Uisge Beatha: The Music of Whiskey

Uisge Beatha: The Music of Whiskey

DISCLAIMER: PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY.

What does Scotland and Ireland’s most beloved distilled spirit have in common with oaty Scottish bannock bread and the display on an early 2000s box TV?

Grains.  

Do forgive me. Here, a dram (that’s an eighth of an ounce to you) of whiskey will sweeten the poor joke. A few more and I’ll be hilarious. 

Some things make life worth living. Of course, the contents of your personal list may vary; ours, for instance, places freshly-baked bread on a particularly high pedestal. But invariably, a census of this sort would produce two frequent answers: alcohol and music. Humanity loves a bit of debauchery. The etymology of whiskey points to just such a dedication: ‘whiskey’ is the Anglicized spelling of ‘uisge’, itself a long-lived but short reworking of ‘uisge beatha’, Scottish Gaelic for the Latin ‘aqua vitae’, or ‘water of life’. It may seem (in a sensible sort of way) extreme to compare any drink to water, but it is worth noting that ‘small beer’, an ale which traditionally had a low alcohol content and high calorie count, was considered safer to drink than water at a certain point in history, and was highly nutritious to the average medieval laborer. 

Whether you’re having beer for breakfast or not, you will, I’m certain, agree that little flows as smoothly or burns as intensely as good music. Whiskey just about does the same job, and we have a whole soundtrack for evidence. Click here to access a playlist of the songs we’re about to discuss in these extracts, and listen along as you polish off your struan, our traditional whole-grain loaf for Week 3 of breads from the UK.

Like struan’s profusion of harvest grains and seeds, the folk music surrounding whiskey and beer stems from a number of Celtic and Gaelic influences, many of which have enjoyed cultural interplay for centuries. The Humors of Whiskey is an extract from Paddy’s Panacea, a hilarious Irish trad tune popular at ceilidhs that was given new life by recordings in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The Calton Weavers (or Nancy Whiskey) was published in Scotland in the early 1900s, and later revived by many artists, including Irish folk outfit The Dubliners. Auld Lang Syne needs no introduction – this tune crossed from 17th century oral tradition to Robert Burns’ writing desk (though older prints exist), and now finds all of us bleary with nostalgia on New Year’s Eve. In summary, we acknowledge the individuality, diversity, and complex history of Irish and Scottish folk music forms; the selection criteria here was whether the song was able to get us dancing or sobbing.  

The Humors of Whiskey

Come guess me this riddle, what beats pipes and fiddle
What's hotter than mustard and milder than cream
What best wets your whistle, what's clearer than crystal
What's sweeter than honey and stronger than steam

What'll make the lame walk, what will make the dumb talk,
The elixir of life and philospher's stone
And what helped Mr. Brunnell to build the Thames Tunnel
Wasn't it poteen from ould Inisowen

If there were ever an advertisement for a product, it is this: according to Joseph Lunn, writer of the song Paddy’s Panacea, the Irish moonshine known as poteen or mountain dew can cure essentially anything – the imbalance of bodily humors, colicky children, and maids with less-than-rosy cheeks, besides providing the multifarious functions described above. Not only will it make you athletic, but possibly a famous engineer, or just a better doctor (if you can even claim to be one without prescribing poteen to heartsick youths). The song’s lyrics make several references to whiskey across the stanzas, and certain versions replace ‘poteen’ with whiskey entirely, including the one by Hozier in our playlist. Definitely worth gifting a record of it to a whiskey lover! 

Whiskey in the Jar

As I was a goin' over the far famed Kerry mountains,
I met with Captain Farrell and his money he was counting.
I first produced my pistol and I then produced my rapier,
Saying, "Stand and deliver", for he were a bold deceiver.
Mush-a ring dumb-a do dumb-a da
Whack fall the daddy-o, whack fall the daddy-o
There's whiskey in the jar.

This galloping, eminently singable pub favorite tells the story of an Irish highwayman who robs a despised English Captain, only to be betrayed in his sleep by his beloved Jenny. She steals his sword, fills his pistol with water, and calls upon the Captain to arrest the thief. The themes of treachery and lost love are at slight odds with the cheery tune, but one thing’s for sure – when the chorus hits, we’re all singing along! Versions of this song are set in the Ozarks, Appalachians, and the American South, and are theorized to have become popular during the American Revolution, as the song was easily injected with anti-colonial sentiment.

Do you know what the phrase ‘whiskey in the jar’ means? Our guess is that the highwayman, now languishing in prison, is swirling a sad cup of comfort on itself.  Earlier versions of this song were also called Whiskey in a Bar, which leaves fewer questions.

The Calton Weaver (Nancy Whiskey)

As I walked into Glasgow city
Nancy Whiskey I chanced to smell
I walked in, sat down beside her
Seven long years I loved her well

Whiskey, whiskey, Nancy whiskey
Whiskey, whiskey, Nancy O

The more I loved her, the more I kissed her
The more I kissed her, the more she smiled
I forgot my mother's teaching
Nancy soon had me beguiled

The message of this song is essentially ‘Don’t drink, kids.’ The weaver in question makes a strong case – he loses seven years of his life to Nancy Whiskey, and ends the song with a return to his trade, warning all men from Calton off of the irresistible taste and smell of it. It’s rather wholesome, in the end. The lyrics make whiskey into a siren- appropriate, for ‘the water of life’ – and the happy-go-lucky rhythm and tune belie the wisdom of the folk song.  

The Parting Glass

So fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befall,
And gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all.

The deep roots of European hospitality show themselves in this poignant song, which is sung in the voice of a guest departing a group of friends, and requesting a ‘parting glass’, also called a stirrup cup. This was a drink – usually port or sherry rather than whiskey or ale – served to a guest who had just mounted their horse. The parting glass was a final gesture of goodwill, and perhaps meant to protect against cool weather as the individual rode away. The singer admits to his many faults, but beseeches his friends to bless him in a toast, for all the harm he has done has been to none but himself. Unsurprisingly, the song is a favorite at funerals and farewells in a number of countries.   

Auld Lang Syne

And surely you'll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I'll be mine,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne!

The sarcasm of previous numbers aside, the wistful refrain of this classic New Year’s tune embodies everything good about a pint of beer or a glass of liquid gold – enjoying it in togetherness with old friends, and being aware of ever-running water under the bridge.

And there's a hand, my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o' thine,
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught
For auld lang syne!

Here, one friend demands that the other grasp his hand. As they join hands (perhaps crossing them, as many of us do when we sing this song) he declares that they’ll take a proper good-will draught together, for old time’s sake and years gone by. 

If you’re celebrating Hogmanay – the pagan-influenced Scottish New Year – the traditional way, you might follow up your rendition of Auld Lang Syne with a strictly observed ‘first footing’. This involves the first ‘foot’ or person to cross the threshold after midnight being a dark-haired male. The gentleman will bring with him symbolic items: salt, coal, whiskey, shortbread, and black bun, the last being a pastry-covered fruitcake signifying the family’s prosperity in the coming year. 


Parched for more Scottish tradition? Read Robert Burns’ poem Address to a Haggis, a complete exaltation of a food often accompanied by a dram of whiskey. Let us know how you found your struan (and its attendant boozy playlist) on Instagram at @breadex.bakery



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