Under the Irish spirit!

Under the Irish spirit!

Aylin Öney Tan - aylinoneytan@yahoo.com
Under the Irish spirit Only four days in Ireland made me a convert. I feel Irish in a strange way. It is not that my name resembles the Irish name Eileen (or Eibhlín), but there must be something hidden in its air and water - as we say in Turkish, “havasından, suyundan.” (When there is a particularly special flavor in food or drink, or when a certain crazy character is in the spirit in people of a region, we say this it must be “from its air, from its water.”) I’m lucky to have had my first ever visit under an unusually bright and sunny Irish sky, so from the air point of view it was a positive start. But I was soon also to find out about the power of Ireland’s water: “Uisce”!

“Uisce” means water in Gaelic Irish. I would never have been able to read it properly unless Stephen Teeling had pointed it out and read it in a proper Irish way when visiting the Teeling distillery, my first stop in Dublin.

Visiting Teeling was the suggestion of Alice Lascelles, the founding editor of Imbibe magazine and a columnist on spirits and cocktails. She is also known as “Miss Whisky,” so naturally she was my first choice to consult on “What to sip?” on my way to Dublin. She kindly put me in contact with Teeling, who cheerfully greeted us with the usual humble Irish attitude, reserving his full time to showing us around the distillery and explaining all about their history and the history of Irish whiskey. While we were strolling through the exhibition in their whiskey museum, he read a phrase in the Irish language, completely unreadable to me but once read sounding strangely familiar. The pronunciation of “uisce” is very similar to “içki,” a generic word used for alcoholic beverages in Turkey. “İçmek” is the verb for “to drink” in Turkish, and “içki” means something to drink - though in contemporary Turkish usage it is confined to alcoholic drinks only.  Could Turkish “içki” and Irish “uisce” be related? Well, they are related, at least in the spiritual aspect: Irish whiskey is called “uisce beatha,” meaning water of life. 

Over the following two days, I learned more about Irish whiskey at the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, where two papers were solely dedicated to the subject: “The Irish Whiskey Renaissance: A Revolution of Sorts?” by Sylvain Tondeur, and “Poitín: A Spirit of Rebellion and Inspiration” by James Murphy. This year the theme of the symposium was “Revolution and Food,” including “War” as a versatile subtheme. A good number of papers were clustered around beverages, from the potent “poitín” as a spirit of rebellion to the thought-provoking Turkish coffee. The latter was the topic of Nihal Bursa, an architecture professor-turned food enthusiast, who together with her husband Murat Bursa is a keen collector of everything related to Turkish coffee. She follows symposiums worldwide and delivers papers in all aspects of Turkish coffee from paraphernalia (our joint topic at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery), to its place as socializing agent in daily life. Coffee houses have always been hubs of revolt, and were often banned or discouraged as they were considered potential places where dissident ideas were brewed, fueling political unrest. The rebellion-inducing aspect of alcoholic beverages is of course more obvious, but learning about the significance of “uisce poitín,” the ancestor of Irish whiskey, in Irish history was a revelation to me. 

“Poitín,” meaning little pot, is a sort of aqua vitae, a potent spirit ranging in strength from 40 to 90 percent alcohol. It is definitely the most ancient spirit of Ireland, but it has had a rough history, subject to prohibition for a good deal of its history. In his paper, James Murphy writes that “Poitín making was officially banned between the years of 1661 right up to 1997 in this period the illegal spirit continued to flow, finding its way under the counters of Irish pubs and into the limelight of Irish folklore.” 

“During this 336 year period when poitín production was declared an illegal activity ‘you wouldn’t go to a village in Ireland and not find Poitin,’” he adds. Now the potent spirit is being raised from the underground and once again becoming a trend. Many distilleries are proudly launching their own poitíns, creating a youthful spirit around it that makes its way into cocktails and mixed drinks. 

Like poitín making a comeback, Teeling itself is rising from its ashes after years of silence. Now it is the only distillery within the heart of Dublin city center after 125 years away, using the clever “Spirit of Dublin” pun to promote its drinks. 

Many thanks to the Dublin Institute of Technology for organizing this wonderful symposium. I myself fell under the Irish spirit, especially when Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire sang “Foggy Dew” in the amazing historic dining hall of King’s Inn, leaving us all in tears under the Irish sky.  

“Slainte!” or “Şerefe!” (as we say in Turkish) to the Irish spirit!