Travel

Celtic resurgence

Is the Emerald Isle worth a visit for whiskey fans? You bet – and particularly in 2007
By Dominic Roskrow
Don’t shout it too loudly, but 2007 might just be the year when Irish whiskey becomes a contender again.Metaphorically speaking the stars are in alignment. The spotlight’s been turned on.The cash train might just be heading back in to town.In recent years Ireland, has, to all intents and purposes, been a one trick pony with a couple of prize but somewhat neglected fillies still in the stable. A good trick, admittedly, but one trick nevertheless.So while Irish Distillers have taken Jameson around the world and the enthusiasts have slavered over Redbreast and Green Spot, Ireland seems to have fallen off the radar to some extent, and great whiskeys from Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley and unique brands such as Powers and Paddys seem to have dropped behind.So what is changing? Three key things.One, Bushmills was sold off by Irish Distillers to Diageo as part of complicated dealer-brokering in the Allied dismantlement, giving the world’s biggest drinks company a natural spirits partner to Irish beer Guinness, on which it is founded.Two, the oddball food and drink manufacturer Cantrell & Cochrane hit paydirt with its marketing of Magner’s and reinvented the cider category, potentially giving it the muscle to put its whiskey Tullamore Dew on the world map.And three, rebel Irish distillers Cooley is celebrating its 20th year but is well aware that it is like the sporting protégé that has never quite fulfilled expectations. It knows it is time to step up to the plate and deliver.All of which means that this might just be the year to head out west and have a look at what Ireland has to offer in terms of whiskey and as a tourist destination.What sets Ireland apart from other whisky distilling nations is the age of its whiskey industry and the fact that the creative part of its modern output is to a large extent hidden away from the eyes of the tourist.Of the three producing distilleries only one allows the visitor access to a working site. In the South the awesome and arguably one of the most complex distilleries on the planet at Midleton near Cork is frustratingly out of bounds to enthusiasts. And North of Dublin on the western peninsula of Cooley the Cooley Distillery is hidden away like it was an illegal chemical weapons factory and when you do find it. That’s exactly what it looks like; all imposing out-dated design and intimidating large fencing making the ‘keep out’ sign al but redundant.That doesn’t mean that Cooley and Irish Distillers are tourist-unfriendly; far from it. It’s just that the sites you can visit are effectively museums, a nostalgic and whimsical way of looking at whisky and a long way from the vibrancy and energy of a working distillery.The one exception is Bushmills in Northern Ireland, about an hour from Belfast and close to the stunning Giant’s Causeway. Indeed this is a woefully under-rated part of the world for outstanding beauty and it’s worth making the time to explore the Northern coastline.The distillery itself is a malt distillery and under the wing of Diageo is now bracketed with Scotland’s distilleries and adheres to Scottish rules in terms of production and maturation. But it is a hybrid, for it is considered part of the Irish whiskey portfolio (even though it is in Northern Ireland) and its sudden divorce from Irish Distillers means that in the short term at least it is still producing some whiskey for Irish Distillers.Bushmills is every bit as serious about its whiskeys as its neighbours to the East. It argues that triple distillation reflects a further investment in time and money and points to an outstanding wood policy that ensures that it can match many Scottish distilleries for the standardof its casks.The tour is conducted at a pleasant pace and lasts about 45 minutes. It ends in a comfortable visitor centre with a drop of fine Irish from the bar. There is also a friendly and warm café-restaurant offering a small but outstanding range of home cooked meals and it is recommended.Cross the border in to Ireland and your first stopping point may well be Tullamore, ostensibly home to the dynamic and fastrising Irish success story, Tullamore Dew. This doesn’t prove to be the case, however. Owned by Campbell & Cochrane, the brand is distilled under licence in Midleton further south.But on the banks of the canal which once would have carried whisky to the ports and built in to an old bonded warehouse, the Tullamore Dew story has been recreated as part of a museum that also tells the history of the town.There are organised tours or you can wander unaccompanied, and the whiskey is available to taste. It’s all well done, family friendly, and it’s an ideal entry point for the novice, the easy-going nature of the visitor experience matched perfectly by the whiskey.Not far away is Cooley’s version of the silent distillery. At Kilbeggan the Locke’s Distillery Musuem is the nearest thing whisk(e)y ever gets to the Marie Celeste.Production stopped here some 50 years ago but even then this would have been an oldfashioned distillery, its huge machinery made out of or encased in wood, its heavy metal machinery a throwback to the industrial revolution.Here you can also take a tour or walk around alone. But it’s an eerie experience because it feels like everything is just as it was.There is a pleasant bar here and all the Cooley whiskeys are on offer. I don’t care too much for Locke’s – too sweet – but Connemara and Tyrconnell are worth seeking out.Dublin is a world class tourist attraction in its own right. These days it has lost much of its old charm as it rides the Green Tiger and its economy booms and are no operating distilleries any more, either.But the Old Jameson Distillery takes the visitor on a pretty thorough journey through the whiskey-making process. The tour lasts about 45 minutes and there is a Jameson to enjoy at the end. But you can drink Jameson anywhere these days, and if you’re not lucky enough to be selected for the special tasting of rarer expressions, seek out some of the less common expressions, one of the Midleton range, or iconic pot still brands Paddys and Powers.While in the city go to Old Kildare Street and visit the wine and spirit merchants Mitchell’s, home of the zesty and fresh pot still whiskey Green Spot, which punches way above its weight and is very difficult to find so get it as and when you can. For other rare Irish whiskeys try the Celtic Whiskey Shop.At Midleton near Cork is Irish Distilllers’ version of Locke’s and Tullamore; the Old Midleton Distillery. In some ways the site perfectly reflects the success of Jameson in that production has been moved a few hundred metres away to the state of the art Midleton Distillery, where pot still and continuous column still production are carried out side by side and are integrated so that different combinations of each can be employed to produce different whiskeys.The Old Midleton Distillery, like Locke’s, is creepily atmospheric, but in a very different way. While Locke’s is small, closeted and intense, Midleton is open and spacious, and a tour of it involves walking between several buildings. It’s fascinating, though, and the stories that the tour guides tell go a long way to bringing the site alive.The tour ends in a comfortable visitor centre and again there is a good choice of food and drink in the bars and restaurant.Whatever the future holds for Irish whiskey, its range of tours today provides an essential role in providing its whiskey in context and demonstrating what fine product it is. It’s about time that it was given the respect it deserves. Now might just be the right time to go and take a fresh look.TOURIST INFORMATION
www.ireland.ie
www.visitdublin.com
www.corkkerry.ie corkkerryinfo@failteireland.ie
www.discovernorthernireland.com
www.gotobelfast.com info@midirelandtourism.ie Distilleries/distillery museums
Locke’s Distillery Museum Tel: +353 (0) 506 32134 www.lockesdistillerymuseum.com
The Old Bushmills Distillery Tel: +44 (0) 2820 731521 www.bushmills.com
Old Jameson Distillery Tel: +353 (0) 807 2355 www.jamesonwhiskey.com
Old Midleton Distillery Tel: +353 (0) 21 461 3594 www.jamesonwhiskey.com
Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre Tel: +353 (0) 506 25015 www.tullamore-dew.org