We’d stood in the tiny cubicle that serves as Ireland’s smallest whiskey bar for a few minutes, but as no-one seemed to have noticed us, we walked through the swinging door into the main bar.
“What do you want?” said the barmaid and, before I could reply, she continued, “were you just in there?” I confirmed the fact, worried by her tone. “Why didn’t you ring the bell?” I apologised. “Go back and ring the bell.” We did. A lovely bell it was too.
She reappears and does a double take. “What do you want?” Er.. a drink would be good. What about a hot whiskey? She smiles and scuttled off to make the Malone’s Galtee Inn’s famous variation on the theme, with Power’s, honey and caramelised orange. We’re joined in the cubicle by a racehorse owner from Wiltshire and his buddy, an Irish hotelier. The snug is now very snug. Rain spangles on the windows, cars hiss by on the way to Cork. We settle in for the night.
It was the third day of a filming trip to Ireland for Year 2 of theworldmasterclass.com. Two days before I had sat on the Giant’s Causeway on a throne made of basalt, telling of Bushmills and O’Cathain’s County and the tale of how the Scottish giant Benandonner had tramped across the Causeway to try and fight Finn McCool.
"Whiskey runs through Irish culture in the same way as Scotch runs through Scotland’s"
Knowing he couldn’t conquer a giant in hand to hand combat, Finn’s wife disguised him as a baby. When the giant clapped eyes on the enormous ‘baby’ in the crib, he turned on his heels and fled home, ripping up the Causeway behind him. It’s a good tale, but I wonder whether there’s been a causeway of the mind when it comes to whisky/whiskey which has resulted in the Irish version as being permanently linked to Scotland.
Our view of Irish has been always been in comparison to Scotch. We’ve dwelled on its more recent history and not on what went before when it was the whiskey that made Whisky. We consider it with an almost patronising sympathy, we have forgotten to look at what was happening. Instead, nostalgia has been allowed to calcify around Irish whiskey.
Yet, if you peel back the layers a different picture appears. Here is a whiskey style which is in fact many styles. All three of Ireland’s distillers triple distil but each does it completely differently. There are blends and single grains, there are single pot still whiskeys and different wood experiments.
The layers are physical too: the earth that’s been removed for the foundations of IDL’s new distillery at Midleton that will see capacity reach 60million litres a year, the soil being shifted at Bushmills for its new warehouses; while, no doubt, there are plans for excavation being drawn up by William Grant for it’s much-expected Tullamore Dew distillery. Stir in what might happen with Beam’s ownership of Cooley (a pre-emptive strike against Tullamore Dew if you ask me) and Irish whiskey is not only in an expansive mood, it is going deep.
Irish whiskey isn’t one single thing. It contains multitudes. It is multi-styled, quietly loquacious, smooth yet spicy, calm but sassy. It raises smiles and questions rather than shouts and it is this element of quiet, calm, consistent persusion that is now bearing fruit.
This was self-evident as we walked into Dublin’s Palace Bar to a roar of voices bouncing off its high ceiling. In the back room, we sip on its own 9 Years Old single cask and pints of Galway Hooker, while the shades of Ireland’s great prose craftsmen keep a watchful (and in Beckett’s case a somewhat baleful) eye on proceedings. Here is modern living tradition, the Palace’s whiskey is a new initiative, the Hooker’s brewery just six years old, one which is free from nostalgia. Whiskey runs through Irish culture in the same way as Scotch runs through Scotland’s, but it does so in its own way.
The ripping up of the Whisky Causeway is a good thing which allows clear water to exist between the styles and encourages both to flourish independently. Time for a refill.