Raising the spirits: Whisky and the occult

Raising the spirits: Whisky and the occult

Whisky has long been revered for its taste, but beyond the palate there lies a mysterious past intertwined with the world of the occult

Cocktails 27 Oct 2023 | By Mark Jennings

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In the heart of mediaeval Europe, alchemy was more than a precursor to modern chemistry; it was a spiritual quest. Alchemists, often working in tandem with apothecaries, sought to uncover the secrets of the universe. Central to their work was the belief in a 'spirit' or 'essence' present in all things – distillation became their tool of choice. By heating a substance, its 'spirit' would ascend as vapour, only to be captured and condensed back into a liquid. This distilled 'spirit' was seen as the purest form of the material, a tangible capture of nature's soul.

 

As distillation techniques were refined, clearer and more potent spirits emerged. Whisky, stemming from the Gaelic 'uisge beatha', meaning water of life, was a prime example. Its creation was a form of everyday alchemy, transforming humble grains into a spirited drink. Beyond its taste, whisky was revered for its supposed medicinal properties. It was believed to cure various ailments, prolong life, and even repel malevolent spirits. Tales of its potency spread, with some households keeping a bottle as both a remedy and a protective talisman.

 

The 18th-century Enlightenment era, while championing reason, also saw a surge in secret societies. Groups such as the Freemasons, the Illuminati, and the notorious Hellfire Club emerged, each with their own clandestine rituals and ceremonies. Whisky became a staple in these gatherings. Its consumption was believed to alter consciousness, facilitating communion with higher realms or even infernal entities. Rituals often saw members imbibing whisky to induce trance-like states, through which they sought visions, insights, or pacts with the supernatural.

 

The Hellfire Club, with its scandalous reputation, was particularly associated with whisky. Its gatherings, rumoured to be hedonistic and even satanic, often featured whisky as a symbol of the devil's influence and the flames of hell. Dublin’s own Hellfire Club, described by Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift as “a brace of monsters, blasphemers and bacchanalians,” chose the whiskey-based drink scáiltín for their rituals (see below for the recipe).

 

By their nature these rituals were a subversive culture. The groups would have to worry about the authorities, who would not take kindly to any practising of witchcraft or anything that undermined the church. Details of the rituals did seep out, because of the fascination with death and the macabre in the society of the time, but otherwise these practices would take place behind closed doors.

 

“You would have to be in the know. The occult, the arcane, is all about being understood by few – a  secret and a mystery,” says Allison Crawbuck, author of Spirits of the Otherworld: A Grimoire of Occult Cocktails & Drinking Rituals. “It was very much something that's everywhere, but those practices would happen in privacy.”

 

Even within the great scientific minds of the age there was a bent to the mystic, which Crawbuck identified through her research. “If you look through their personal diaries, many scientists were very interested in the occult, but this wasn't something that they could talk about publicly because it would undermine the theories they were trying to prove, or the circles that they were trying to position themselves in.”

 

Today, the allure of whisky remains undiminished. Distilleries often reference the 'angel's share' – the portion of whisky that evaporates during maturation, jokingly said to be taken by celestial beings. Some enthusiasts, with every sip, claim to sense echoes of its ancient and mystical past (although that could just be a symptom over over-imbibing). One could even say that modern whisky ceremonies, while not overtly occult, still carry hints of its arcane history. Tastings often resemble rituals, with participants savouring each note, each flavour, as if trying to decipher an age-old secret, and there is a traceable link from alchemy to the apothecary to the bartenders of today – the famous Sazerac cocktail, for example, started out as a medicinal elixir.

 

The connection between whisky and the occult is not just historical; it's deeply cultural. From literature to cinema, this bond has been explored and celebrated. Whether it's tales of witches brewing potions with uisge beatha or modern films portraying secret societies with whisky-laden ceremonies, the association is undeniable.

Whisky's journey is a tapestry of history, culture, and mysticism. From its alchemical origins to its role in secret societies and its enduring modern allure, that the spirit has always been somewhat mysterious is surely part of its great appeal.

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Devilishly good cocktails

 

“Consulting your local mixologist about a healing cocktail is not far removed from the way in which patients would have approached their local pharmacist in years past.”  Warren Bobrow, Apothecary Cocktails. 

The following cocktails have recommended ingredients but could be made with an alternative brand as preferred.

 

 

Oak & Mistletoe

 

From Spirits of the Otherworld: A Grimoire of Occult Cocktails & Drinking Rituals

 

Both the Druids and the oak tree were ancient symbols of knowledge. Inspiration for this cocktail is drawn from the ancient woodlands of the Druids.

 

Ingredients

30 ml / 1 oz Monkey Shoulder blended Scotch whisky

30 ml / 1 oz Château du Breuil VSOP Calvados

4 dashes Angostura bitters

15 ml / 0.5 oz roasted apple syrup*

Garnish: roasted apple slice

 

Method

Stir all ingredients with cubed ice in a mixing tin for 45 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass with a large ice cube and garnish.

 

*Roasted apple syrup

Combine 5 g (1 tsp) caster sugar and 2 g (1 tsp) ground cinnamon in a medium bowl. Add 1 apple, cored and sliced, tossing the pieces around in the mixture to fully coat both sides. Spread the apples in a single layer on a baking tray. Bake at 175°C for 12 minutes, flipping halfway through. Combine three-quarters of the roasted apples with 150 g caster sugar and 100 ml water in a saucepan. Place on medium heat with a lid on, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, let cool, then fine-mesh strain and funnel into a bottle. Keep the remaining roasted apples to garnish. Keep for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator. Makes approximately 10 servings.

 

 

The Last Druid

 

From Spirits of the Otherworld: A Grimoire of Occult Cocktails & Drinking Rituals

 

Ingredients

45 ml / 1.5 oz Glengoyne 12 Years Old Highland single malt Scotch whisky

15 ml / 0.5 oz Antica Formula Carpano

15 ml / 0.5 oz Aelder Elixir wild elderberry liqueur

2 dashes Loch Ness Spirits absinthe

Garnish: 1 Maraschino cherry

 

Method

Stir all ingredients with cubed ice in a mixing tin for 60 seconds. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish.

 

 

Scáiltín – Irish milk punch

 

Approximated recipe from Irish tradition

 

Scáiltín, pronounced scaltheen, means ‘a little scald’ which comes from the Irish word ‘scall’ for to burn. It has made its way into the common vocabulary of Dubliners who use it to describe a hot drink – ‘a cup o’ scald’.

 

Ingredients

240 ml / 8 oz full-fat milk

50 ml / 1.75 oz Irish whiskey

1 tbsp honey

Good pinch of mixed spice

1 tsp salted butter

A few rasps of freshly ground nutmeg

 

Method

Place everything in a small saucepan except the nutmeg and heat gently, whisking with a small whisk to get a good froth. Pour the scáiltín into a mug, spooning the froth on top, and quickly grate over a little nutmeg. Serve immediately.

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