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Smuggling in the Highlands
Origin of Distillation Doubtful


THE origin of distillation is surrounded by doubt and uncertainty, like the origin of many other important inventions and discoveries. Tradition ascribes it to Osiris, the great god, and, perhaps, the first King of Egypt, who is said to have reclaimed the Egyptians from barbarism, and to have taught them agriculture and various arts and sciences. Whether the tradition be true or not, all will admit the beauty and fitness of the conception which ascribed to the gods the glory of having first revealed to poor humanity the secret of distilling the water of life, as aqua vit, or uisge-beatha, whose virtues, as a source of solace, of comfort, of cheer, and of courage, have been so universally recognised and appreciated. Truly, such a gift was worthy of the gods.

But however beautiful the tradition of Osiris, and however much in accord with the eternal fitness of things the idea that the gods first taught man the art of distillation, a rival claim has been set up for the origin of the invention. It does not require a very lively imagination to picture some of the gods disrelishing their mild nectar, seeking more ardent and stimulating drink, visiting the haunts of men after the golden barley had been garnered, and engaging in a little smuggling on their own account. But even this reasonable view will not be accepted without challenge. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, in its article on alcohol—states that the art of separating alcohol from fermented liquors, which appears to have been known in the far East from the most remote antiquity, is supposed to have been first known to and practised by the Chinese, whence the knowledge of the art travelled westward. Thus we find the merit of the invention disputed between the gods and the Chinese. I am myself half inclined in favour of the "Heathen Chinee." That ingenious people who, in the hoariest antiquity, invented the manufacture of silk and porcelain, the mariner's compass, the art of block-printing, and the composition of gunpowder, may well be allowed the merit of having invented the art of distilling alcohol. Osiris was intimately connected with the agriculture of Egypt, and, among the Chinese, agriculture has been honoured and encouraged beyond every other species of industry. So that if the Egyptian grew his barley, the Chinaman grew his rice, from which the Japanese at the present day distil their sake. Instead of being an inestimable blessing bestowed by the gods, it is just possible that the art of distilling alcohol, like the invention of gunpowder, may be traced to the heathen Chinese, and may be regarded as one of the greatest curses ever inflicted on mankind. Where doctors differ, it would be vain to dogmatise, and on such a point everyone must be fully persuaded in his own mind. Whether we can agree as to alcohol being a blessing or a curse, we can agree that the origin of distillation is at least doubtful, and that, perhaps, no record of it exists.

Early mention is made in the Bible of strong drink as distinguished from wine. Aaron was prohibited from drinking wine or strong drink when going into the Tabernacle. David complains that he was the song of the drinkers of strong drink. Lemuel's mother warns her son against the use of strong drink, and advises him to " Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto him that is heavy of heart. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more"—words which, with characteristic tact and unerring good taste, our own National Bard used as a motto for " Scotch Drink," and paraphrased so exquisitely :—

"Gie him strong drink until ha wink,
That's sinking in despair;
An' liquor guid to fire his bluid,
That's prest wi' grief an' care;
There let him bouse and deep carouse,
Wi' bumpers flowing o'er,
Till he forgets his loves and debts,
An' minds his griefs no more."

But the strong drink of the Bible was not obtained by distillation. The Hebrew word "Yayin" means the wine of the grape, and is invariably rendered "wine," which was generally diluted before use. The word "Shechr," which is rendered "strong drink," is used to denote date wine and barley wine, which were fermented liquors sufficiently potent to cause intoxication, and were made by the Egyptians from the earliest times. The early Hebrews were evidently unacquainted with the art of distillation. Muspratt states that there is no evidence of the ancients having been acquainted with alcohol or ardent spirits, that, in fact, there is every reason to believe the contrary, and that distillation was unknown to them. He quotes the case of Dioscorides, a physician of the time of Nero (a.d., 54-68) who, in extracting quicksilver from cinnabar, luted a close cover of stoneware to the top of his pot, thus showing that he was unacquainted with the method of attaching a receiver. Muspratt further states that neither poets, historians, naturalists, nor medical men make the slightest allusion to ardent spirits. This is more significant, as the earliest poets and historians make constant references to wine and ale, dilate on their virtues, and describe the mode of their manufacture.

The Egyptians, however, are said to have practised the art of distillation in the time of Dioclesian (a.d. 204-305), and are supposed to have communicated it to the Babylonians and Hebrews, who transmitted it westward to the Thracians, and Celtae of Spain and Gaul; but it was unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The distillation of aromatic waters is said to have been known from very remote times to the Arabians. The word "alcohol " is Arabic, meaning originally "fine powder," and becoming gradually to mean "essence," "pure spirit," the "very heart's blood," as Burns says of John Barleycorn. You remember the exclamation of poor Cassio when he sobered down after his drunken row: —"O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!" We have now got a name for the intoxicating element of fermented liquors, and call it alcohol, which may go some way to prove that the Arabians were early acquainted with the art of distillation. A rude kind of still, which is yet employed, has been used for distilling spirits in Ceylon from time immemorial, and Captain Cook found among the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands a knowledge of the art of distilling spirits from alcoholic infusions.

It is said the art was first introduced into Europe by the Moors of Spain about 1150. Abucasis, who lived about that time, is spoken of as the first Western philosopher who taught the art of distillation, as applied to the preparation of spirits. In the following century, Arnoldus de Villa Nova, a chemist and physician, describes distilled spirit, and states that it was called by some the "water of life;" and about the same time Raymond Lully, a chemist, noticed a mode of producing intoxicating spirit by distillation. But, for my purpose, the most interesting fact is that shortly after the invasion of Ireland by Henry II. in 1170, the English found the Irish in the habit of making and drinking aqua vit. Whether the Irish Celts claim to have brought the knowledge of the art from their originial seat in the far East, or to have more recently received it from Spain, I do not know, but, without having access to purely Irish sources of information, this is the earliest record I find of distilled spirits having been manufactured or used in the British Islands. Whether Highlanders will allow the Irish claim to Ossian or not, I fear it must be allowed they have a prior claim to the use of whisky. [My attention has been called to the fact that in Mr. Skene's "Pour Ancient Books of Wales," the Gael are in some of the 6th or 7th century poems called "distillers," "furnace distillers," "kiln distillers."] Uisge-beatha is no doubt a literal translation of the Latin aqua vit (water of life), supposed to be a corruption of acqua vite (water of the vine i.e brandy). "The monasteries being the archives of science, and the original dispensaries of medicine,

it is a natural surmise that the term acqua vite was there corrupted into the Latin and universal appellation, aqua vita (water of life), from its salutary and beneficial effects as a medicine; and, from the Latin tongue being the general conveyancer of scientific discovery, as well as of familiar correspondence, the term aqua vita may have crept into common use to signify an indefinite distilled spirit, in contradistinction to acqua vite, the mere extract of the grape."— (Muspratt.) Whisky is simply a corruption of the Gaelic uisge or uisge-beatha. The virtues of Irish whisky, and directions for making it, both simple and compound, are fully recorded in the Red Book of Ossory, compiled about 500 years ago. Uisge-beatha was first used in Ireland as medicine, and was considered a panacea for all disorders.

The physicians recommended it to patients indiscriminately, for preserving health, dissipating humours, strengthening the heart, curing colic, dropsy, palsy, &c, and even for prolonging existence itself beyond the common limit. It appears to have been used at one time to inspire heroism, as opium has been used among the Turks. An Irish knight, named Savage, about 1350, previously to engaging in battle, ordered to each soldier a large draught of aqua-vitae. Four hundred years later we find Burns claiming a similar virtue for Highland whisky:

"But bring a Scotsman frae his hill,
Clap in his cheek a Highland gill,
Say, such is Royal George's will,
An' there's the foe,
He has nae thought but how to kill
Twa at a blow."

And again, in that "tale of truth," "Tam o' Shanter"—

" Wi' tippenny we fear nae evil;
Wi' usquebae we'll face the devil."

A similar idea is expressed in Strath-mathaisidh's Gaelic Song "Communn an Uisge-bheatha."—

"Bidh iad In rnisnich 'us cruadail,
Gu h-aigiontach brisg gu tuasaid,
Chuireadh aon fhichead 'san uair sin
Tearlach Ruadh fo'n chrun duinn.'


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