The Water of Life: a brief history of whiskey and distillation

The Internet. Penicillin. The wheel.

These are pretty cool – and one might even say useful – inventions. But just imagine how much less we would enjoy all of these nobel fruits of our collective intelligence – to say nothing of Irish music – if it wasn’t for the hands-down most important invention of all time, whiskey.

Don’t believe me? Well, as it happens, the name “Whiskey” is one of those morphed words that was originally from the Gaelic uisge, as in uisge beatha, meaning “Water of Life.” And in fact, that same phrase was also translated into Latin as aqua vitae. Who are we to correct history?

Whiskey’s origins start with the process of distillation, which was developed in Mesopotamia. But the Mesopotamian people had not yet evolved to the point of enjoying delicious whiskey – in fact, they used grapes, which are all wrong for whiskey, and merely used alcohol to make perfumes. This to me says a lot about the barely-civilized origins of that perfume counter at Macy’s you’re always trying to avoid: they’re primitive and violent for a reason.

"For fuck's sake, Margaret, just buy something! God only knows what's going on beyond those cold, dead, lizard eyes."

The distillation process eventually made its way to Ireland, where the lack of grapes meant alcohol producers needed to find a new substrate for their experimentations. As a result, monks who produced alcohol for its medicinal purposes used grains and the first important leap forward was made towards that most enlightened of potables.

But the party really gets started in the mid-1500’s when King Henry the VIII and his vicegerent Thomas Cromwell, seeking to unburden local Catholic institutions of their considerable wealth, dissolved the monasteries throughout England. That sucks for England’s monastery community – which is estimated to have owned one-third of all the land in England prior to that – but its pretty awesome for us, because the monks decided to bring their distillation home with them. And when they did, it was all about rockin’ a fat buzz, no fever, infection or possession by Satan required.

Shure 'an forgive ush father, for we have shinned. Alsho like to shay a shpecial shorry about pisshin' in the holy water, I would. Shaints presherve us.

To be sure: those old monks partied high-test style, drinking the whiskey immediately after distillation. But eventually after enough former monks died of alcohol poisoning, someone got the idea to age the whiskey in barrels and allow it to mellow, not to mention adding the caramel goodness we’ve all come to know and love. And to this day, the Old Bushmills Distillery in Antrim County, Ireland remains the oldest working distillery of whiskey in the world.

I like to believe that, somewhere way down there in our history, this is some branch of my family's coat of arms.

These days, whiskey comes to us in a variety of different variations, from the extremely rare single-cask bottle to the more commercially-viable blended whiskeys. Purists generally prefer the single-malt stuff, which while probably blended from a number of casks, only comes from a single distiller, thus being a reasonably-pure expression of that maker’s techniques.

Me? Well, I’m not purist for anything. But given the option, I trend towards Knob Creek as my poison of choice, particularly for a Manhattan. Bourbon whiskey, I guess you would call that.

If you’d like to know more about whiskey than I can tell you, I know just the place to go, too: Marketview Liquor is having a special whiskey tasting tonight, February 17th, from 4pm to 7pm. Get there early, but if you don’t see me, please save me a sip or two!


NASA Research Shows DNA Can Be Built in Space

Adherents to one of the more exotic (literally) theories on the origins of life has just gotten a boost of confidence, based on the latest @NASA research:

NASA – NASA Research Shows DNA Building Blocks Can Be Made in Space.

Scientists have detected the building blocks of DNA in meteorites since the 1960s, but were unsure whether they were created in space or resulted from contamination by terrestrial life. The latest research indicates certain nucleobases — the building blocks of our genetic material — reach the Earth on meteorites in greater diversity and quantity than previously thought.

The theory that life was “seeded” onto the Earth from meteorites crashing onto its surface is called Panspermia. Like the article notes, this theory has been in circulation and widely supported since the 60’s when the discovery of DNA building blocks was first made.

But the theory of Panspermia has always been hampered by the prospect of contamination: since the meteorites we observe are already on the planet, the chemicals that spark the debate might just have seeped into the rock once the meteorite was on Earth. These rocks are not, after all, recent visitors.

The current research was conducted on meteorite fragments found in the Antarctic. The scientists found that many different molecules, very similar to DNA’s base, are present in the rock. Despite the similarity, not all the chemicals found in the meteorites are commonly employed in biology.

But significantly, the ice surrounding the meteorite did not have the same chemicals present. That suggests that the meteorite in question was forming new chemicals prior to its arrival, rather than simply holding onto debris from its new home.


Which is Worse? The Claim or the Reaction?

Bugs from outer space. Its not just a b-movie title in the making, its the claim of a scientist studying meteorite material. That claim is being simultaneously announced and dismissed across the media spectrum. And the reaction of his fellow scientists is, according to at least one source, “dismay”:

Bugs From Space? Forget It – ScienceInsider

Planetary scientists gathered here for the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference are greeting news of life in a meteorite with dismay. Dismay because they fear that for the third time in 50 years they are being dragged into a dubious controversy that will do science little good. Whether they have closely examined the paper by astrobiologist Richard Hoover of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center or only heard about it in the hallways, the reaction is the same: not again.

I’m so glad to have been informed of this new development which is also old news and never had any validity in the first place, whether or not anyone with knowledge of the subject read the paper.