On March 17, 1766, New York has its first Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.

At dawn in New York city on March 17, 1766, a group of Irish soldiers serving in the British Army marched and paraded with fifes and drums. Records suggest they were heading to the Crown and Thistle Inn on Whitehall Street, others that they blew into bagpipes. There are no records about the reaction of the locals to bagpipes at 5 am, but it was no doubt colorful. The revelers breakfasted and then “spent a joyous tho’ orderly evening at the house of Mr. Bardin in this city.” They gave speeches and offered toasts to various entities, including “the glorious memory of King William,” “the memory of the late Duke of Cumberland,” and “the Protestant Interest.” Their last two (19 & 20) toasts were “May the enemies of Ireland never eat the Bread not drink the Whiskey of it, but be tormented with itching without the benefit of scratching” and to “our Noble Selves.”   

This was fitting, as their noble selves had just put on the first Saint Patrick’s Day parade in New York City. It’s also probably the first time an angry New Yorker shouted “stick yon bagpipe up thine ass!” at Saint Patrick’s Day partiers. This celebration is nowhere near the first celebration for Saint Patrick in North America. A Saint Patrick’s Day celebration took place in St. Augustine, Florida in 1601. Probably marking the first time an Irish festival was celebrated while dodging alligators. There were celebrations in Boston in 1737, in New York in 1762, and at Fort William Henry in 1757. In 1778, George Washington, honorary member of the Friendly Sons of Patrick, issued an extra grog on Match 17 for his soldiers. In 1768, African slaves on the island of Montserrat planned an uprising on March 17, because they knew their Irish overseers would be drunk. The Irish got wise to the uprising and squashed it…and then got really drunk. The 1766 New York parade is arguably the beginning of Saint Patrick’s Day as a day of tipsy revelry, which primarily took place in Colonial America.

If you’ve never perused one of the 14,000 articles that come out about him between March 15th and March 17th every year, Saint Patrick is a fifth-century Anglo-Irish saint who is surrounded by myth. He rid Ireland of snakes, a feat made more impressive by the fact that no snakes existed there. I could be heralded for ridding the Czech Republic of tarantulas, but I don’t think I’d get a Saint Day. Saint Patrick is said to have brought Catholicism to Ireland and likened the triumvirate of the Catholic Church to the ubiquitous shamrock. There’s a pretty good chance he did neither, but evidently he had the same PR rep as a lot of Catholic saints. The real Patrick was born in Roman Britain and was kidnapped by Irish pirates. He spent six years as a slave in Ireland, where he spent much of his time looking after animals (not snakes). He eventually escaped back to Britain, but after he became a cleric he headed back to Ireland and became a bishop. By the seventh century he was the Patron Saint of Ireland.

Like many religious festivities that turned into booze fests (hello, Mardi Gras), Saint Patrick’s Day started out as a pious event. Pubs were closed in Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day until the 1970s. In 18th century Canada, the celebrations were temperate, pious, and probably very cold. Even in early America, the celebrations differed greatly between the two religious groups of Irish Americans. The Protestant celebrations were evidently formal, elite, and rife with speeches. In the afternoon, celebrants would go to mass and think about Saint Patrick. And as much fun as it is to think about a saint, America’s Irish Catholics had a different celebration in mind.  

Catholic St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were typically more working class and public, and they involved alcohol, green, and shamrocks. This seems to have carried over from traditions within Ireland that had been celebrated for at least a century. When Englishman Thomas Dineley travelled the island in 1681, he noted the three tenets of a Saint Patrick’s Day celebration were alcohol, wearing a green ribbon, and wearing shamrocks. They “drowned the shamrock” by placing the shamrock worn on their lapel in their beer, whiskey, or punch. St. Patrick’s Day would become a more festive occasion in America when it became considered a “day off” in the middle of Lent. Self-bans on alcohol and meat were encouraged to be lifted and Irish Catholics in America took advantage. This festive St. Patrick’s Day was propelled forward in America by heavy Irish Catholic migration and the rise of Independence movements and Irish patriotism societies. This took a step away from the Protestant celebrations in the mid-1700s and by the 19th century, the Catholic ones had all but taken over. In a word, for probably the first and last time in history, the Catholics were the fun ones.  

Even though it was a day celebrated with some booze, it still took quite a while for St. Patrick’s Day to be celebrated by those not Irish. The Irish had a tough time in early America, where they had been immigrating since colonial times. Though often educated and skilled workers, the Irish were seen as poor, diseased criminals. They had a weird religion and accents that were difficult to understand. They started showing up in droves in the 18th and 19th century and threatened to take jobs. Thus, early celebrations weren’t warm-hearted inclusive “everyone’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day” celebrations as much as they were the binding together of a marginalized people. As the Irish were eventually brought into the mainstream of society and culture, Saint Patrick’s Day began to be celebrated by those outside of the Irish community. This no doubt coincided with the explosion in sales of shamrock face stickers, novelty leprechaun hats, and green beer.

So, what to drink to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?

Not green beer.


The main alcohol of choice for New Yorkers in 1766 would have probably been rum. But the Irish were the progenitors of whiskey in America. Many Irish settlers kept going west, settling in Kentucky and western Pennsylvania, where they brought with them their knowledge and skill for distilling whiskey. This was popular with the frontiersman, who were far from the rum production and needed booze to deal with the harsh winters and Pittsburgh Steelers fans. Also, whiskey’s popularity didn’t suffer from the occasional slaughter by Native Americans pissed off about being jerked around and robbed by whites. Continental army soldiers were given 4 ounces of whiskey before battle, a great choice given that whiskey could make someone fist fight their grandmother for a piece of pizza. And it was the Irish who brought it to America.

So, while colonial America was buzzed up on rum, Saint Patrick’s Day revelers would probably have been tipsy on whiskey. If you want to try to stay authentic to the Irish whiskey of that time, you might want to go for a whiskey with oats. Traditional Irish whiskey is single pot still, which means it’s made by a single distillery from a mixed mash of malted and unmalted barley. The unmalted (green) barley gave it a spicy bite and a creamy texture. And until the mid-19th century, oats would have made up about 20% of some Irish whiskeys’ mashbills. In some whiskeys, the husks or hulls would have been used to add flavor and act as a natural filter system for the wort. Oats would have made a whiskey that was “heavier-bodied, richer, and more complex.”

Or, to put it in layman’s terms: Yummy!

A duty on malt in 1785 mostly led to cutting out oats and advances in distilling technology eventually killed off the pot still. So a glass of Irish whiskey 200 years ago would have been different than a contemporary one. But as contemporary whiskeys go, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Jamesons, Bushmills, or Powers. But for your body’s sake, avoid the Larry’s Whiskey-Drink for $2.50.  

Still, oats are making a bit of a comeback in the field of getting-you-drunk-enough-to-sing-Danny-Boy-at-a-piano-bar-with-your-high-school-gym-teacher. Some use 5% oats in the mashbill. Woodford Reserve’s Oat Grain Bourbon uses 18% oats. But if you want to stay as unique as possible to the Irish whiskey of yore, you may want to go with Emerald 1865 from Ransom Spirits. Though it’s an American whiskey, it is distilled using a 19th century Irish mash bill, using malted and unmalted barley, rye, and an estimated 15% of oats, not to mention that it’s distilled in direct-fire copper pot stills.

But it’s Saint Patrick’s Day, so don’t quibble over details. If you need oats with your whiskey, chase a shot with a bowl of porridge. Whichever whiskey you choose, raise a glass and drink to the bread and whiskey of Ireland, to knowing the pure joy of scratching an itch, and to your Noble Selves.

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