BOOK REVIEW / Early morning drams and elbow nips: 'Whisky' - Gavin D Smith: Carcanet, 14.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
SAMUEL JOHNSON, in his A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, considered the Scots 'not a drunken race', although 'no man is so abstemious as to refuse the morning dram which they call a skalk'.

What can this be? According to Edward Dwelly's Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary, the skalk or sgailc covers a range of early morning drams usually offered to the guest in Gaeldom. First came the sgailc-nide, 'a full bumper of whisky while still lying down', followed by the friochd-uilnn, 'an elbow nip, when he was first propped up', after which came the deoch chas-ruisgte, 'when still barefoot', and finally the deoch bhleth, 'while his breakfast porrage oats were being ground'. One can only presume that the guest then groggily declined breakfast and tottered back to his cot in a stupor.

This and other such traditions of hospitality can be found in Gavin D Smith's capacious and well-researched Whisky, which offers a technological and economic as well as social and linguistic history of this great drink. Regarding whisky, or rather whiskey, there seems little doubt that the Irish got there before the Scots, who somehow dropped the 'e' from their product along the way.

Bushmills was the first distillery to be granted a licence (in 1608), but there are references to Henry II's soldiers drinking whiskey in Ireland as long ago as 1170, while Sir Robert Savage of Bushmills in 1276 prepared his troops for battle with 'a mighty draught of uisce beathe', Gaelic for 'water of life'.

Indeed, it marks another sad chapter in Ireland's unlucky history that its preeminence in the whiskey market was undone by a freakish legal thunderbolt across the Atlantic. In 1919 Prohibition brought Irish whiskey to its knees, wiping out a large share of its sales while its reputation went into irreversible decline once bootleggers began selling all manner of adulterated spirits under the Irish name.

Then the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) and subsequent trade embargoes with Britain denied the drink access to English and lucrative Empire markets. As the fortunes of Irish whiskey collapsed, the Scots seized control of the show. The one consolation the Irish have for this lost constituency is something decent to drown their sorrows in.

The book's brief extends far beyond whisky's origins and development, however. Whisky is, after all, something that gets you drunk, and the heroic drama of intoxication and its aftermath is accorded proper attention. In his introduction Smith points out a curious difference in the language of British and American drinking. In Scotland you are likely to be given a nip, tot or dram, words that sound rather genteel beside their American cousins, belt, blast, shot, slug or snort. This is the stuff of Hemingway and Mailer, of grizzled barflies and hardened boozers sinking Bourbon and rye. You have to be able to talk a drink as well as take it.

Thence to cups, in one's, and the floodgates of synonym burst open. Partridge in his Historical Slang discusses the word tight and goes on to list 32 similar terms, including 'far-gone' and 'half-seas- over'. Smith records, among others, blotto, cut (and its more popular fraction half-cut), plastered, pissed, rat-arsed, smashed, squiffy, tipsy, tired and emotional, three sheets to the wind and an interesting Scots variant fou', as in 'full', ie full of drink, ie drunk.

As Hugh McDiarmid put it in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, 'I amna fou' sae muckle as tired - deid dune'. Know that feeling (I think). Where does one go from here but to hangover and dog, hair of the, which apparently dates from medieval times when it was thought that a dog-bite could be cured by laying a hair of the same dog across it. On the same principle, Eddie Conlon's remedy for a hangover was to 'take the juice of two quarts of whisky'. The efficacy of the cure remains questionable, but its inclusion in this book is proof, sort of 70 proof, that Gavin D Smith has done the hard thinking, if not the hard drinking, for all of us.