Irish Whiskey Tour

At a time when the Irish economy has taken the mother of all beatings, the success of whiskey is a bright light.

They say Guinness tastes better in Ireland, and the faceless, nameless, ubiquitous ‘they’ are right, as usual. There’s a logical reason: Guinness is actually made in Ireland. Outside the country, it might have been made under licence as far afield as Nigeria.

There’s something about drinking the national drop in situ. I had my first pint of Guinness in an atmospheric little pub called Shirley’s in the village of Kells in County Kilkenny. It was an epiphany. The bitter, medicinal muck I remembered from a sip of a boyfriend’s Guinness long ago had magically given way to something aromatic, fortifying and immensely enjoyable.

So, sitting in another terrific tiny pub in another Irish village, about to taste another native drink  Irish whiskey – you’d think I’d be ready for another life-changing draught. And I should be. For a start, my surname is Jameson, the same name as Ireland’s most famous whiskey. However, I’ve never been a whisky drinker, let alone a ‘whiskey’ drinker (according to the spelling of the Irish version). If Guinness was medicinal, then whiskey, to me, was hospital grade: strong, burning and nose-holdingly unpalatable.

Here in Ballyvaughan in County Clare, I sit at the bar in O’Loclainn’s with six glasses lined up before me, each waiting to be filled with different whiskies. In the name of research  and, of course, politeness  I have to at least try the contents. Heidi Donelon beams like a proud mother, flanked by six gleaming bottles of the liquid she’s about to pour for me, which she lovingly spends her life promoting.

When we were introduced, her eyes lit up. “That’s quite a name!” she said. She told me the poet James Joyce was so proud to share his initials with whiskey maker John Jameson that he had his wallet engraved with JJ in the same typeface as the Jameson logo. “People do call me JJ,” I said, raising an eyebrow. I am one to look for positive signs. I’d started to feel a bit more primed for this whiskey caper.

In 2009 Donelon founded The Ireland Whiskey Trail, an online touring guide to Ireland’s distilleries and best whiskey pubs, bars and shops. It includes maps, contact numbers, addresses, anecdotes, names of resident expertseverything short of what to do for a whiskey hangover.

The depth of information Donelon provides shows just how passionate she is, and her hard work was rewarded last year when she was short-listed as Whisky Ambassador of the Year by Whisky Magazine.

Donelon also does private tastings. However, mostly she’s all about getting people onto The Ireland Whiskey Trail. Donelon gives me a little background before I set off on the tour. “Ireland is credited with having invented whiskey,” she says. “Ireland dominated the whiskey world in the 19th century, but because of political and economic turmoil  Ireland’s war of independence and civil war, prohibition in America, the trade war with Great Britain and Scotland’s ability to produce whiskey cheaper and faster by creating blended whiskies  we Irish completely lost our dominance.”

While that’s not necessarily going to change any time soon  Scotch is, after all, an interchangeable term for whiskey  the global success of Irish whiskey in the past 15 years means it is now one of the fastest growing spirit categories in the world.

Jameson is one of the big sellers. There are only four whiskey distilleries in Ireland, but at a time when the Irish economy has taken the mother of all beatings, the success of whiskey is proving to be a bright light amid the bad news. 

If there’s one thing that’s as sure as Irish grass is green, it’s the Irish ability to rise above troubles. The country remains an effervescently fun, outrageously beautiful, ridiculously welcoming place for visitors. And Donelon’s whiskey trail is a great way to get to know it. There are no fewer than 50 sites on Donelon’s tour map, including a handful of real highlights.

The trail has no beginning and no end, but if it was to have a starting point, it could very well be the famous Temple Bar in Dublin, simply because it’s so renowned, even featuring in Guinness’ global marketing campaign.

Anyone who’s been to Dublin knows The Temple Bar is one of the liveliest pubs in the capital. Dating back to 1840, it once bottled its own whiskey. Now it has Ireland’s largest collection of whiskies – more than 450 bottles of the stuff, albeit from Ireland, Scotland and beyond. If Dublin is your one and only stop and you really want a bottle of Irish whiskey to take home as a souvenir, look no further than here – simply ask to see the off-licence price list. Or visit The Old Jameson Distillery, on Bow Street on the north side of the city, which was founded in 1780. These days it’s a tourist attraction offering tours and tastings.

To the north of Dublin in County Westmeath is one of the two Cooley distilleries, which between them produce four Irish whiskies. Cooley’s Kilbeggan facility, once a family-owned operation that ceased production in 1957, was reopened in 1988. Since then, Cooley – Ireland’s only independent producer of whiskey – has gone from strength to strength.

“We’ve been the driving force behind the emergence of Irish single grains and malts,” says Cooley’s marketing manager, Rachel Quinn, adding that the company has won more than 300 international awards for its whiskies and has been named distiller of the year by a number of prestigious bodies. 

Cooley makes the Greenore Single Grain, Connemara Peated Single Malt, The Tyrconnell and Kilbeggan whiskies. It’s at Kilbeggan, now one of the oldest functioning distilleries in the world, that you can watch the process and, importantly, enjoy a tasting.

Heading south, drop by The Brewery Tap “drinking emporium” in Tullamore, County Offaly, with its sign outside proclaiming, “Give every man his Dew.” Tullamore Dew is the whiskey responsible for first turning Donelon’s head. After Jameson, Tullamore Dew and Bushmills are arguably the most popular whiskies. “Until I tried Tullamore Dew, I thought I didn’t like whiskey,” Donelon says. 

The Tap stocks the rare 10-year-old Tullamore Dew blend and the 10-year-old Tullamore Dew Single Malt. Indeed, it stocks every Tullamore Dew whiskey, including the Distillery Reserve edition, which is otherwise only available at the nearby Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre.

In the south, Malone’s Galtee Inn in Cahir, South Tipperary, has been in the Malone family for three generations. John Malone, the current licensee, has a great collection of Irish whiskies, including special ones such as Midleton 25-year-old Pure Pot Still.

“I’m the only bar in Ireland with the full selection of fancier Irish whiskies. I have the Dungourney,” says Malone. That’s something to boast about. Laid down in 1964, this legendary drop is all but sold out; if you’re after a bottle, well, you’re looking at about A$700. 

Malone serves an extensive range by the glass. “I serve by the glass from the Dungourney down. You have to buy the bottle for the more rare whiskies,” he says. 

So, what’s the allure of Irish whiskey? “Many years ago, if you went into a private house and they offered you a drop of whiskey, it meant you were someone special. But if they offered you a bottle of Guinness, you were just ordinary,” says Malone. In his bar, everyone is specialmore so if you can afford Dungourney.

Back in County Clare, I unleash my inner whiskey lover. I’m with Donelon at O’Loclainn’s in Ballyvaughan, where I meet Margaret O’Loghlen. Teacher by day, publican by night (the bar usually opens about 9pm and after mass on Sunday), she stands behind the bar, where she keeps 400 bottles of whiskey. 

“We don’t sell all of them, of course,” she says. “It’s considered a whiskey collection. My husband’s father started it in the late 1940s, adding about a dozen bottles a year. Family and friends brought some bottles, some were acquired, and that’s how it’s come about. We continue to do the same. Every Irish whiskey we can get our hands on, we stock.”

To that end, the O’Loghlens serve about 30 Irish whiskies in the bar that one-time Ballyvaughan holiday-maker Steven Spielberg told the publican he thought was “the best bar in the world”. Here, the Redbreast and Green Spot Irish whiskies are the biggest sellers.

Explaining the difference between Irish and Scottish whiskies, O’Loghlen says, “Many of the Scottish whiskies can be an acquired taste because of the smoky notes present in the whiskey. There’s only one Irish whiskey that is smoked and that’s Connemara. The rest of them are non-smoked, which makes them easy to drink and gives them a wider audienceladies and such who are occasional drinkers and might find the heavy smokiness a bit strong. A lot of the Irish whiskies are triple-distilled, as opposed to double, which most of the Scottish are, and that helps to make them more refined and gives a finer taste.”

OK, so bring them on, Heidi and Margaret! It’s time to fill those glassesfine-stemmed, flare-rimmed vessels that release aromas, allow amber hues to glow and lovingly cradle the liquid. We have water on the side, the use of which Donelon guides, patient, encouraging and confident of the outcome.

She’s right to be. An epiphany strikes again. Put it down to Irish luck, the charming bar or Donelon’s enthusiasm, but I love this stuff. I enjoy the Jameson, my namesake drop, I really do. However, I find my palate partial to the Redbreast, which I henceforth order at every pub I venture into for the duration of my trip.

Like that other JJ – James Joyce  I do find “The light music of whiskey falling into a glass – an agreeable interlude”. Better still, I’m drinking it in Ireland.    

What We Tasted: Six Irish Whiskies

Greenore eight-year-old Single Grain

This is the only Irish single grain. “There’s soft, sweet corn with hints of bourbon on the nose,” says Donelon. Crisp finish.

Tullamore Dew 10-year-old Single Malt

“Complex and exotic, butter caramel undertones, dry Madeira notes with a touch of spice,” says Donelon. An after-dinner tipple.

Powers 12-year-old Special Reserve

“Spicy, honeyed, with a touch of perfumed oils,” says Donelon. “It’s full-bodied and flavoursome, with a little pepper kick to the back of the tongue.”

Redbreast 12-year-old Pure Pot Still

“Pure pot still whiskey is unique to Ireland and Redbreast is a continuation of the great tradition,” says Donelon. “Lovely touch of oiliness and fruitcake on the taste and long, classy sherry notes on the finish.” 

Jameson Gold Reserve

“Smooth and slightly sweet,” says Donelon, “with toasted oak and vanilla notes and a gentle, complex finish.”

Connemara Peated Single Malt

The only Irish peated single malt. “The sweetness and smoothness of an Irish whiskey with the smokiness of a Scotch,” notes Donelon.

Words by Julietta Jameson - Published in Voyeur April 2011
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