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In the Palace

By Rob Allanson
If you are ever in the Irish capital and have an hour to kill, you could do worse than spend it at the Palace Bar on Fleet Street. You won’t be the first person to spend an idle hour there, as this pub, just south of the River Liffey, has long being the haunt of journalists, artists and writers. In the 1940s and 50s Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh were just some of the regulars smoking out the mirrored mahogany interior, sipping Palace whiskey and talking the night away.

In those days every Irish pub bottled its own whiskey and the Palace Bar was well known spot for a decent ball of malt. The pub is filled with mirrors and memorabilia from the era and from long silent Irish distilleries, but not in a ‘retro’ pub kind of way, they’ve been there since they were new. The Palace Bar then is so much more than a pub, it’s part of the very fabric of the city, so in the late 1960s when Jameson and the other founding members of Irish Distillers stopped supplying the bonded trade and started bottling their own whiskey, everything changed. For a start this put an end to the centuries old practice of private bottlings, so one by one, the bars and wine merchants of Dublin lost their unique whiskeys. The Palace Whiskey brand too then, went the way of the dodo.

Willy Ahern is the current owner (before that his father was gaffer, and before that again his grandfather) and under his watch the Palace Bar has rekindled its love affair with whiskey, expand-ed its stocks and is now home to one of Dublin’s finest collections of Irish whiskey. If you ever take the Dublin Whiskey Tail, this Tardis like pub will be one of your stops. But as Willy’s love of and interest in Irish whiskey grew, he knew that something was miss-ing. It was like an itch he couldn’t scratch. He still owned the Palace Whiskey brand, but it was at least 40 years since any Irish pub had bottled it’s own whiskey. It was time to do something.

Willy got in contact with Cooley Distillery and decided to bring the Palace Whiskey brand back to life. He would start with a single cask malt and see how his customers responded. Nine samples were dispatched to Dublin and in honour of those that went before, Willy organised a tasting panel of writers, journalists and artists to help him select the right whiskey. At the same time Cooley organised their own panel, and independently, both chose the exact same cask – a 9 Years Old unpeated single malt.

Nowadays as you walk around Dublin, you will see that most of the old pubs still boast that they are ‘Whiskey Bonders’, but sadly that is not the case. A huge amount has altered in the past 50 years: for a start the currency has changed (three times) and smoking has moved out doors, but in the Palace bar a lot remains unaltered. Here they have turned back the clock and now bottle their own whiskey, but there’s a deeper continuity at work. The great writers of the past are dead, but now Nobel Laurerate and poet Seamus Heaney drops in and although long time editor of The Irish Times, Bertie Smyllie no longer holds court in ‘the intensive care unit’ (back bar), the odd tap, tap of a laptop can be heard as a new generation of writer takes a quiet few moments away from the bustle of the city to work on their manuscript.

Willy’s forefathers then would be proud of him, not only for bringing Palace Whiskey back to life, but for making sure that what ever happens outside; inside, the Palace Bar remains a tranquil bubble of old Dublin.

Willy’s first bottling then is a real corker. Cooley’s malt has a very fruity nose, but here that fruit is more confectionary in nature. There’s an almost licquorice buzz to it, which is worth tracking down and experience-ing. The cask yielded 300 bottles at 46% ABV, which also means there was no need for chill filter-ing. The experiment then has been a huge success, so much so that you can expect further single cask bottlings.

You can pick up a bottle in the Celtic Whiskey Shop, or in Dublin Airport Terminal 2.

But the best place has to be in the snug of the Palace Bar, under the gaze of the great writers and former regulars lining the walls and who sometimes can be seen to lick their lips.