January 25th is celebrated by the Scottish as the birthday of the poet Robert Burns with the favored tipple being a wee dram of Scotch whisky.
Scotch whisky, spelled without the ‘e’, comes from the Gaelic language ‘uisge beathe’ which means ‘water of life’ which then became ‘usky’. Legend has it that St Patrick acquired the art of distilling while travelling through Spain and France which he then took back to Ireland with him around the year 500AD. The knowledge of distilling then made its way across the sea to Scotland where they began fermenting the mashes of cereals. Whisky was then much stronger and harsher than what is produced today as it was a very crude process and it was considered a good medicine for many ailments.
During the Middle Ages better still design improved the taste of Scotch whisky and it was beginning to become more popular. By the 17th century the government realized that a profit could be made from the whisky industry and began to heavily tax the distilleries. This was very unwelcome and a battle broke out between the illegal distilleries not paying taxes, often operating in the Scottish highlands, and the excise men. By 1777 there were just eight licensed distilleries but over four hundred illegal distilleries producing whisky. In 1823 a compromise was reached between the distilleries and the government and a law was passed which sanctioned the distilling of whisky in return for a license fee of £10 ($16) and a set payment per gallon of spirit produced. Whisky was becoming more and more popular and when France had a devastating attack on their vineyards by the phylloxera beetle brandy was overtaken by Scotch whisky as the choice spirit of the day.
The Scottish 13th Century Earl of Atholl is held responsible for introducing ‘Atholl Brose’. A drink made from water that has had oatmeal soaking in it, honey, cream and whisky. Cranachan is a Scottish dessert using similar ingredients. Cream, whisky and honey are whisked up before being served with raspberries and toasted oatmeal. Many ingredients can be enhanced with a touch of whisky, smoked fish and roasted meats for instance. A delicious whisky sauce for steaks and grills maybe. Holes can be made into cakes before drizzling over a large measure. Marinades for shellfish, meat or even fruit and what about a glug into a rich butterscotch sauce.
As the Scots enjoy the celebrations this Burns Night and toast the great poet with a wee dram of Scotch whisky, how many of them realize that he spent the latter part of his life as an excise man collecting taxes on their favorite tipple.
Photos courtesy of wikimedia commons and flickr - emomanid, jackfre2 and marck vacation