Heritage from Across the Pond

September 09 2021 – David Lemmond

Scotch Whisky Distillery
Scotch Whisky Distillery

In our previous blog, we paired American whiskey barrel woods with Colorado Elk antler as a way to capture American heritage and culture from East to West. In this blog, we will explore two more historical and prominent whiskey styles that are world renowned: Scotch and Irish Whiskey.

These two styles of whiskey are foundational to American Whiskey. Beginning in the early 18th century, multitudes of Scots and Scots-Irish began immigrating to America.  As a result, some of the traditional skills and techniques of distilling came with them. Hence, immigrants from these two countries introduced the whiskey distilling process to America. The value of these whiskey styles is grounded in history, culture, genealogical connections, and an appreciation for the quality of the craft.

Scotch Whisky vs Irish Whiskey

Scotland and Ireland are two of the most well-known Whisky/Whiskey producers in the world. The first distinction is the spelling of Whiskey/Whisky.  Both are the anglicized forms of the Gaelic word “uisge beatha” (pronounced “oosh-kie bah”). Gaelic is native to both Ireland and Scotland. One explanation is that the variation can be reduced to spelling inconsistencies, which were common prior to the 20th century.

A general distinction between these two styles is that Scotch is usually distilled twice and made completely from malted barley. Single malt dominates the market, but blends are also popular and made from a mixture of malted grains, always with some percentage of barley.

Irish whiskey, on the other hand, is mostly triple distilled, which makes it popular for its smoothness. It is also more likely to be made up of a combination of grains, not just barley. 

Inlay Pairing for Scotch or Irish Whiskey ring bases

When considering which inlay option to use with Scotch or Irish Whiskey ring bases, micro-tartan pattern ribbons come to mind. Plaids are an inseparable connection with both the Scots and Irish.

micro tartan pattern ribbons

Irish and Universal Tartans

Irish Whiskey barrels, such as Jameson, can be paired with the Irish National Tartan or any other universal tartan. The green and yellow in the Irish National Tartan looks amazing with both white or yellow gold inlays. Another angle to consider is ancestral lineage. Scottish Tartans also work well with Irish Whisky barrel woods for those of Scots-Irish descent. 

Scottish Tartans

There are many universal tartan choices, such as Scottish National, Flower of Scotland, and Black Watch. We also have examples of universal tartans on our Tartan History and Etiquette Blog. Universal tartans can be paired with your favorite Scotch Whisky barrel brand. We have many well-known brands from various regions to choose from.

If you’re wanting to match various Scottish Whisky brands with family clan tartans from the same regions, our Whisky Regions blog is a great resource. If personal ancestry research and associated family clan representation is of interest, then clan tartans will capture the significance of your connection.

Bringing Medieval History to Life

The following brief historical story helps connect the genealogy and culture to a Scotch Whisky distillery located in the region where it all began.

The King of the Isles (Scotland)

Somerled was born in the Norse-Gael world of Argyll early in the 12th century. He was the son of a Gaelic nobleman and a Norse mother, a typical union in those days. Somerled’s name means “summer wanderer”, which is a descriptive term/phrase for Vikings.

Somerled is credited with breaking the stranglehold of the Norse on Western Scotland and the Isles. There is a certain irony in this as he was himself Norse on his mother's side (and possibly in part on his father's side according to DNA studies). The independent kingdom he had briefly created was not to outlive him, but Somerled changed things for good.

The Battle of Epiphany (January 5-6, 1156) took place at night, in the dead of winter, in the open ocean somewhere off the coast of Islay. Some historians question how they managed to maneuver under oars (no sails were used during battle), in darkness, in wild winter seas, without most of their ships colliding or foundering. By dawn, both sides were exhausted, neither having won, so they agreed to make peace and divided up the sea kingdom between them.

The Battle of Epiphany was inconclusive, so the two leaders sat down and reached a compromise. But it was an uneasy peace, and two years later they were back at it again with a second sea battle. This time, the result was unquestionable. Somerled had smashed the Manx fleet, and Godred fled. By 1160, he had built an island empire that stretched the length of the west coast. In Gaelic, he was known as Righ nan Eillean "The King of the Isles".

After soundly defeating a large Viking raiding army on land and sinking their longboats, Somerled established a fleet of warships that could outmaneuver the Viking longboats. Somerled‘s fleet were not improvised copies of Viking longboats. They were Celtic style galleys (Gaelic naibhig or nyvaig) that were half the length of Viking longboats and had a rudder in the center aft instead of the Viking “steer board” on the right (starboard) side of the boat. Somerled is credited with inventing the central fixed rudder which was a major innovation to sea travel. Celtic seafaring was part of their culture long before Viking incursions.

Clan Donald (Descendants of Somerled, the Half-Norse and Celtic King)

Before many other clans rose to their height of power in the 16th century, Clan Donald was governing the western islands and its seas hundreds of years earlier. The name MacDonald translates to “children of Donald” which was named after Donald, the grandson of Somerled, the 12th century Gaelic hero and King of the Hebrides.

clan donald

After Somerled's death, his Kingdom was divided amongst his three sons from his marriage to Ragnhild. The descendants of Aonghus went on to form the Clan McRory; the descendants of Dughall went on to form the Clan MacDougall; and the descendants of Ragnald's son Donald would become the Clan Donald, who went on to found the Lordship of the Isles. Widespread DNA studies suggest that as many as 500,000 people living today are descended from Somerled. Some studies suggest many more. 

The Summer Wanderer Ring

This ring was Inspired by the 12th century Norse-Gaelic Warlord, Somerled, the Battle of Epiphany off the coast of Islay, and the Lords of the Isles (Clan MacDonald).

clan macdonald tartan and whiskey barrel wood ring

Ring Base

Founded in 1816, Lagavulin is one of nine world-renowned Scotch whisky distilleries located on the Island of Islay (pronounced eye-la). Islay distilleries are best known for their unique, peat smoked whiskies. Below is our Clan Donald (MacDonald) Micro Tartan Ribbon and Full Tartan Pattern ring. The ring base comes from a weathered Lagavulin Scotch Whisky barrel (from Islay, Inner Hebrides Islands). The ring liner is bloodwood, while the tartan inlay is the Clan MacDonald tartan of the Scottish Highlands and the dual metal inlay is bronze.

If you would like to see other similar rings we have available, check out our whiskey and tartan ring collections. You can also get started designing your own custom ring any time, made from either wood or titanium bands!

This article was written by Rustic and Main Ring Craftsman, David Lemmond. David is a former counselor turned expert ring maker. He has a love for history, particularly genealogy, and philosophy, and makes some of the best BBQ sauce on the planet.