“Whiskey in the Jar” is the tale of a highwayman or footpad who, after robbing a military or government official, is betrayed by a woman. Whether she is his wife or sweetheart is not made clear. Various versions of the song take place in County Kerry, Kilmoganny, Cork, Sligo, and other locales throughout Ireland. It is also sometimes placed in the American South, in various places among the Ozarks or Appalachians, possibly due to Irish settlement in these places. Names in the song change, and the official can be a Captain or a Colonel, called Farrell or Pepper among other names. The protagonist’s wife or lover is sometimes called Molly, Jenny, Emzy, or Ginny among various other names. The details of the betrayal are also different, being either betraying him to the person he robbed and replacing his ammunition with sand or water, or not, resulting in his killing the person.
The song’s exact origins are unknown. The song first gains wide exposure when the Irish folk band The Dubliners perform it internationally as a signature song, and record it on three albums in the 1960s. In the United States, the song is popularized by The Highwaymen, who record it on their 1962 album Encore. Building on their success, the Irish rock band Thin Lizzy hits the Irish and British pop charts with the song in 1973. In 1990 The Dubliners re-record the song with The Pogues with a faster rocky version charting at No.4 in Ireland and No.63 in the UK. The American metal band Metallica brings it to a wider rock audience in 1998 by playing a version very similar to that of Thin Lizzy’s, though with a heavier sound, winning a Grammy Award for the song in 2000 for Best Hard Rock Performance.
Thin Lizzy’s 1972 single stays at the top of the Irish charts for 17 weeks, and the British release stays in the top 30 for 12 weeks, peaking at No. 6, in 1973. This version has since been covered by U2, Pulp (first released on a 1996 various artist compilation album Childline and later on deluxe edition of Different Class in 2006), Smokie, Metallica (Garage Inc. 1998, which wins a Grammy), Belle and Sebastian (The Blues Are Still Blue EP 2006), Gary Moore (2006), Nicky Moore (Top Musicians Play Thin Lizzy 2008), Simple Minds (Searching for the Lost Boys 2009), and Israeli musician Izhar Ashdot. The song is also on the Grateful Dead live compilation So Many Roads (1965-1995) disc five.