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Time Taken…
 for Oak, Smoke and Strong Whiskey


“HERE, TAKE THIS WITH YE,” says Cathleen as she hands Tom an old biscuit tin. Within are some freshly baked soda bread sandwiches filled with bacon and spread lightly with mustard, a couple of scones spread liberally with butter and the season's jam. Along with these is an old whiskey bottle filled with some tea. Taking the tin, he slides it under the seat of the small cart, and then continues haltering the donkey to it. He then loads the tools for his day's work, informing Cathleen, “I'll be back this evening,” as he motions the donkey to move off.

The summer sun blazes as Tom trundles down a well-worn path that eventually takes him to his patch of bog. Here, he and his forefathers have worked the bank of turf all their lives. He knows that these long hard days he works, cutting and saving the turf, are only rewarded when winter's icy fingers lay their grip on the countryside, bleaching it white. It's then that each sod is akin to a lighthouse, throwing out a comforting beam of heat and light—a saviour from the icy chill and a welcome beacon to all.

Tom settles into a rhythm of cutting and throwing the peat sods, occasionally interrupted by pestering flies. After several hours the rhythm is suddenly interrupted when his slean strikes a solid object. “God blassht it,” says Tom, knowing full well what this means. As he scrapes the peat away he uncovers a large tree stump protruding from the ground like a broken and decayed tooth. “That'll take hours to shift,” thinks he to himself, annoyed at all the extra work it will take.

It's early evening before he finally unearths the piece of bog wood. He casts it aside and sets out for home. Tom gives little thought to how the bogs were formed and even less to these tree stumps that he often unearths. Little does he know that every step down into his bank of peat is a step back in time and into this land's ancient history, to a time when it was covered by vast forests—long before the isle was inhabited by our ancient ancestors—to the time when the bogs began to form. As they expanded they swallowed up any trees in their path. Oak trees that were immersed were preserved in the acid environment, suspended in time.

The virtues of Oak have long been known to man. Revered by the druids as their principal sacred tree, they believed it to represent the soul, which in Celtic terminology is the ‘eye of god’. Carrying this idea forward, you could be forgiven for thinking there was something religious about the art of distilling. It's odd that the distilled product is referred to as a ‘spirit’ and during the long time spent maturing in oak casks angels even take a share—not to mention that it was monks who refined the art and have produced some the finest elixirs known today. These distilled sprits are often referred to as ‘life's water’.

Strange that. Irish monks are credited with the development of our own uisce beaha (whiskey). Here, too, bogs played a part. Heat from turf fires was used to dry the malt and fire the pots. This resulted in the whiskey having a slightly smoky flavour. A few whiskeys today still have this 'peaty' aroma.

One significant thing that's common throughout the distilling and wine industries is the use of oak casks as the main vessels for maturing. Oak is considered a ‘pure’ wood with strength and a unique chemical nature. Its effect on whiskey is on a par with that of time and life on ourselves. In youth we have a lust for life, are full of fire if somewhat raw. As we mature we change appearance, seek out a quieter pace of life, mellowing and gracefully going grey. Along with time, it's Oak that acts like an alchemist, taking the firewater of youth and magically transforming it into a smooth mature golden nectar, but somehow leaving the heat intact.

“That wind would shave ye, we'll have snow by the morning,” utters Tom, in from the day's work tending his small farm. He makes his way towards the fire blazing away in the open hearth. He reaches out and grabs a handful of its abundant heat in his hands, and begins to rub them together to massage his frigid fingertips until they return to normal. Settling into his armchair, his gaze is drawn to the flames flickering away. They slowly bewitch him as they dance like some frantic ballerinas on their stage of turf. An open fire has that effect on us all; it seems to cast some kind of magic spell, beckoning us to draw near to its light, its heat; and we like some primeval zombie are compelled to obey its command, to sit, to relax, to cherish the time we spend near it. It calms the soul and allows our minds to wander, to solve all of life's great problems.

So! When next you find yourself laid back in a nice comfortable armchair, with only a fire to provide the warmth and light for your surroundings, should you at the same time have a fully charged tumbler of ‘life's water’, preferably one flavoured with the delicate aroma of peat, as you feel this fiery brew, burning its way through to every fibre of your body as if you're being possessed by some strange entity, ask yourself this: Could this be the same spirit that the ancient druids believed that Oak possessed? Has it been somehow leeched from the oaken casks to invigorate the contents? And have our bogs themselves absorbed it from the ancient Oak timbers held captive there for millennia? Well, as far as this scribe is concerned, I think you know my answer…


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