Posts Tagged ‘St. Patrick’s Day’

Irish Whiskey Has a Surprising Past

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

For some reason, the other day I had to look up Irish whiskey to see whether it was spelled with an “e,” and while I was checking the spelling, I learned about the history of Irish whiskey, too. It was interesting enough to inspire me to share (the knowledge, not my stash of liquor. I’m not that generous.)Kate Dolan writes about the history of Irish whiskey

Irish whiskey is one of the very oldest European distilled spirits. Legend has it that monks took the knowledge of distilling perfume from Mediterranean culture and altered the technology to create ardent spirits sometime around A.D. 1200. The name “whisky” even comes from the Irish branch of the Gaelic language –  uisce beatha, which roughly translates as “water of life.” Those monks knew they were onto something.

Early records of whiskey distilling in Ireland are scarce, but there was enough of it going on that the English Parliament felt a need to pass a law in 1556 restricting distillation to “gentleman” unless the distiller had a license. This law was promptly ignored. In 1661, Great Britain instituted a tax on whiskey distillers, but registering to pay the tax was voluntary, and not surprisingly, few volunteered. Finally, in the 1761 started to get serious about collecting taxes from producers, and whiskey was then divided into two types – “parliamentary whiskey” and poitín (often spelled “poteen”) small pot-stilled liquor produced and sold illegally.

The popularity of the drink grew phenomenally fast and by the the end of the 1700s, the whiskey sold better in Ireland than rum, brandy and gin combined. By the 1820s, the distilleries in Dublin were among the biggest in the world and for a time Irish whiskey became the most popular spirit worldwide, far surpassing Scotch whisky.  Irish distillers even added an “e” to the word to differentiate their product from the inferior version produced in Scotland.

But this popularity didn’t last. Changes in distillation processes and aggressive moves by Scotch distillers cut into the market. Then the market virtually disappeared as Ireland engaged in a series of conflicts with it’s biggest market, the U.K., then engaged in civil war with itself, and then saw its American market plowed under the blanket of a ten year prohibition. By the 1930s, there was virtually nothing left of the booming industry and the decline continued until there were only five distillers remaining by the 1950s. When those consolidated, there were only two left in the 1970s-and they were both owned by the same company.

Frankly, I think if it hadn’t been for Irish coffee, the world would have forgotten about Irish whiskey.

But fortunately in the late 1980s, the trend slowly started to reverse. A new distillery opened for the first time in 100 years. Others followed and the market share has been steadily growing. However, it’s hard to imagine it will ever catch up to Scotch whisky, which today sells 15-16 times better.

But who knows? America is a big market, and we don’t hold huge drinking festivals to celebrate any Scottish saints. So maybe it’s just a matter of time until Irish whiskey regains its title.

I know I’m doing my part to make that goal a reality.

Slainte! And Happy Patrick’s Day


Much of the information about the history of Irish whiskey came from Masters of Malt (

If you enjoy reading about fictional characters who drink a lot of Irish whiskey or whatever else they can get their hands on, you might like my 18th Century historical stories Restitution, Langley’s Choice and Avery’s Treasure (although the pirates in that book drank far more brandy than whiskey.) And the characters Jack McCready (Restitution) and Edward Talbot (Langley’s Choice and Avery’s Treasure) both happen to be from Ireland as well.

Potato, Patata–and Stay Away from Green Ones

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

I can believe that some people say “to-mah-to” but I always thought that when Ira Gershwin wrote “You like potato, and I like potahto,” in the classic tune “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” he was just being lazy with his rhyme scheme.
Turns out he was being historically accurate. Sort of.
Potatoes were introduced into European culture by the Spanish, who discovered the crop in Peru. They called it the “patata” (maybe to go with the “tomata”). In any case, they still use the word, so the Gershwin lyric holds up. I’m sure you find that a relief!Kate Dolan warns everyone about deadly potatoes
But you should call the whole thing off if the potato is green. That’s because green potatoes are loaded with a poisonous substancen known as solanine. It’s a bitter-tasting chemical found in the leaves, stems and shoots of potatoes, and it protects the plants from being devoured by insects. When potato tubers (the part we eat) are exposed to light while growing, they turn green and fill with solanine as a means of protection. But what protects the plant is harmful to anyone who consumes it. Fortunately, because of the bitter taste, most people stop before they eat enough to cause major problems. But solanine poisoning can cause nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, cardiac dysrhythmia, nightmares, hallucinations, paralysis, fever, jaundice, hypothermia and even death. Obviously this is rare, and it tends to happen only in places where famine is so severe that people are willing to eat something that tastes as bad as a solanine-infused potato.
And this made me think of the Irish potato famine. From 1845 until 1851, starvation caused by the repeated failure of the potato crop caused death of a million people in Ireland. I imagine those people would have been tempted to eat green potatoes, so I wondered if solanine played any part in the deaths. I haven’t been able to find any connection so far, and from the descriptions of the blight that ruined the crops, I imagine the potatoes turned to black mush before they had the chance to turn green.
It’s a pretty depressing topic for contemplation, and if you’d like to feel even worse, there’s a miserably informative series of articles about the famine starting here:
After reading about the devastating blight and the “relief” measures that pretty much succeeded in destroying whatever the potato fungus left behind, you might want to have a drink to forget your troubles.
It’s okay if your beer is green. But only on March 17. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Corned Beef and Cabbage is as Irish as St. Patrick—in other words, not so much

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

In anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day, tonight my son hung Irish flags on the wall and we ate corned beef for dinner.  But my mom always told me that corned beef wasn’t Irish and I never saw any during the six months that I Iived with a family in the Dublin suburbs. I buy corned beef around St. Patrick’s Day every year only because stores put it on sale.Kate Dolan's Irish potato basket

But why do they? Why do we associate this un-Irish food with an Irish holiday?

It makes sense, actually.

Neither the holiday nor the saint are Irish, so it’s only fitting that we celebrate with food that isn’t either. St. Patrick was the son of a 4th Century Roman official, and although historians disagree as to whether his homeland was in modern day France or England, it wasn’t in Ireland. He was dragged to the Emerald Isle as a prisoner and escaped as soon as he could. (For more on Patrick, see my post here.) Centuries later, in 1762, other men who’d fled the green shores hosted the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York. That’s right, the first rowdy celebrants of Ireland’s patron saint were not Irish but American. And they still are. Dubliners come out in droves to see the “Patrick’s Day” parade, and they come to see the show put on by the crazy Americans with green hair drinking green beer. (For more about St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, see my post here.) So we have an American holiday created to honor a Roman saint. Why not celebrate it with a Jewish culinary staple?

At the time the vast majority of Irish emigrated to America in the 1800s, most people in Ireland were not eating beef, corned or otherwise. They couldn’t afford it. Pork was much more common, and it was heavily cured with salt. When Irish arrived in cities like New York, they found beef to be cheaper than pork and they also found their Jewish neighbors serving a salt cured beef that tasted similar to the bacon they enjoyed back in Ireland (which is not much like American “streaky bacon”). So did the Irish immigrants eat corned beef because it was as close as they could get to back-home cooking or because it was the cheapest meat they could find? I think the answer is “yes.” They ate what was cheapest back in Ireland as well as in their new homeland. Good food is important. But it’s also important to save money so you have enough left to buy beer. In fact, you buy the beer first. Then after a while you don’t care what the meat is.  And the cabbage? Another U.S. substitution. Potatoes were relatively cheap, but cabbage was cheaper.  Again, more money for beer.

And that brings us to the one aspect of the holiday that is Irish – the drinking.  I don’t think the Irish drink any more than Americans do—in fact, I think most of them drink less. But in Ireland there is a culture of drinking and socializing in pubs—going out to drink rather than sitting down with a six-pack at home—and that is one aspect of Irish culture that we Americans copy on St. Patrick’s Day. People who would normally head home after work on a Tuesday will head to a bar instead just because it’s March 17. Hopefully they will meet up with friends, laugh, and have a “good bit of craic” as my host mom in Dublin used to say.  (Craic or crack meaning loud boisterous fun talk, not a drug derived from cocaine.) They say that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and in an Irish bar, that’s really true.

So if the alcohol is more Irish than the corned beef and cabbage, why aren’t the stores putting Irish whiskey on sale?


In the interests of authenticity, the author consumed beer whilst writing the above article. During the editing and photography session, she killed a bottle of Jameson’s and was excited to discover half a bottle of Tullamore Dew behind it in the liquor cabinet. The photo is of an “Irish potato basket” said to be the type used by the poor to both drain and serve the potatoes. Without plates or utensils, the family would gather around the basket to eat potatoes with their fingers. It is a sobering reminder of the hardships endured by my ancestors during the famine years. Did I say “sobering?” Well, it’s a reminder, at any rate.

Green Beer

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

This month, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m going to write about Irish things, or more accurately, Irish-American things since the holiday is really an American one. Regardless of the celebration’s origins as an Irish Catholic day of prayer, it is now a day when Americans come out to celebrate being Irish or at least pretending to have the capacity to drink mythic quantities of green beer. And the Irish, well, they come out to watch the Americans. Even in for St. Patrick's Day (more…)