Heads, Hearts and Whiskey Tales

Sharing stories of good whiskey, good friends, and good memories


Water of Life

August 2020

Many WBSE-er’s not only enjoy a dram of their favorite whiskey, bourbon or scotch, but share what they plan to drink, are currently drinking or opinions of what they have drunk in the past.  The enthusiasm is evident.  But, how many WBSE readers consider their favorite spirit essential?  There is probably more than one reader who has already tipped his glen cairn. “Hell yeah it's essential”! For the rest of us, our favorite spirit is a luxury, a reward, or a special treat to help us celebrate and share good times

However, there was a time when the aqueous solution of ethanol was considered essential … for everyone.  Arab chemists used copper alembics to produce “Al koh’l” which became known as aqua vitae or “water of life” when it arrived in Europe.  Many dialectical forms of the phrase appear in cultures influenced by the Romans.  The Gaelic term was uisge beatha shortened to uisge and anglicized to whisky or whiskey.  It was essential because it was used in medicines, potions, and elixirs.  It was a part of science that was controlled by the religious hierarchy and used by monks to pray longer, worship harder, and recruit more parishioners.  Uisge was therapy for the harshness of medieval life.  

Following the dissolution of the Catholic church by Henry VIII, monasteries lost their monopoly and everyone, including Presbyterians started distilling in Ireland and Scotland.  The English Malt Tax may have driven distilling underground, but the skills and production of spirits flourished by the light of the moon in the gleans and glens.  During this period, Europe was regularly at war, famines and economic depressions made life difficult.  Eventually Irish and Scottish immigrants, looking for a better life and freedom to make whiskey, began to arrive in America.

One such immigrant was Matthew Dill, who was born in Monaghan, Ireland in 1698 and arrived in Fallowfield, west of Philadelphia in the 1730s. There he ran a tavern, probably made whiskey and saved money.  By 1742 he had saved enough money to buy land west of Harrisburg, established the Monaghan settlement and built a tavern along a busy route to the frontier.  Three generations of Dills ran the tavern and distilled spirits. Travelers stopped in for a whiskey, to exchange goods, or catch up on the news.  Taverns were the center of life in colonial America.   Water of life or uisge allowed the Dills to build a prosperous life and achieve the American dream.                               

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An inventory upon Matthew Dills death in 1750 showed that “a still and the vessels belonging to her” was his most valuable possession.   He left them to his wife.   

Several years later the log tavern was converted to the stone tavern that remains today.  The Eichelberger family purchased the property

in 1800.  They expanded from local whiskey

production into a large distillery during the

zenith of whiskey production in

Pennsylvania.  “Uisge” provided economic

opportunity not only for a family but an

entire community  grew through an  

entrepreneurial spirit, hard work, ingenuity and freedom to make “the water of life”.

Future articles will explore historical distilling and spirits

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Cheers,                  Murray