THE DRIVING WAS making me want whiskey. As the oncoming semitruck barely missed hitting me on the narrow Irish road, it was all I could do not to yank the car to the left, which would have sent me careening into one of the centuries-old oak trees lining the shoulder, before ricocheting into the adjacent meadow and quite possibly taking out a sheep or two along the way.
Instead of cursing the truck, I cursed my GPS. The 21stcentury driving companion had been a godsend to this point, serenely navigating me through the hills and dales of central Ireland in my quest to learn about Irish whiskey. No need to fuss with maps — my globally positioning gal Friday patiently explained the lay of the land, thoughtfully gathering her coordinates before commenting (without judgment) that I missed a critical turn or was driving in the wrong direction around a roundabout, while I focused on the business of mastering a stick shift with my left hand and remembering to look up and left for the rear view.
Something changed between Tullamore and Mallow. My assumed route as I headed south to County Cork was motorway all the way. M-roads had been my friend until now, as I confidently zoomed along in my TDI at 120 kilometers an hour, admiring the emerald-olive hues of the rolling landscape punctuated by swatches of brilliant yellow mustard fields, beneath a teetering sky of swirling-dervish clouds. I faithfully heeded my GPS instructions as I departed the Tullamore Distillery, but soon found myself zigzagging through a tangle of country lanes, debatably labeled twoway roads. Views? I’m sure there were plenty, but I was so intent on following my course, swerving past oncoming cars, rounding blind bends, buzzing hedges and crumbling stone walls, I had no idea what the scenery looked like. With too much frequency, a lumbering truck or chugging tractor presented itself, challenging me to pass it on a meager stretch of straight and narrow. That last sip of whiskey I had in Tullamore was a distant memory. I wanted another.
How did I arrive in this whiskey-craving predicament? A self-proclaimed whiskey doubter, I’d recently realized in a moment of self-reflection (that unflinching by-product of age) that my opinion was completely uninformed — shaped by hazy high school memories colored by poor social choices and tepid seven-and-sevens. Whiskey is fashionable now, enjoying a resurgence in popularity with new creatively crafted cocktails and paired with food. Declaring a categorical dislike of the barley-grain spirit was akin to stating a sweeping dislike of, well, fruit or bread. Whiskey’s flavor and blends are numerous and nuanced, with hints of sweet, spice, wood and smoke, while its history is tinged by wars, feuding clans, bootleggers and famines. If whiskey were a person, I would invite it to dinner to get to know it better. So, I decided to go to Ireland and start a relationship.
Politics, Religion and Whiskey
Bags and ibuprofen packed, I headed off to the source — at least according to the Irish. The origin story for whiskey is somewhat murky in the British Isles. Opinions vary depending on which side of the sea you sit, and as in politics and religion, there are many points of view — and everyone is right. Distillation methods can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages, with all sides laying claim. The Irish will tell you that their monks introduced whiskey-making to the Scottish highlands, when, following the dissolution of the monasteries in the late Middle Ages, Irish monks became the craft distillers of their era, traveling to Scotland and spreading the spirit love. Meanwhile, in Ireland the Old Kilbeggan Distillery was established as the first licensed distillery in 1757, and from there distilleries were born on both sides of the Irish Sea.
As luck would have it, Ireland proved the perfect place for me to get to know whiskey, thanks to two significant factors that influence its brand of spirit. The first is that Irish whiskey is triple distilled, yielding a smooth and clean taste, which is an inviting starting point for novice drinkers. The second is that Ireland has the dubious luck of a consistent rainy and cool climate, which is very conducive to whiskey production — and to whiskey drinking.
And a drink was exactly what I needed by the time I reached Mallow, a provincial market town on the northern edge of County Cork, where I promptly got lost in its labyrinth of streets lined with half-timbered shops and pubs encircling the old Mallow Castle. After a few spins around the center (some intentional, some not), my GPS pulled through and navigated me to the outskirts of town and my destination for the night, Longueville House, a Georgian Heritage mansion perched on a grassy knoll with idyllic views over the sweeping valley to the south.
With relief I relinquished my car to the grassy car park bordering the property’s working farm and said good-night to my GPS. I wheeled my suitcase up to the limestone steps in the company of an affable saddleback pig and her two piglets, who trotted along on the opposite side of the fence, designating themselves my unofficial welcome committee. I checked into my second-floor room with a view that would make E.M. Forster envious, then wandered around the extensive grounds, exploring the walled kitchen gardens and orchards. That evening under the watchful eyes of the house’s framed patriarchal O’Callaghan clan adorning the dining room walls, I enjoyed a field-to-table dinner of fresh black-water river salmon and garden-plucked vegetables, before retiring to the drawing room to practice the whiskeytasting techniques I had learned earlier in the day.
Ensconced in a plush armchair beside the fire, with more extended family members eyeing me from portraits checkering the walls, I ordered a snifter of Kilbeggan. The snifter is a plump glass with a wide bottom that allows a greater surface area of the whiskey to evaporate and a narrow top that catches its aroma. A little water mixed in helps to open up the flavor of the whiskey, as does warmth — so no ice. I swirled the golden liquid in the glass, releasing its aroma, and took a breath: honey, vanilla, almond. I had a sip without taking in any air, and let the whiskey sit on my tongue, detecting a hint of spice, and then I swallowed: smooth, clean, light and fresh. I took another sip and then another — I was getting very used to this — until my glass was empty, and I called it a night.
The following day I woke refreshed and ready to continue my whiskey tour. First, I needed breakfast — and a proper Irish breakfast at that. I rejoined my portraited dining companions and tucked into a fortifying feast of oatmeal, fruit, scones, eggs, bacon, ham and sausage and tried not to think about my porcine welcome. On my departure the doorman suggested I stop in the village of Blarney en route to Cork, where I could visit the Blarney Castle and give its magical stone a kiss. He explained that the gift of eloquence is bestowed upon those who kiss it, and my ears perked up,because I love gifts. He continued to explain that the only way to kiss the stone is to hang upside down at the highest point of the castle in order to reach the lucky rock with an inverted kiss, and I realized I would need a gift to overcome vertigo first to make this happen. Instead, I decided to avert any vertiginous challenges, especially on a full stomach, in preparation for more whiskey tasting at Jameson, the next stop on my tour.
The Jameson Distillery is located in the east Cork town of Midleton, and it’s well worth the trip. The sense of heritage is palpable, with original buildings dating back to 1795, a water wheel that turns to operate the cogs and wheels in a mill building, and a still house, the home of three original copper pot stills — one of them the largest pot remaining in existence, holding up to 31,000 gallons. An impressive tour through the cooperage and warehouse revealed hundreds of barrels under lock and key and finished with a comparative tasting between Irish, Scotch and Bourbon whiskeys.
What Is the Difference?
In the simplest of terms, the differences between whiskeys are geography, spelling and ingredients. Whiskey is the overarching term, while Scotch whisky (without an “e”) is made in Scotland, and Bourbon whiskey is made in the U.S. Both Irish whiskey and Scotch are made from malted (soaked and germinated) barley or a blend of grains, and Bourbon is distilled from corn. The malted barley in Scotch is dried over bricks of smoldering peat, which gives it a characteristic smoky aroma. The malted barley in Irish whiskey is kiln-dried and rarely peated (Connemara is Ireland’s only peated whiskey) and has no smoky characteristics. I voted for the smooth and honeyed team and departed Jameson’s an Irish whiskey convert.
The next stop on my whiskey tour was Dublin, but that required a three-hour drive, and I had been tasting whiskey, so I decided to make a night of it in on the southeastern coast. Luckily, there is no shortage of accommodation in the region — from castle deluxe (Castlemartyr Resort) to sumptuous country house (Ballymaloe House) to plenty of cozy independent bed-and-breakfasts sprinkled in between. I wanted food first and headed to the Midleton farmers’ market, one of the largest and most famous markets in Ireland, where I ogled elderberries and black currants, farmhouse cheese and heritage meats, pasties and scones, before settling on smoky fish cakes and mackerel pâté from Belvelly Smokehouse, the only traditional timber smokehouse in Ireland where fish are hung for smoking. From there I drove along increasingly narrowing roads, winding through farmland and thatched-roof villages to the sandy beaches of Ballycotton, before turning north on the coast road. I passed the tiny village of Youghal, a Norman walled port, and arrived in Ardmore, a seaside resort and fishing village believed to be the oldest Christian settlement in Europe and home to the Cliff House, my destination for the night.
The Spirit of Dublin
The following day I headed straight to Dublin, where I bade a final farewell to my car and faithful GPS. Dublin was traditionally the heart of Irish whiskey production. By the 19th century John Jameson and John Power had established Irish whiskey as a formidable export and dozens of distilleries were clustered in a one-mile radius in the city, dubbed the golden triangle. The 20th century took its toll on the industry, in large part to due to wars at home and abroad, American Prohibition and the Great Depression. The number of distillers dwindled and those few that remained merged and eventually moved to Midleton by the midcentury. Dublin’s Old Jameson Distillery was one of the last distilleries to close in the ’70s (it is now an exhaustive whiskey museum), and since then there has not been any whiskey distillation in Dublin — until now.
Located in the ancient Newmarket Square, a stone’s throw from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Teeling Whiskey Company is bringing craft distillery back to Dublin. Founded by descendants of Walter Teeling, who set up a craft distillery in Dublin in 1782, Teeling represents the best of new Irish whiskey, with a young, forward-thinking, entrepreneurial spirit balanced by a deep respect for heritage. This spirit is apparent in Teeling’s state-of-the-art distillery and is embodied in its whiskeys, blended by an American microbrewer from Oregon. In the industrial-chic tasting room with oversize keyhole windows overlooking the busy market square, I had a taste of the small-batch whiskey. Vanilla and spice notes mingled with hints of rum from the barrel aging. The flavor was bright, sweet and smooth — the unique Irish character to which I’d grown accustomed. The Teeling story is an Irish story at heart, one of resurgence, reinvention and adaptation, which captures the spirit of the Irish whiskey industry as a whole. Luckily, my original opinion of whiskey had also been reinvented and adapted, and I can safely say I have learned to love Irish whiskey. My tour may have been a brief sip, but I’ll be back for more.
IF YOU GO
DINGLE DISTILLERY Located on the west coast of Ireland in County Kerry, the distillery is a small artisan whiskey distillery producing malt and pot still whiskeys since 2012. dingledistillery.com
KILBEGGAN DISTILLERY An hour west of Dublin in County Westmeath, this distillery was built in 1757 and is the oldest continually licensed distillery in Ireland. kilbeggandistillery.com
OLD BUSHMILLS DISTILLERY The classic is located on the beautiful north coast of Country Antrim in Northern Ireland. bushmills.com
TEELING DISTILLERY Located in Newmarket Square, Teeling is Dublin’s first craft distillery to open since the demise of the Irish whiskey industry in the mid-20th century. teelingwhiskey.com
THE JAMESON EXPERIENCE Jameson is located in Midleton, County Cork, east of Cork City, in the old Cork Distilleries Company distillery. jamesonwhiskey.com
TULLAMORE DEW HERITAGE CENTER Located 15 minutes south of the Kilbeggan Distillery in Tullamore, County Offaly, the center is housed in an 1897 bonded warehouse from the original D.E. Williams Distillery in Tullamore. tullamoredew.com
Aer Lingus has daily direct flights between SFO and Dublin, aerlingus.com
Ballymaloe House — Shangarry, County Cork, ballymaloe.ie
Castlemartyr Resort — Castelmartyr, County Cork, castlemartyrresort.ie
Longueville House — Mallow, County Cork, longuevillehouse.ie
The Cliff House Hotel — Ardmore, County Waterford, thecliffhousehotel.com
The Fitzwilliam Hotel — Dublin City, fitzwilliamhoteldublin.com
The Morrison Hotel — Dublin City, morrisonhotel.ie