The idea was to travel round Ireland visiting the producing distilleries, doing some tasting events as part of Whiskey Week Ireland, to promote the first Whisky Live Dublin and to see how the industry and whiskey were performing.
Surely a coals to Newcastle mission? But what I found was a country rightfully proud of its distilling heritage and indeed in fine fettle, a legion of whiskey drinkers who were eager for knowledge and passionate about their tipples.
Good things come in threes
The first stop on the tour, after being gently rolled to sleep by the Irish Sea on the overnight ferry, was Bushmills.
This meant taking in some of the best riding roads in the United Kingdom, and through Ballymoney to pay my respects to two of the most decorated road racers: Joey Dunlop and his brother Robert, hugely respected in the riding fraternity. This corner of the island bred these brave men. Hardened by years of road racing. The Isle of Man TT may be famous, but the series of races here in Northern Ireland is second to none. The most well known of these is the NW200 at Port Rush and as luck would almost have it the racing was due to start the week after my visit. This meant the course was marked out so I thought I would have a nose round. A little slower I have to say than the professionals, and also due to the fact I was on a laden down BMW touring bike. Still fun though.
After rolling up to the manager’s office and taking an interesting health and safety induction, it was time to get to grips with the real reason I was here: triple distillation.
I find there is only one way to get things in your head and that it to see them, so with distilling manager Darryl McNally we stood in the hot, noisy still room and walked it through from still to still following the various pipes. Pretty much worked.
I also got the chance to go through the range including the superb 1608 crystal malt expression and the unusual Caribbean Rum duty free. To be honest I still come back to Black Bush as the hidden gem of the range: so big and warming.
A Grocer’s half dozen
The trip down to Dublin was fairly uneventful, good grief this bike can just eat the miles and in relative comfort too. One thing you notice travelling by motorbike is the change in smells: pass a roadside cafe and it’s like riding through bacon scented air; cross a river and you get a really flinty metallic note; and, certainly in Ireland, there is a definite pervading peat smell in the air. A glorious way to travel really.
Destination reached: The Brooks Hotel, despite the mass of one way streets and roadworks (something to do with royal and presidential visits). The hotel was luxury for one night only, and what a night it was turned out to be: a head to head taste off of Irish and Scotch at one of Dublin’s finest bars, L Mulligan Grocers.
Of course this being Ireland it was not all that simple. Michael Foggarty, part owner of Mulligan’s and its whiskey man, was to be my adversary for the evening. Who better to represent Ireland than a Scots man?…and me stepping up to the plate for the Scots.
I realised there could have been some match fixing as Michael was sorting out the whiskies, he could swap mine out for cheap blends. But he was honourable and after seven whiskies (the opening grain whiskey was just a teaser), representing the best each nation had to offer it ended in a dead heat ; and some of the pub’s magnificent locally made black pudding sausages finished the night off perfectly.
Tullamore and Killbeggan
Press, pots and peat bogs
I left my comfortable cocooned luxury at the Brook’s only to discover head winds, the biker’s nightmare especially when mixed with squally rain showers, dogged my road out west to Tullamore.
Thankfully the BM’s bodywork and small screen did a surprisingly decent job of keeping me out of the worst of it, however I spent most of the journey at 35 degrees and a sore neck.
Some great scenery on the road, including a very odd sculpture standing proudly in a peat bog. It looked like the telephone thingy from a BBC kids show the Tellytubbies. Then there were the four wire mesh saints standing on the hillsides looking down on the road just before getting in to Tullamore. Nice to know someone is watching over you.
Rolling over the little bridge into the village there was that faint peat smell again, the countryside seems to be rife with it. It’s not a bad thing at all, quite homely really.
Although Tullamore Dew is actually made for William Grant & Sons at Cork, the company has a magnificent visitor centre in the village that takes you through the history of the brand. You can find the answers to why there are Irish Wolfhounds on the bottle and how the brand got its name (I am not going to tell you, you have to go…).
With the backing of a reasonable giant like Grants, Tullamore is going to be one to keep an eye on in the future.
After a tasting with some of the visitor centre board members, local press and publicans and discussions, including a brief diversion into how milk and whiskey are good bedfellows, it was back into the headwind to Kilbeggan, Cooley’s newest and oldest distillery.
I haven’t been to Kilbeggan since the refurbishment and the company started distilling again, and what a difference.
There are a couple of lovely full circle occurrences now in the distillery, Brian Quinn, the master distiller, is always on hand full of knowledge about the distillery’s past; and the company has brought one of the original stills back to life.
One new instalment at the site is Alex Chasko, who hails from the micro brewing fraternity, as innovation manager. Let’s just say he has a slack rein and is like a child in a sweetie shop. There are going to be some excellent things coming from this distillery in the future.
An excellent evening’s tasting was had with members of the Ireland Whisky Club and locals, picking Brian’s knowledge and Alex working through the Kilbeggan range, and the new Greenore 18 Years Old. Also what can you say about tasting new make in the new still house with the oldest still in Ireland, if not the world. Fantastic stuff, this was what whiskey is made for, having a laugh and making friends.
Launch night and knitters
Next morning I got blown back to Dublin as the wind had not eased or changed direction, even managed a couple of whiskey club members with the tail wind.
Safe back in the welcoming arms of the Brooks Hotel, of course after a diversion round the one way system a few times, the focus was on tonight’s launch event and another public tasting with the Whisky Live team. This time Michael and I were getting the guests to select a winner from an Irish v Scots blind tasting.
The result sort of got lost on me (but it was an Irish) as I got distracted. The publisher had found a knitting circle, who meet in the Brooks, but were pretty much all whiskey drinkers. So down they came to the event and got stuck in. A very strange melange of wool and whiskey chat ensued, including the demise of the male knitter.
Of course this being Dublin, and the night yet young, after some fortification in the food department it was off to see the sights, including an excellent trendy club called the Lost Society, which had breathed new life into an old townhouse.
A perfect round off to discovering the drinking life of Ireland and its many facets. This country, from the North to Dublin and beyond, is an excellent place to explore; certainly by motorbike. You will be astounded by the mix of old and new. The forward thinking spirit that has breathed life and vibrancy back into an old grocer’s shop; Cooley’s old still creating new spirit and a cocktail club rejuvenating an old building.
The BMW R1200R
When the guys at Vines in Guildford wheeled this bike out I was worried. It was big, it looked heavy and not something I was used to. However once rolling the weight disappeared and the bike became almost a 125cc. You could lean it into the corners and it had quite a turn of pace when you needed.
This is the perfect touring machine. Loaded up, it never missed a beat during the 1,250km journey from Whisky Towers in Norfolk back again.
There were a couple of things to get used to: revving the throttle made the bike jinx sideways due to the flat twin, and the mirrors which vibrated as you accelerated. But once you got settled the bike became an old friend, and hard to hand back at the end of the trip.
1,170cc boxer twin Transmission: 6 speed, shaft drive Weight: 223kg
18 litres, range approx 210miles
My thanks go to BMW Motorrad (UK), Jardine International and Vines of Guildford for the loan of the bike.