The root of the term "Whisky" is derived from the Gaelic word "Uisguebaugh" (pronounced "oohkubeya"), in the Latin spoken by friars "aqua vitae", the water of life. The "uisge" root was then changed to "usky" and finally to Whisky".
The first Whisky was born in 1494 at the hands of a friar named John Cor of the abbey of Lindores. There is an original document proving friar Cor's purchase of eight bales of barley, which were then transformed into the spirit for King James IV. The first official document which instead concerns a real distillery (called Ferintosh) dates back to 1670.
In ancient times,Whisky was used as a medicine, prescribed to prolong life, preserve health and cure certain diseases. It was used to overcome fear, bring love, disinfect wounds and help digestion. It was also considered purifying, as it contained alcohol, which is the element of fire itself. Celtic populations considered this drink as vital for the simple fact that, for them, nature was alive.
Their gods were elements of the material universe, as intelligence, conscience and psyche existed not only in man, but also in nature.
This primitive man had not yet acquired a complete awareness of his identity, nor even an individual personality, but he lived in close proximity with nature's primal energies. With the advent of the friars, this pagan vision gradually disappeared, bringing the control of nature back under the power of one God.
But in the end, science, constantly quarrelling with religion, eliminated the divine, creating a rational individual who has the illusion of being able to govern nature, an element looked upon as dead matter. Pragmatic rationality, which quantifies and measures, denies human intuition for the lone purpose of dominating the individual. These days, modern man has achieved a strong identity, though renouncing many components of his original self, to which he no longer grants the right to exist. This dissociation resulted in the occurrence of states of malaise, dissatisfaction and unhappiness. There exists between the primitive and the modern man an intermediate route, for virtue always resides in the middle ground. In all this, Whisky can continue doing for modern man the same it did for the ancient Celtic people. But we must partially recover their approach.
Barley, which is the raw material of Whisky, grows from "mother earth". Soil is a living, sensitive organism. Claude Bourguignon, the most erudite French agronomist in this study, argues that a gram of soil can contain up to a billion of living organisms, organized in such a way that each element allows for the existence of the next. These are concepts that put a strain on our rationality, in spite of the fact that this data is scientifically proven.
What it is instead not shown, and that I believe to be not only real, but fundamental in our approach to Whisky, is the extraordinary prerogative the barley grain boasts of incorporating and returning all the aromas and scents that it receives from the outside world.
In fact, the fundamental and original features of Whisky are born through the smoking and fermentation of barley, and its subsequent aging. Barley lends itself more easily than other cereals to the conversion of sugar into alcohol thanks to an elevated presence of carbohydrates and an excellent germinative energy, which allows an abundant production of enzymes.
With regards to these problems, a specific philosopher always comes to mind: Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), a pupil of Goethe's, and the founding father of biodynamic farming as well as anthroposophy. Steiner recovers the ancient theory of the four states of matter, namely Water, Air, Earth and Fire. And Fire is the door through which we peer at the inner workings of things. Fire produces smoke and light, but material light cannot be seen. Everything that exists, whether we see it or not, is made up of vibrating energy. In moments where this vibration is slow and coarse, we perceive matter, but as it becomes faster and thinner, our perception sees them turn from solid objects, to liquid and gaseous ones, all the way to light, which is invisible. Considering the way matter changes into light, we set foot into the invisible, ethereal and the spiritual. If you ascend these states of matter, you will find the Spirit. Not for nothing, in Scotland Whisky belongs to family of spirits.
Of course, the four elements were the foundation of the ancient art of alchemy, and were symbolized by the four arms of a cross, and revered in all primitive cultures, from the Chinese to the Muslim, influencing the zodiac quadrants, the Pythagorean cycles and — most recently — the four types of temporality according to Jlung.
Earth represents power, Air intellect, Fire ardor and Water emotion. Which is precisely why Whisky, as a classic representative of these four states of matter, exudes strength, has its own thickness, reflects passion and simply enchants us.
Water is the element that intervenes most in the creation of Whisky, from the irrigation of fields of barley, to the maceration, fermentation and finally to the dilution of this great spirit before and after its aging. The pure Scottish waters are free of harmful microorganisms and contain a low percentage of dissolved minerals. For this reason they do not confer flavors nor add in abnormal odors neither in the process of malting, nor to the Whisky must, are not a source of infections during fermentation, do not disturb the stability of Whisky through the process of alcoholic reduction and do not create' lime scale in stills. According to orthodox science, water should have absolutely no relevance whatsoever, since it does not appear in chemical tests. Grave mistake! Water is the matrix and the origin of life, it is memory, and it is the raw canvas upon which we smear aromas and perfumes. Water picks up and transmits the messages of these different organic compounds.
Fire is the purifying element necessary for distillation, but it is also represented by wood and alcohol. The former, intended as the wooden material of casks, plays a decisive role in the taste and scents, while the latter is used to stabilize and consolidate them. Alcohol, in alchemy, was called “spiritus" and had its own specific symbol.
The air and earth are instead the authoritative commanders of aging. In this phase, we need only specify that they represent the various Scottish microclimates, as we will soon see.
Written by Silvano Samaroli
The text is an excerpt from "Whisky Eretico" (pp. 31 - 35), written by Silvano S. Samaroli, published 2017 by The Whisky Library, The Library Group Limited.