Anthropologist Megan Edwards Explores the True Irish Spirit

Christopher Weber
Photo Credit: 
Images courtesy of Megan Edwards, except for Bushmills Distillery photo, taken by Yves Constentino

Since her undergrad days at William and Mary, Megan Edwards has had a singular goal: To unearth the cultural history of Irish whiskey. 


Many a scholar has studied Irish whiskey, if only in the bottom of a tumbler, but this ancient elixir has drawn little serious consideration from scholars. A 500-year distilling tradition involving ballads, bootlegging, and British imperialism has to be worth a dissertation or two. That was Edwards’s idea, anyway.


After completing a Master's in archeology at Queen’s University Belfast, Edwards came to UChicago to pursue an anthropology PhD She particularly wanted to work with professor Michael Dietler, an authority on ancient Celtic culture who has written extensively on feasting—which, of course, almost always involves booze. With support from a Markovitz Fellowship*, Edwards is chronicling Irish whiskey’s transformation from indigenous spirit to British export and revenue source.  


In Gaelic, Irish whiskey is called usquebaugh (pronounced “ISH-ka-baugh,” from the Gaelic for aqua vitae), and you would never mistake the traditional version for Jameson’s. According to Edwards, usquebaugh was distilled from wine or barley alcohol. For flavor, it relied on an infusion of spices, including any or all of the following: nutmeg, anise, licorice root, cinnamon, clove, gold (yes, the metal), pearls, and even ambergris—that is, whale vomit. To take off the edge, it was finished with sugar.


“It wasn’t the kind of thing you think of as whiskey,” Edwards demurs. She compares it to Drambuie, but even more heavily spiced. 


Traditionally, the Gaelic Irish used it as a digestif following a large meal served to the lord’s retinue and guests—as a token of hospitality, in other words. By the 18th century, political toasts would often accompany the whiskey, such as, "May the Island of Saints never give bread to political sinners,” or "May that hour in which we part with our liberties be the last in our lives.” (Edwards found these gems in a Belfast newspaper’s account of local celebrations honoring the King’s birthday.) 


The British continually scoured their colonies for potential medicines, and so administrators and soldiers assigned to Ireland seized upon the local whiskey as a cure against the malevolent Irish climate. "Whiskey was seen as a hot and drying thing, in contrast to the wet Irish landscape,” Edwards explains. “It would be offered as a curative to someone in what was seen as an inhospitable environment to keep the humoral balance of hot, dry, cold, and wet."


From as early as 1608, the British sought to control and tax usquebaugh. Even Irish nationalists at the close of the 18th century would try to repress its excessive use. Whiskey had given the Irish a reputation for drunkenness—a bias that survives to the present day. The nationalists wanted to show a culture of self-control to buttress their arguments for autonomy. 


"Strong brews like Guinness were pushed because Ireland needed a beer with enough alcoholic kick to compete with whiskey," Edwards notes. 


These efforts at suppressing whiskey, Edwards says, had a predictable result: They created a black market served by rogue distillers. "Usquebaugh can be produced on a small scale, and so it can be hidden really well in the mountains." 


That scenario should sound familiar to Americans. Irish, specifically Ulster-Scots, immigrants to another rolling landscape, Virginia, seeded Appalachia’s culture of moonshiners. “‘Hillbillys’ were called that because of their connection to a figure who has had pride of place in Irish identity politics for at least 300 years—William of Orange,” Edwards notes.


The records don’t reveal exactly how usquebaugh gave way to whiskey as we now know it.  The two appear simultaneously in the 18th-century, though the former has by this time been relegated to the medicine chest, with the latter mentioned mostly in the more social contexts of celebration, and of course, drunken excess.   


"There's one funny account of whiskey where a traveler is moving through the rural North of Ireland,” says Edwards. “He complains about a 'stinking whiskey,' likely one that tasted of peat instead of spices and sweetness. 


“It's a moment of the two whiskeys meeting each other."


*The Markovitz Dissertation Fellowship provides up to two annual awards for dissertation write-up in the amount of $20,000 (plus tuition, required fees, and university student health insurance, Basic option) to a student whose dissertation topic explores some aspect of the linkages and influences between social and economic behavior.