Scáiltín: Milk Punch’s Feisty Ancestor
Let’s start by jumping into our time machine and taking a trip back to medieval Ireland, where the story of Milk Punch begins.
Prior to the 9th century, Ireland was largely left alone in the early Medieval world. The Romans never got there, and with the exception of some attempted evangelization by the Catholic Church, the English, Welsh, and Scottish largely left the gaelic inhabitants of the Emerald Isle alone.
This changed when the Vikings showed up and caused trouble from around 800-1000 AD. And then the Normans showed up and did the same thing from around 1150-1350 AD. Remember the Normans were the folks who crossed the English channel and invaded England in 1066 at the battle of Hastings…William the Conqueror and all that jazz…depicted famously on the Bayeux Tapestry…well, about a century after they invaded England, they must have gotten bored again because they did the same thing to Ireland.
The only slight difference was that the Normans technically got “permission” to invade Ireland in the form of something called a “Papal Bull,” which is basically when the Pope gives a public statement endorsing some person, property, or action on behalf of the Catholic Church.
In 1155, Pope Adrian the IV, the only English Pope, issued a papal bull calling for the invasion of Ireland on the grounds that the Christian missionaries and monks already in place on the island might not have been doing such a great job. They might have been abusing their power a bit. And maybe this is because they were a bit too busy playing with the art and science of distillation, which had made its way to the Island from the Mediterranean around the year 1000.
Now, let’s pause and explain exactly why we’re giving you a lesson in early Irish history. The reason is because the first proto-milk punch is a gaelic beverage called scáiltín, and every blog and article on the internet is comfortable identifying this as the precursor to milk punch and then vaguely stating that it had been consumed since “the Medieval age.”
The ingredients of scáiltín usually include Irish whiskey, milk or cream, butter, and flavoring ingredients like herbs and spices. And almost always recommended that it be topped with grated nutmeg.
As we were looking at these recipes and all of the duplicate content copied/pasted from wikipedia, we realized something was off – or at least, something was being parrotted around that didn’t make sense. And that’s why we’re in our little time machine looking at the very earliest days of Irish distilling, which came to the island by way of christian missionaries, by way of the mediterranean, by way of the Arabs, who invented distillation as we now know it.
If scáiltín was truly the first type of milk punch, and if it was truly consumed during the middle ages, one distinction I’d like to make abundantly clear is that it probably was made using aqua vitae – which is a completely unaged distilled spirit that entered the written record for the first time in 1405 (but we can assume it was being consumed for quite some time before that).
A Point About Barrel Aging
The second point we’ll make about Irish Whiskey is that we generally expect such a spirit to be aged in charred oak barrels, which is a practice that didn’t take place in any controlled or widespread manner until well after the middle ages. We don’t know when, but many suspect that the French were the first to do it, which then likely spread to Scotland, and finally to Ireland and the United States.
So when you look at all these scáiltín recipes that claim “Irish Whiskey,” well, they may be more palatable than the original concoctions, but they’re definitely not authentic.
Nutmeg and the Plague
After we dove down that rabbit hole, we were also eager to dispatch with the nutmeg and take all those copy-and-paste cocktail bloggers down yet another peg. But what we found might surprise you.
It seemed like nutmeg was only commercially available in Europe once commercial trade routes to the spice islands in the Pacific became logistically viable during the age of discovery. But I was wrong. Nutmeg had been finding its way to Europe as early as Roman times, and it got a really nice nudge in popularity (and price) when it was purported to help ward off the plague.
So, on our quest to identify the most authentic version of scáiltín, nutmeg gets to stay, but because it was probably only available to the wealthy ruling elite in Ireland, let’s acknowledge that most people were probably drinking it sans nutmeg.
The Advent of Irish Moonshining
One other noteworthy phenomenon that occurred during the Norman invasion period in Ireland is that the Normans took control of cities and fertile farmland, pushing the gaelic natives into the country hinterlands, where they survived mostly as subsistence farmers. As a result, when the Bubonic Plague reached Ireland in 1348, the Normans suffered great losses in cities, where the population density was much higher, while the native Gaels had a bit more luck out in the countryside, where they were more isolated.
This isolation and distrust of foreign entities also sets up the origins of the Irish moonshining tradition, where small operators would run stills out in the rural parts of Ireland, skirting taxes imposed by outside Kings. What came out of these “little pots” eventually came to be known as poitin, which is the true, unaged precursor of today’s Irish whiskey.