March 20 will bring in Alban Eiler, known elsewhere as the spring solstice or vernal equinox when day and night are the same length. Weather be damned, it means spring has arrived and will last until June 20, the longest day of the year, when we will encounter Alban Heruin, the summer solstice. (The winter solstice is Alban Arthuan, the autumn solstice Alban Elved.) In between Eiler and Heruin we have such frolics as St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 and Tartan Day on April 6. Both are celebrated with merriment of many sorts, but each has a historic reason for being marked.
St. Patrick’s Day honors the patron saint of Ireland who drove the snakes into the sea where they mutated and re-emerged as sharks, politicians and TV reality show producers.
Tartan Day celebrates that time in A.D. 1320 when King Robert the Bruce and his Scottish parliament sent off a letter called the Declaration of Arbroath to Pope John VIII in Rome, asking him to get the English off their backs. That worked so well that England still rules Scotland to this day despite current rumblings about some sort of separation.
Both historic events, as well as the arrival of Easter, spring and a bunch of other traditional religious and secular days, will in this span be marked in many communities with once-a-year church attendance, parades, festivals, dances, silly hats and drink specials at your favorite pub — featuring Scotch and Irish whiskies, in particular.
The line between Scotch and Irish distillations is blurry for some, although there are true distinctions. Scotch makers allow their barley to sprout, then dry it. The Irish use raw and malted barley while Scotch is entirely malted barley. Scotch whisky usually is distilled twice, Irish three or more times, which sometimes creates a lighter spirit. And, Scotch is cask aged for at least two years, Irish at least three. Plus, The Irish spell their spirit “whiskey,” while the Scots — and Canadians — omit the “e.”
As is the case with most such things, there is no right or wrong, best or worst. There is only personal preference.
Although Ireland has only three distilleries — Bushmills in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and Cooley in County Louth and Midleton in County Cork, both in the Republic of Ireland — they produce a very wide range of spirits.
Bushmills, for example, is preferred by many. It is turned out in the world’s oldest whiskey distillery, founded in 1608 by Sir Thomas Phillips under license from James I of England.
In Scotland, there are about 125 distilleries, ranging from tiny enterprises to major commercial venues that crank out all sorts of base whiskies for a multitude of brands. The distilling industry is the No. 2 revenue producer in Scotland, second only to North Sea oil production.
So, armed with a bit of history and a bit of knowledge, go forth and celebrate the season, no matter your heritage. Those Celts produce enough variations to satisfy any taste.
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