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Wednesday 29 April 2020



Aqua vitae (‘water of life’ in Latin) was the generic term for distilled spirits throughout the Roman Empire, widely used during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and translated into many languages. In Gaelic, it was uisge beatha, in Irish uisce beatha. Whisky connoisseur Charles MacLean says that this was Anglicised from uiskie (c.1618) to whiskie (1715) to whisky (1746). F Paul Pacult, the author of ‘A Double Scotch’, 2005, says that Aqua Vitae ultimately became whisky in 1736.

I found the spelling Whiskey equally common in those days. In fact, the Hansard of 1896 uses the term Whiskey. Whisky or whiskey is by convention, not law: the Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits (1908/09) spelt both Irish and Scotch with an ‘e’ throughout. Interestingly, it was the Irish Association headed by the 'Big Four' (John Jameson & Son, John Power & Son, George Roe & Co. and Willam Jameson & Co.) who argued before the Commission that their spirit was better than that distilled in Scotland and that the correct spelling was 'Whisky', to differentiate it from the inferior Scottish and English 'Whiskey'.Rather ironic, one would say, looking back today at facts as they lay.

Gavin Smith writes in his A-Z of Whisky: "The first use of Scotch with the sense of specifically relating to whisky occurs in 1855, 'while malt liquors give our Scotch and Irish whiskies”…

I have already written that at least 92 nations/nation-states around the globe are trying their hand at making and selling whisky. Of these countries, all but four spell Aqua Vitae ‘Whisky’. The term ‘Whiskey’ is used in Ireland (since 1960), Mexico and Peru and for most, but not all, American brands.

Albania, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chile, China, Corsica, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Israel, Ivory Coast, Japan, Kosovo, Latvia, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mongolia, Montenegro, Mozambique, Nepal, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Congo, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tanzania, Tasmania, The Philippines, Uruguay, Vietnam, Wales, Zimbabwe, Zambia & possibly a couple more spell it Whisky. 

The Americans keep their idiosyncratic asininity intact. George Dickel, Makers Mark, Old Forester and Rittenhouse Rye all use the “whisky” spelling for different reasons. Makers Mark uses the Scottish spelling of whisky as a nod to the Scottish heritage of their creator, T. William Samuels Sr. Similarly, George Dickel used this spelling because he believed his whisky was smooth and mellow like Scotch. Old Forester was produced before the “whiskey” spelling became mainstream in the US. Rittenhouse rye was originally produced by the Continental Distilling Corporation in Philadelphia, where they chose to drop the “e” for their rye ,but they kept the “e” for their bourbon. When Heaven Hill purchased the rights to Rittenhouse in the 1980s they kept that spelling.

The US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau always uses the 'whisky' sans the 'e'.

North Korea's Samilpo has two blends, Black Label @ 40% ABV and Red Label @ 42% ABV in 620 ml bottles that resemble the Johnnie Walker bottles, except for that odd volume. Their third brand at 45% ABV is expected soon. Other than the numbers in volume and ABV, nothing is in English; I suppose whisky would be right since Kim loves Trump! Or would it be the concerned writer’s choice?

87 or 88/92 should be above par for concluding that the global spelling of this type of alcoholic beverage is whisky. Except for morons! Yes, the Yanks are up to it again, forcing one into American spellings in the software in use and putting out, by default, their spellings. OK, grant them their peccadilloes, but can't we have a simple tab on the keyboard to choose Type of English?

Changing tack entirely, The East India Company (EIC), having first landed on Indian soil in 1608, stated that they were only a trading company. Accepted without demur, they showed their true intent as they slowly but surely realised that India was a divided country, involved in internecine squabbles. The Islamic Mughals ran their empire from Delhi, fought off invaders from Persia, and were involved in far too many petty skirmishes. Exploiting this divide, the Brits turned into rapacious plunderers, looting Indian states with gay abandon. Shashi Tharoor, a polemicist of renown, avers in the annual Oxford Debate (2015) that the British Raj became what it was till WWII off 43 trillion GBP looted from India over 200 years.

In 1765, the EIC had an irregular army of 20,000 with a few Civil Servants strung out over the country and company-appointed British Army Officers under the command of one Major-General Stringer Lawrence. This would imply that there would have been at least three Brigadier Generals, six Cols, twelve majors and 48 Capt/Lts then.

The British Parliament now needed to shelter their troops as they fought in the French War, and 10 years later, against the Americans. So, the Crown did what they liked to do and made a decision that benefited British troops. They enacted the Quartering Acts of 1765, which stated that inns, stables, taverns, and wineries were required to house troops at the discretion of a British officer. Troops were allowed to take as they pleased, which would run taverns and wineries dry. This facility was accorded to the East India Company’s British officers and troops as well.

The cost of quartering troops would often fall on the shoulders of local landowners and Rajas. Eventually, their expenses were reimbursed by colonial kingdoms — not the British government. Soon, British troops started taking refuge in private homes. Without fear of penalty, they could barge into your house, kick you out of your bed, take your food, and tell you that you'd (maybe) be paid back in a few months.

As their reach expanded over India from Peshawar in the north to Sind in the west (in Pakistan now) and Rangoon (Yangon) in the east to the recaptured Madras in the South along the eastern coastline, so did their Armies, reaching 200,000 by 1790 and 260,000 by 1803. They dominated the Muslims who constituted the majority of the populace north of a line joining Pune (Poona) on the western coast and Bhubaneswar on the eastern coast (part of the Bengal Presidency). They also controlled Punjab. By now, they had established over 45 Residencies, one in every princely state they took over, under Residents, a Civil Service officer who was boss of all he could see, helped by around 6,000 sepoys under British Officers. The officers were housed in Cantonments and the sepoys in adjuncts to the official Cantonment. As a composite army, it was complete, with Artillery, Cavalry, Infantry, Sappers/ Miners and Staff Corps in a Commissariat. The British had arrived, bringing their customs along. Their Officers’ Messes became the focal point for whist, croquet, dinner dances and dining-in nights with their G&Ts, Claret, Port and Madeira. Perhaps a cigar as well!

The Gwalior Residency was set up in 1782. The Resident had his own railway station, now used by the Army as their Institute (Club).

The word burra means big/large and chota means small. Both are obviously relative. The Sahib would dress for dinner and at 1830 hrs, order his first drink, a burra peg of whisky (Blended Malt) and a siphon of soda. A little white or red wine with dinner and a chota peg of French brandy/cognac thereafter. The Brits were not known to be moderate drinkers, happy with just the one burra peg.

The term burra/chota peg could not have come before 1765; in all probability, it would have been introduced circa 1780. The British Crown assumed direct control of the Indian subcontinent in the form of the new British Raj in 1858 when the East India Company mishandled the Indian uprising of 1857. It assumed the Company's governmental functions and absorbed its navy and its armies. Blended Scotch would have arrived in 1860-61, initially in limited quantities, the volume increasing with time and expansion of the Industry post-1863.

The standard term ‘peg’ is a vestige of British colonialism and was/is used extensively in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and eastern Asia, i.e., wherever there were Indians to be found.

Starting in 1780, the only term used to define volume in the Indian Defence, Paramilitary and Police Forces was/is a peg. This is because the British overlords had decreed that every soldier/sailor would be issued four pegs of Rum every evening, requiring them to define the volume of a peg. 

When dealers in potable spirits changed over to glass bottles circa 1780-1810, the largest bottle suitable for enclosing spirits was a function of the type of furnace, the material used and the glassblower's lung capacity and dexterity. Most bottles came out in the 26.5-27.0 fluid-ounce capacity. The invention of the automatic glass bottle-blowing machine in 1880 industrialised the process of making bottles and sizing on demand.

One 26½ oz (750 ml) bottle was taken to hold 26 pegs, mathematically working out to 28.8 ml/peg. The 26½ oz bottle was thirteen (13) fingers tall, with a few ml (1/2 oz) left over at the very top of the neck. This extra 1/2 oz was then considered a provision made for evaporation in the Raj’s hot weather and spillage; the hourglass-shaped ‘peg measure’ poured out just that bit less. The standard measure then became 28.4 ml, one Imperial ounce. The field ration was thus two fingers in height, from the top of the forefinger to the underside of the middle finger when held horizontally across a bottle (four pegs).

In the Punjab of yore, the hefty Sardars (Sikhs) refused to accept the then piffling ration. The Maharaja of Patiala, with one eye on the British, solved this problem by a covert redefinition of the peg. He ruled that all Sikhs would be given two “Patiala pegs.” A Patiala peg is the amount of liquor poured into a standard glass and equal to the height between the top of the index finger and the bottom of the little finger of the stoutest Sardar around when held parallel to one another across the sides of the bottle. The middle and ring fingers would be folded inwards, so the basic tenet of two-finger rationing was observed, if only in spirit.

Today, a peg that represented 28.4 ml, one Imperial ounce, or 29.57 ml (one US oz) has been increased to 30 ml for convenience in bars on civvy street.


Weights and Measures in the USA

The United States uniqueness is reflected in omnifarious facets of life. Consider units of measurement. While most nations use the metric system, the US retains, for the most part, its own standardised system, often, and erroneously, referred to as the Imperial system. In truth, the US uses the US Customary System, which was standardised decades before the British Imperial System. However, the two have similar roots that have fed into their shared units. 

How Units of Measurement Were Created 

Units of measurement have been around since the early days of civilisation. They were, much like everything else at the time, birthed out of necessity. Without shared units to define quantifiable goods, there can be no basis for commercialism or trade. Therefore, units of measurement were needed as populations swelled and measurements were needed for common exchanges. They also helped in comprehending the world around us.

Traditionally, archaic units of measurement were based on the parts of the body. This makes sense for several reasons. Firstly, when you are perceiving the natural world, the easiest method of engaging with space is with your body parts, specifically your hands and arms. Furthermore, these units would be similar person-to-person, considering that people of similar backgrounds and builds would be performing similar construction or other tasks requiring measurements. However, there likely were issues with accuracy. It is also important to consider that measurements with the arms and hands simplified the entire process, as you always had your measuring tool with you.

Some early units of measurement included the digit (the width of the finger, now about 0.75 inch), the palm (width of the palm, now about 3 inches), the span (width of the outstretched hand, from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the finger, or 3 palms or 9 inches), and the cubit (length of the forearm, approximately 18 inches.) These practices fed into what would eventually become British Imperial and US Customary units, but the manner in which they developed is dependent on the varied history and peoples of Ancient Britain.

History of English Units

During the Bronze Age, the Celtic Britons infiltrated modern-day Britain. A lot of cultural detail has been lost about the Celts, but it is possible that some of their measurement units influenced modern systems.

Starting around 450 CE, Germanic tribes invaded England, displacing the Briton population. With these tribes in control, Anglo-Saxon England saw distance measurements that have persisted until today. The inch (ynce) was the length of 3 barleycorns, an amount that actually is remarkably close to its current length. They also used several foot measurements, with one being equal to 12 inches, but another, which consisted of two shaftments, equalled 13 inches. The Saxon unit for area was the acre, which also retains its usage in almost all English-speaking countries. The word “acre” literally meant “field,” and this unit was considered a field the size that a farmer could plough in a single day.

In historical England, various units of weight were related as multiples of the grain, which was originally the weight of one barleycorn. For volume, the gallon was utilized. Originally, it was the volume of eight pounds of wheat. Larger volumes of liquids may have been carried in hogsheads, a unit of volume that unsurprisingly has vanished from common use. In 1066, the Normans invaded England. Hailing from France and having a blend of Norse Viking, Frankish, and Gallo-Roman ancestry, the Normans retained a lot of Saxon culture, such as units of measurement. All land in England was measured traditionally by the rod (gyrd), an old Saxon unit about equal to 20 feet. 40 rods made a furlong (fuhrlang), the length of a traditional furrow ploughed by ox teams on Saxon farms. Norman kings fixed the length of the rod at 5.5 yards, which is still unchanged today.

The Normans also brought numerous Roman units to England. Please note, however, that the Romans invaded England throughout Celtic times, so these units of measurement may have been acquired through numerous means. For example, the mile is a Roman unit, originally defined as the length of 1000 paces of a Roman legion. Eventually, in 1592, the British Parliament set the length of a mile at 8 furlongs—5280 feet. The Normans also brought to England the Roman tradition of the 12-inch foot. When this became official, Norman King Henry I ordered the construction of 3-foot standards, which were called yards.

In fact, according to legend, King Henry I decreed that the yard was the distance from the tip of his nose to the end of his outstretched thumb. In reality, however, this is unlikely, as both the foot and the yard were based on the Saxon ynce, the foot at 36 barleycorns and the yard 108.

The pound was also a Roman measurement, originally 12 ounces, but later shifted to 16 after a preference by European merchants. Ultimately, Saxon, Norman, and Roman influences shaped the English units, as they were called. These were used in both Great Britain and the American Colonies.

Standardisation of Units in the Early United States

However, there was an even wider influence on American units of measurement than there was in Britain. Even before the American Revolution, the colonists were faced with a hodgepodge of units of measurement from England, Holland, France, and Spain. Such preponderance, coupled with nationalistic obduracy, created a great deal of confusion.

It wasn't surprising that measurements weren’t always the same between colonies. One telling example is the measure 'bushel'. In Connecticut, a bushel was 28 pounds. In New Jersey, a bushel was larger, at 32 pounds. Ultimately, after independence, the states developed uniform weights and measurements. This birthed the US Customary System.

Differences Between US Customary and British Imperial Units

To add to the divide between formerly English units, the British Imperial System was established in 1824. This made some specific changes to the existing units from which the US system had derived. Furthermore, the Mendenhall Order of 1893 defined the US yard and pound, as well as related US Customary units, in terms of the metric meter and kilogram. Therefore, there is no longer any direct relationship between US Customary and Imperial units of the same name.

Regardless, the US Customary and British Imperial Systems remain almost identical. The most substantial differences are found in volume. There are differences in the following:

  • The British Imperial fluid ounce is equal to 28.413 millilitres, while the US Customary fluid ounce is 29.573 ml.
  • The British Imperial pint is 568.261 ml (20 fluid ounces), while the US Customary pint is 473.176 ml (16 fl oz).
  • The British Imperial quart is 1.13 litres (40 fl oz), while the US Customary quart is 0.94 L (32 fl oz).
  • The British Imperial gallon is 4.54 L (160 fl oz), while the US Customary gallon is 3.78 L (128 fl oz).

Throughout the 1900s, the United Kingdom underwent significant metrification. As a result, the Imperial System’s official usage in the UK is confined to the above units for volume, as well as miles per hour (MPH) for vehicle speed. In the US, the US Customary units retain usage for commercial and everyday purposes. However, in both nations, the metric system generally is heralded for scientific measurements. 

US Customary Units

Even though the US Customary and Imperial Systems are not used internationally, there is a need to comprehend their equivalents in the metric system. Some common conversions include 1 yard=0.9144 meter, 1 lb=0.45359237 kilogram, 1 joule=1 watt second, and 1 Newton=0.224809 pound force. In some cases, the reciprocals make more sense: 1 meter = 1.094 yards; 1 Kg = 2.204 lbs.

Please note that mechanical units in inches (e.g. for fasteners) are sometimes referred to colloquially as SAE units. This derives from ANSI-accredited standards developing organisation SAE International, which traditionally used the US Customary System. However, SAE has since switched to metric for specifications in its standards.

Addenda courtesy blog: US Customary System: An Origin Story of June 18, 2018 Brad Kelechava