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The Origin Of Whiskey

Aug 22, 2008
Whiskey is a powerful drink and whiskey is a powerful word--possibly because both are of Irish origin. The English articulation of the word in use today is based upon a word the earliest Gaels applied to the result of their stills, for it appears they were the primary whiskey-makers.

The name they gave the distilled spirit was singularly fitting--they called it "uisgebeatha." If we scrutinize the word we find that "uisge" (pronounced oosh'gee) means "water," "beatha" means "life," and the two combined mean "water of life." All of which goes to establish that nobody can beat the Irish for suitable naming. In time this intoxicating creation of Ould Ireland's stills became "whiskbae," later "whiskie," and finally just plain "whiskey."

Similarly, the Scots were distillers of this ancient and respectable liquor. They adopted the original name the Irish gave to the white spirit which flowed from their stills, the word going through a comparable succession of pronunciation until it became "whisky" without the "e"--one can note the spelling on any bottle of Scotch.

We have a lot to thank the Irish for, but whiskey rates a top place on the list. A toast to the Irish--what drink may better serve such a pur¬pose than one of the many whiskey cocktails mixed to precision as in New Orleans? Make it an Old Fashioned, a Sazerac, a Manhattan, a julep, a highball, or just plain whiskey. Whichever it may be, fill 'em up and drink 'em down to the original whiskey-makers --the Irish!

The dictionary breakdown on a highball: "a long drink of diluted spirits, usually whiskey, served in a tall glass with cracked ice."

Like all fashionable drinks, the highball is prominent for its variety. Any spirituous liquor will answer-- it depends upon individual inclination. Some like rye with seltzer water, some Bourbon; others hold that the spirit of the drink should be Scots whisky, and still others demand Irish whiskey. Brandy, rum, applejack, all have their advocates, and there are even benighted individuals who desire gin in their highballs.

For the fizz complement use whatever is appealing--seltzer, club soda, white rock, ginger ale, Coca-Cola, Seven-Up. Aficionados, as a rule, insist that only cold water be poured upon their whiskey. Whichever one prefers to place upon their cocktail coaster, make it strong and vibrant!

Oldtimers will tell you the three exceptional drinks of New Orleans in the memory of living men were the dripped absinthe frappe of the Old Absinthe House, the Ramos gin fizz, and the Sazerac cocktail. The American cocktail was not only born in Old New Orleans but was given its inquisitive name in the city's famous Vieux Carre. The best known of all New Orleans cocktails is indisputably the Sazerac. The fact that it originated in New Orleans gave rise to the fable that it was first concocted by and named for an old Louisiana family, fable without fact as no such Louisiana family existed.

A barbershop that once stood in a building on the right hand side of the first block on Royal Street going down from Canal, in front of the doors, still had lettered in the sidewalk the word "SAZERAC." This denotation indicated the entrance to a once well-patronized bar on the Exchange Alley side of the building. It was here the drink famed far and wide as a Sazerac cocktail was mixed and served. It was here it was christened with the name it now bears.

For years one of the beloved brands of cognac imported into New Orleans was a brand contrived by the firm of Sazerac-de-Forge et fils, of Limoges, France. The neighboring agent for this firm was John B. Schiller. In 1859 Schiller opened a liquid dispensary at 13 Exchange Alley, naming it "Sazerac Coffeehouse" after the variety of cognac served solely at his bar and that cheerfully was placed on the bar's absorbent coasters.

Schiller's brandy cocktails became the drink of the day and his business flourished, surviving even the War Between the States. In 1870 Thomas H. Handy, his bookkeeper, succeeded as proprietor and changed the name to "Sazerac House." A modification in the concoction also occurred. Peychaud's bitters were still used to add the right stimulus, but American rye whiskey was alternated with the cognac to satisfy the tastes of Americans who favored "red likker" to pale-faced brandy.

Thus brandy disappeared from the Sazerac cocktail and was switched to whiskey (Handy always used Maryland Club rye), and a dash of absinthe was added. Specifically when whiskey replaced brandy and the dash of absinthe added are unresolved questions. The absinthe novelty has been attributed to Leon Lamothe, who in 1858 was a bartender for Emile Seignouret, Charles Cavaroc & Co., a wine importing firm located in the old Sei¬gnouret mansion at 520 Royal street. Most likely it was about 1870, when Lamothe was employed at Pina's restaurant on Burgundy street that he experimented with absinthe and made the Sazerac what it is today.
About the Author
Sarah Martin is a freelance marketing writer based out of San Diego, CA. She specializes in food, fine wines, and liqueurs. For an awesome selection of sandstone cocktail coasters, please visit http://www.thirstycoasters.com/index.html.
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