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Why Do We Drink Whiskey on St. Patrick’s Day?

In the United States, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with green clothes, potted shamrocks, and perhaps an inadvisable amount of Guinness or Jameson. But there’s a lot more to the holiday than that—although drinking has been part of the day since the very beginning.

The history of St. Patrick’s Day stretches all the way back to the 17th century, and it’s a religious holiday at heart. March 17th is the feast day of St. Patrick, the fifth-century Christian missionary who became the patron saint of Ireland.

St. Patrick himself was from Britain (although technically, he was a Roman citizen, because Britain was part of the Roman Empire in those days). As a young man, it’s believed that Patrick was captured by the Irish and transported to Ireland, which was not part of the Roman Empire, where he spent time working as a slave. Eventually, he was released, found his way back to Britain, and became a priest.

McMenamins Devil's Bit Whiskey 2016
Oregon’s St Patricks Day whiskey McMenamins Devil’s Bit 2016 alongside the beer who’s barrel it aged in. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

You’d think after being enslaved, Patrick would never want to set foot in Ireland again, but you’d be wrong. Instead, he went back, this time as a missionary, with the intention of spreading the gospel to those pagan Irish. One could debate whether this was motivated by an attitude of piety, or revenge.

In any case, he’s credited with being the first to introduce Christianity to Ireland, and there’s a famous story that he “drove the snakes” out of Ireland. He died on March 17th, which is why we honor him on that day.

So how does the drinking come in? Well, March 17th is smack dab in the middle of Lent, a time when observant Christians often refrain from indulgences like eating meat or drinking alcohol. But the church makes an exception for St. Patrick’s Day, which means the day has been associated with drinking—especially beer and whiskey, Ireland’s two native drinks—since the very beginning.

So rest assured: while the goofy novelty hats and dyed green rivers may not be “authentic,” when you pour yourself a glass of Irish whiskey on St. Patrick’s Day, you’re celebrating the holiday in a very traditional way.

Margarett Waterbury

Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is the former managing editor of Edible Portland, as well as a cofounder and former managing editor of The Whiskey Wash. In 2017, Margarett won the Alan Lodge Young Drinks Writer of the Year award. She received a fellowship for the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in 2017 and 2019.

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