Explore why Matt believes that we should do away with the dram in Irish whiskey and embrace our own native culture when it comes to Irish whiskey.
As many of you know, Scotch whisky holds the top spot for whisky sales around the world, since taking over the mantle from Irish whiskey producers in the 19th and 20th centuries, they have paved the way to distribution in nearly every country worldwide. Although, one of the industry’s most impressive feats, wasn’t their global distribution but in-fact the industry’s ability to imbue every whisky drinker in the world a Scottish phrase that is almost completely synonymous with Scotch whisky itself.
In, what must be heralded one of the most unintentional and successful marketing campaigns ever, the Scotch industry introduced the whisky world to the ways of Scottish hospitality and the concept of “coming in for a dram”. Now, back in the day, that dram could have been anything, as a dram was actually a scientific measurement that became a part of the vernacular to mean a small amount of alcohol. In-fact it wouldn’t have been uncommon for bars that sold spirits (liquor) to be called “dram shops”, which even influenced the naming of the American temperance movement’s “dram shop act”, that is still in legislature today.
Although, as this slang term grew in popularity it was becoming more common to describe Scotland’s native spirit. Eventually was carried to the United States with Scottish emigrants, where they imparted their terminology (and hospitality) to the American whisky drinker. The phrase travelled to the four corners of the United States and even further afield, quickly becoming the go to descriptor of a small amount of whisky. Today the term has grown into an almost universally accepted term to describe a “non-specific amount of Scotch whisky”, which is an amazing feat for the Scottish industry/people to have a universally identifiable one syllable word to relate to your entire industry.
So if I, a lover of liquid history and etymology, enjoys the history and simplicity of the dram, why then am I petitioning to do away with it? Realistically, I’m not at all. What I am trying to do instead is to do away with its use in relation to Irish whiskey. Because, in Ireland we do in-fact have our own version of ‘dram’ that comes directly from the Irish language and common speech. Although, I will preface what I am about to say by stating that the word has fallen on hard times due to the popularity of the ‘dram’ but I believe that it is a time to bring our word back to the fore and for it to make its resurgence.
The word in question is taoscán /Tash ~ Cawn/, audio aid (I use the Munster Irish pronunciation) and it also has its own etymological origin story like the word ‘dram’. For you see, the word taoscán has been used in households, bars and storytelling in Ireland for generations, and like ‘dram’ it holds multiple meanings depending on the context but commonly would have been used to refer to alcohol.
Like “dram” the word essentially means a “non-descript amount of something” and could have been used to refer to almost anything. For instance, a child on the farm may be asked by their parent to bring a taoscán of oats to the horses or if you were eating you could have asked for a taoscán of salt for your meal. Of course, being a versatile word it was also used to refer to alcohol. Asking your friends to go for a taoscán of uisce beatha (whiskey) wouldn’t have been uncommon at all. The phrase has never died out but and is still used in many of these situations in Ireland, but as Irish whiskey declined in the country, so too did our need to order a taoscán with your friends.
Now, it’s true that we can’t claim the same accolades as ‘dram’ having once been a scientific measure, but taoscán has most likely been in use in Ireland for as long as we have been making whiskey. As such, I don’t believe there is an argument not to utilise our native tongue when talking about our native spirit.
It developed on our island to perfectly describe a small glass of Irish whiskey and could be easily be owned by the Irish whiskey industry and its devoted fans to pay homage to its heritage and increase its authenticity. Now knowing that we have a phrase steeped in history and is literally the Irish version of ‘dram’, why would we not boast our own heritage when consuming our native spirit?
I plead with thee, to help revive our small piece of lost liquid history and the next time you invite your friends in for a drop of Irish, why not invite them in for a taoscán?
* Special thanks to Balvenie US National Ambassador Lorne Cousin for always being on hand to talk about drams and drink them in equal measure *
** Head line image rights: Irish Whiskey Glass Ltd, Tuath Glass Pictured **
Happy to support this move, though I associate with enough Scotch-drinkers that dram sometimes sneaks in anyway. And my go-to expression is probably ball of malt; hard to change habits at my age.
Ball of malt is a good one! Don’t worry! I don’t think we’ll change the world in a day! Thanks for the support
Taoscán, here in Mayo we use this word frequently – not with the ‘hard’ ‘t’ though..!
Say ‘hay’ then put a ‘t’ before it so taoscán now sounds like thay – scawn!! Now I must make a taoscán of tae for my bricfeasta!!
Delighted to get examples of common use and pronunciation! I have only encountered it in Cork and there was a harder S sound, almost SH sounding hence my pronunciation aid Tash ~ Cawn. Must make my way to Mayo for a few taoscáns and find the pronunciation differences myself
Firstly Matt, I am absolutely going to join you in advocating this and I think I have actually copied you in the past using this term. I have one question, what’s the plural? I imagine it’s the same i.e. “let’s go for a few taoscán” or if I wanted to Irish it up more and sound funny with an “í” at the end I’d guess “are you up for a cúpla taosciní” and I notice above you have said “taoscáns”. I just want to get this right 😆
Very interesting question haha I don’t know, I guess I made the assumption yo anglicise the plural with the taoscáns so I’m going to go with that for lack of anything better. But funny enough the plural of uisce beatha is fuisce which blew my mind so it could be anything knowing Irish haha
Will I get funny looks if I try it in a New York Irish pub?
Probably but maybe it will be s conversation starter
Consider it an opportunity for education.
I totally agree with you. I never use the word Dram when in IRL. Our own beautiful “taoscán” is the one to use. When giving tastings I refer to both and explain both. I well remember in our house and that of many neighbours men offering visitors a taoscán. One beauty of the word is that it translates to a “measure of imprecise quantity” how perfect when asking a mate if they would like a taoscán, as with Irish in general there I what is said, what hangs in the meeting of is uttered, and the look between the eyes of the people in the conversation. With all of that going on you will always pour the perfect taoscán for the occasion one finds themselves in. There is of course so many close connections between Scottish Gaelic and our own. So much shared history, there is a love between both and of both. Sláinte.
I enjoyed reading your blog and heartily support your suggestion in reviving the use of the term ‘toscán’, as it was perhaps one of few a Gaelic words which my maternal grandfather used when I was a child growing up in County Cork. He was born and raised in Blackpool by parents who migrated fron Newmarket in North Cork and Broadford in Limerick, before his father ( a cattle dealer/ farmer) purchased a farm in Glanmire. The greatgrandfather was also a great whiskey lover and when he moved to take over his deceased brothers farm in Mahon in Blackrock he became very good friends with his neighbour, a man named Mr. Murphy whose name appeared on the Padddy Whiskey bottle for years, as he worked for the producers. For the rest of his days my great grandfather received a gift of a bottle of whiskey once a month from Mr Murphy. I guess it was Paddy whiskey, but he had oceans of bottles in the basement. The house stood near where the Garde Station in Mahon stands these days and Mr. Murphy’s house was across the road, I think it’s still standing.
On the convers side by grad uncle Tommy Rocke was a famed Irish police detective sergeant who in partnership with another chap named Burke from Tipperary, a pair of teatotelling crusaders who garnered a reputation as incorruptible detectives in wageing war on prostitution and the embryonic mob. Tommy had come under the influence of his mother, a devotee of Fr. Matthews the temporance priest, and so Tommy took the pledge prior to emmigration to the states. Tommy once saved the life of Capone in his younger days, his only regret on retirement. Capone was a young punk whose associates had mistakenly shot and killed a police lieutenants son and Tommys colleagues had arrested Capone on suspicion of knowing something about the crime. Capone made admissions and was about to be taken out to be shot when Tommy visited the station while off duty on a Sunday to visit some other expat from the old country and chat about the GAA back home. Being a staunch Catholic and raised with strict morals Tommy couldn’t but intervene when he got wind of what the Captain and lieutenant and his colleagues were about to doo. So he went upstairs to the Captsins office where the Capt & lieutenant were loading an untracable gun and getting liquered up to doo the deed. There was no talking since so he kept pouring the whiskey into glasses and got both pathetic drunk. He them got some colleagues to ferry both officers to their homes after he secured the gun from them. Tommy knew Capone well and there was no love lost between them. Capone was released later that day and went on to become the bane of the lives of the Chicago Cops when Prohibition kicked in years later.
I could write a book and screenplay on the escapades of Burke & Roche and their exploits as maverick detectives who bucked the system of corropt policing during the hay day of the Prohibition era. In fact I plan to do just that once I finish my own tale in fictional form following my recent retirement from the force back home. Excuse my distressing but I was inspired by your use of the word ‘toscáin’ which I havn’t heard of in a long time.
PS: I once shared a whiskey with Jack Lynch when as a young rookie guarding his house in Dublin he invited me into his home and front sitting room to partake of a glass at Christmass time. Twas Paddy of course, as he was an honorary director of the Irish Distillers group at the time. He was a great gentleman and loved his glass of whiskey and put me at ease as I was mad anxious that my Inspector would admonish me for neglecting to stay at my pos out front. But Jack reassured me that he would deal with any issue that might arise and sure wasn’t I engaged in close personal protection, said he reassuringly with a grin. 😂 Sláinte!
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