Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Ireland Adventures Part 1: The Whiskey

As I was a-goin' over Gilgarra Mountain
I spied Colonel Farrell, and his money he was countin'.
First I drew my pistols and then I drew my rapier,
Sayin' "Stand and deliver, for I am your bold receiver."
Musha ringum duram da,
Whack fol the daddy-o,

We've been back from Ireland for about a week and a half now, which has given me a little time to collect my thoughts about the trip. It was, start to finish, incredible - and as it was such an amazing and densely packed adventure, when it comes to writing about it, I had trouble figuring out where to start.

Ultimately, I decided to start at the end - not of the trip, but at the traditional end of the meal. With whiskey.


Early on in the planning stages of this trip, when we were tossing around different ideas about how we might spend our days in Ireland, Cooper mentioned that he'd really like to spend some time learning the story behind Irish whiskey.

As it turns out, there are not a whole lot of whiskey distilleries in Ireland. I was under the impression that the Irish, like the Scots, are distilling all over the place. Not so. Though we learned in our travels that craft distilling is on the rise, as of right now, there are only about a dozen whiskey distilleries operating in Ireland.


There's only one distillery, actually, that exists within the Dublin city limits: Teeling Whiskey Co.

Teeling was the first place that made it on to our list; it's what Cooper drinks at home (we buy it at Wells) and he absolutely loves it. The two of us visited Teeling's early in the trip - our first Monday - with Cooper's parents and Dixon in tow.

It's a fairly new distillery, though the family behind it has been in the whiskey business for generations (since 1782). The location - in the Liberties, not far from Guinness - was, long ago, where all the Dublin distilleries operated. But following a massive fire (with a gross side-story) in the late 19th century, and a variety of technological and economic fallbacks (including the impact of Prohibition on the international whiskey trade), one by one, Dublin's distilleries - and distilleries throughout Ireland - closed.

We learned quite a bit about the history of distilling in Dublin and throughout the country during our tour of Teelings, which is historic and imposing from the outside but sparkling and modern inside. The tour included both a broad history lesson and instruction on how whiskey is made, with an up close look at the company's stills - three in all, to triple-distill the booze,  each one bearing the name of one of Teeling's owner's daughters.

Our time at Teelings, from our look at the stills to the tasting to signing the tasting room wall and lounging in the bar.

After the tour, we did a quick tasting, trying one of the company's whiskeys (one that is not currently produced on-site, as they've only been open in Dublin for a year and it takes longer than that to age whiskey).  We were also served a whiskey and aperol cocktail, called the Mo Chara, that was delightful. I will definitely be making it at home.


On a two-week trip, one distillery was not enough, but three or four might be too many. Though the Jameson and Tullamore tours are, by all accounts, very good, we skipped both in favor of Kilbeggan, a smaller, older brand now owned by Cooley (which is actually owned by Beam and which - because everything is incestuous - used to belong to the Teeling family).

The trip to Kilbeggan was recommended by Baltimore bartender Ryan Sparks, who I got to chatting with one afternoon last spring while he was behind the bar at Bookmakers in Federal Hill. I asked where he'd recommend we go and he suggested Kilbeggan, saying it is a cool experience for anyone interested in the history of whiskey making.

He was so right. Founded in 1757, Kilbeggan is the oldest distillery in Ireland and though only a tiny bit of whiskey is made on the premises today (most Kilbeggan whiskey is made elsewhere), the space is lovingly preserved and offers a fascinating glimpse at how whiskey was made in the mid-18th century.

We're talking water wheel, massive wooden barrels, a room for coopering (!), and the oldest working pot still in use in Ireland today; it dates back to the early 19th century.


We drove up to Kilbeggan with Alicia, Mike, Stacy and her dad on our first Thursday morning; it was a little over an hour north of where we were staying (an hour on narrow roads that give new meaning to the word "harrowing").

When we arrived, we had a little time to kill before our tour, so we grabbed coffee in a small coffee shop next to the distillery. Turns out, it was both a coffee and chocolate shop and it was owned by the distillery; there was a big vat of chocolate in production right in the middle of the shop and everything smelled glorious.


Thanks to the coffee and chocolate aroma, we were all in good spirits when we entered Kilbeggan - and the tour did nothing but lift our moods. Not only was the space extremely cool, our tour guide, Tracy, was incredibly knowledgeable.

It ended up being a private tour - just the six of us - and she took her time, answering our questions about the history of the place, the distilling process and also about the nature of the whiskey business in Ireland as a whole. She knew her stuff and was super engaging.

Kilbeggan, inside and out, was a beautiful historic spot.

Like the Teelings tour, the Kilbeggan tour ended with a tasting; this time, we tried three different whiskeys produced by Kilbeggan. My favorite, the 8-year single grain, made under the Kilbeggan label (as opposed to Locke's or Connemara), was the sweetest of the bunch.


Between the two tours, Cooper and I picked up a ton of knowledge about the history and mechanics behind Irish whiskey. And of course, the more you know, the better the stuff tastes.

Food and drink, I think, are the best way to study a culture; if you understand what people eat and why, it's not so difficult to understand who they are. The story of Irish whiskey production is a mishmash of fighting and passion and technology and law.

We certainly didn't hear about all the details on our journeys...but what we did learn was fascinating. It's a great reminder that in every sip, there's a whole lot of story.

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