The Vikings had a significant drinking culture, and whiskey may have been a part of it.
Vikings almost certainly enjoyed whisky towards the end of their reigns in Ireland and England. Monks began to brew early versions of whiskey in the 11th Century, in both Ireland and Scotland, when the Viking communities spread there. According to one unproven theory, the Norse brought fermentation technology with them from the Middle East.
Vikings invaded and settled in various parts of Europe and even North America. There is evidence they enjoyed different local alcoholic drinks.
Vikings and Alcohol
Feasting and drinking were an essential part of Viking culture. According to their religion, the gods rewarded great warriors for their bravery by granting them admittance into Valhalla.
Valhalla was the Viking version of paradise, which was a giant hall in the realm of Asgard. In this place, the god Odin ruled, and the warriors would battle all day and eat and drink all night.
But the Vikings liked to drink in this world as well. Every jarl worth his salt had a longhouse or mead hall to host feasts. The longhouse was a building containing one single large room, containing a single long table.
At night, Vikings could be seen raising their trademark drinking horns filled with mead or ale. However, during the day, the building would often serve as an official reception hall, where lords and kings would receive their subjects.
Aside from hosting feasts, the jarls would gather the men for drinking events called a sumbel. All those gathered would drink rounds, preceded by toasts to the gods and ancestors. The sumbel was a crucial part of the Norse social fabric.
What Did Vikings Like to Drink?
Like other people in medieval times, Vikings drank alcohol all the time. Water supplies were often contaminated, and alcoholic drinks were often the only reliable source of hydration.
Ale was likely the drink most commonly consumed by Vikings. The drink is made by boiling grain in water, and it is a cheap and efficient form of refreshment. Researchers believe that they drank low alcoholic “small beer” during the day and broke out heavier ales with 10% alcohol and more in the evening.
On special occasions, the Vikings would break out the mead. This drink is far more expensive to make because it contains large amounts of honey.
Mead also had religious connotations. It was said that Odin drank the mead of poetry and gained the gift of understanding.
Newlyweds traditionally imbibed it in the first month of their marriage. That practice provided the basis for the concept of a ‘honeymoon.’
The Vikings also loved wine. They often lived-in climates that were not conducive to vineyards. They could often only gain access to wine through trade. Therefore, in cold climates, the wine was only drunk by the nobility. When Vikings settled in warmer climates, like Italy or France, they planted vineyards wherever possible.
The Vikings and the Roots of Whiskey
According to Irish tradition, monks brought the art of distillation from Arabia back to the homeland in the 7th Century. The tale is unconfirmed, but a distilled drink that bypassed grapes’ need was likely made in Ireland long before the first recorded use of the word whiskey in 1494.
An alternative theory credits the Vikings for inventing the popular drink. The Vikings were famed warriors and were hired by influential leaders far and wide.
One group ended up working for the Byzantine Empire in Syria. The arts of fermentation were known to the Arabs of the time, and the Vikings may have learned them there and later applied them in the Norse settlements of Ireland.
There is evidence that specific Vikings who spent time in the Middle East later lived in Ireland. According to Gerald of Wales, a Viking called Sitric arrived in Waterford in 853 after serving the Byzantine emperor. That bit of information is confirmed by the discovery of 9th Century Syrian coins in Waterford as well.
Whether the origin of whisky is Nordic or not, the Viking settlement era in Ireland and Britain ended in the 12th Century. Monks in Ireland and later Scotland preserved and perfected the art of distillation until it led to the creation, we call whiskey.
The Scots and the Irish are rightfully proud of creating one of the most popular (and expensive) drinks in the world. However, the origins of the drink may be more Nordic than they would like to admit.