, the plantation of Ulster began – and Bushmills distillery was founded. And this brings me, as almost everything does, to whiskey. The quote above was taken from the Irish Whiskey Society forum and it encapsulates an attitude that pervades the Irish whiskey scene. There is a feeling that the Scots stole our thunder – we invented the drink, they became known for it and built a magnificent industry on ‘our’ idea. They are Zuckerberg, we are the Winklevoss twins. We are Woz, they are Jobs. We created something, they made it their own. Of course, this is a reductive approach to it – this incredible product deserved to be shared with the world, it was the same Irish monks who discovered distilling that then brought it to Islay, the little island that lies between Northern Ireland and Scotland. But any yah-booing does us both a disservice, for just like our people, history and culture, our variations on this one theme are more alike than they are different. Yet I’ve felt the hot rush of resentment when Scottish friends tell me that they think John’s Lane is ‘pisswater’ or that Irish whiskey ‘isn’t really whiskey at all’ – not to mention the classic line “you need that third distillation, but we get it right the second time”. 

But we can focus on the differences or we can focus on the similarities; our communal glass can be half empty, or it can be half full. The divisions that plague the community of Northern Ireland are an example of people looking to make ‘others’ of their neighbours, seeing only difference. But they are, effectively, the same – be it Protestant or Catholic, whisky or whiskey, ultimately everyone is worshipping the same holy spirits. 

In the Scots spirit world, few have had the evangelic appeal of Charles MacLean. An author, presenter, bon viveur and raconteur, to me he personifies all that is great about Scotch whisky – a passion for good food, good fun, a good story, and a great dram. I had the pleasure of meeting his bewhiskered and bekilted self at Strathisla last year, where he hosted a dinner accompanied by some cask strength drams.

A masterful speaker, his tasting notes are made up more or less on the spot, and change constantly, moving from random comparisons to vegetal notes, to bath salts, to soft leather, to detergent; and he is usually right.

So when the IWS arranged for him to speak in Dublin in the significant venue of Wynns Hotel, I had to be there. Granted, it clashed with the Cork IWS branch’s tasting with the aforementioned Bushmills, but this was an opportunity to celebrate our shared heritage with some fantastic drams drawn from the vaults of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

It was booked out, as the current president of the IWS, Peter White, told us. Peter is what whisky geeks call a peathead – he makes a pilgrimage to Islay each year for the whisky festival, and obviously loves the briney, smokey drams – ironic, given that he is a firefighter. We had an introduction by Peter, and then a few words from Fionnan O’Connor, author of A Glass Apart. It was Fionnan’s book that inspired MacLean to speak in Dublin, having written to him to congratulate him on such a fine work. In fact, if you want to pick a single Irish text to read to learn more about Irish whiskey, it is now the go-to.

And so MacLean – wearing his trews, as is the tradition for a Scots gentleman abroad – took the floor. He spoke for a little over two hours, we had six great drams, lots of laughs, a brief chemistry lesson, and some great stories both from Maclean’s life and from whisky lore. I won’t go into the details, as I recorded the whole thing. You can listen to it below.

The audio isn’t the best thanks to my ailing iPhone, but hopefully MacLean’s velvety tones will not be swamped by lo-fi hiss and my occasional yawping.

And here are some pics of the various bottlings:

I popped into the Celtic Whiskey Shop last week whilst killing time before a funeral. The staff member I spoke to made this point about Scotland’s famous whisky regions  – region really doesn’t exist any more; we live in a post-whisky region world. He said that, apart from the bonfire of congeners that is Islay, most Scotch styles are not dictated by geography. Longitude and latitude no longer figure as controlling influences on flavour profile – if they ever did. The same obviously goes for here – on a small island, the difference between whiskey from Cooley or Dingle will be minimal. Ingredients and production methods are the ultimate decider. It’s not in the where, but the how. And so it holds that really, the difference between Dingle whiskey and Scapa ultimately isn’t something worth fighting over – both come, as the Celts do, from the same traditions, the same rugged landscapes, the same sad and beautiful history. The idea that one nation’s product is the ‘best’ is incredibly limiting – to claim our’s is best or their’s is lesser is to deny yourself the full epicurean experience, and makes us sound bitter.  Maybe it’s time to let the past go. After all, when the world’s number one whiskey is Canadian, and the Asian whisky markets are booming, it might be time to recall our gallowglass ancestors and unite under one flag…until March 19th in the Aviva, of course. Then it’s hammer time. 

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