The M1 is not a pretty road. The motorway between Dublin and Belfast is functional. Tarmacadam rolls for 90 kilometres, punctuated by service stations selling day old tuna sandwiches and advertising keen exchange rates on Sterling or Euro, depending on the direction one is headed. Many towns along the route are bypassed, so the drive is quick and easy, if not a little dull across the border that divides Ireland from Northern Ireland. In contrast to more turbulent times during the 'Troubles', there is now nothing obvious to herald the crossing into 'the North'. There are no armed check points and even the old observation towers are long decommissioned. Skirting Belfast, we join the road for the Antrim Coast, heading to Bushmills, widely considered the oldest licensed distillery in the world. The scenery dramatically improves. The vistas are breathtaking, the road snakes alongside the rocky coastline, and the sea sparkles in the weak November sun.
The town of Bushmills is picturesque, if a little self-conscious in its quaint signage and white washed walls. We stay at the Bushmills Inn, a turreted 17th Century hotel which boasts an award winning restaurant and a busy pub which hosts traditional music sessions. A brisk ten minute walk across town delivers us to the distillery, recently sold by Diageo to Jose Cuervo, signalling Diageo's exit from the Irish whiskey market. It is a curious decision. Bushmills is one of only three Irish distilleries with their own mature stock and the industry is booming. The sale does not render the tour any less informative, or charming. It is interesting to walk through the clattering bottling hall and witness a line dedicated to the bottling of Jameson, a whiskey from Midleton being filled under a bottling contract that dates back to when the two distilleries shared a parent, Irish Distillers Limited. The tour ends with a nip of distillery exclusive Bushmills 12 Years Old. It is lush and sweet, with loads of sherry character coming through from the use of Oloroso Sherry casks. Suitably fortified, we plot a course south. It is back onto the drab M1, heading in the opposite direction this time. Just north of the town of Dundalk, the mile markers change to kilometres. We are back in the Republic. Greenore harbour hoves into view, outpost of the Teeling Whiskey Company.
Within view of the spectacular Mountains of Mourne, the Teeling warehouse teems with casks. The family are the former owners of Cooley Distillery and they retained a remarkable amount of whiskey following the sale. They are using this to create some cracking expressions, driven by experimentation and innovation. We watch a cask being dumped by hand, the swirl of liquid casting up heady fumes that prickle the nostrils and wet the palate as Jack Teeling speaks with enthusiasm about the Irish whiskey industry. The Teelings have wasted no time in returning to production, taking delivery in late 2014 of their new stills. The stills will be located in the heart of Dublin, in an area called the Liberties, where a vibrant distilling scene looks set to develop, with two other distilling ventures, Dublin Whiskey Company and Alltech also applying for planning permission. Jack is very deliberate about the company's ethos "to be creative as possible in creating new styles of Irish whiskey. We will really drive innovation around novel mash bills and distillation technique." After being without a distillery for more than 35 years, Dublin is delighted to welcome whiskey back to its heart, with many of the area's bars already pouring Teeling's Small Batch, a blend matured in rum casks with notes of toffee and gentle oak.
There will be time to languish at the counter of one of Dublin's many great whiskey bars later, but for now, the M6 beckons west, to the Teeling's former haunt, Kilbeggan.
The Kilbeggan visitors' centre is housed in Locke's Distillery, the smaller of the two distilleries owned by the brand. There are a number of tours available, from self-guided in multiple languages to a full day immersive experience which includes a 200ml bottle of whiskey filled from the cask. The tours focus heavily on the rich heritage of the site and the legacy of the brands. We finish our tour with a tasting of the Tyrconnell range, finished variously in Port, Madeira and sherry barrels. This is one of the historical brands that Kilbeggan has resurrected and breathed new life into. The distillery is currently the only one on the island to distill peated whiskey and was the first to release an Irish single grain whiskey. While innovation slowed for a few years following the purchase of the brand by Beam Global, Beam's own acquisition by Suntory looks promising for the brand, with Global Brand Ambassador John Cashman promising expansion of the range and the release of older Kilbeggan whiskeys as its stocks mature.
Outside Locke's the oxidised stills of another distillery, Tullamore lie in repose. By contrast their doppelgangers are hard at work half an hour drive down the road, where they were replicated for the new Tullamore Distillery, opened in September 2014. For now, the visitors' centre is a drive across town from the distillery. It is perched on the canal which would have at one time been the artery that transported goods to and from the working distillery. The tour offers a snapshot of a brand that has withstood the test of time. Over a glass of the mild blend Tullamore D. E. W., ebullient Global Brand Ambassador John Quinn speaks about the brand's homecoming and what a return to distilling will mean for the brand. He is enthusiastic, "Obviously new options such as new single pot-stills, single malts and other range extensions will be looked at and of course we will continue to develop new finishes. I can promise some exciting new releases in 2015."
The next morning is 'grand and soft' as we say in Ireland, which loosely translates to dim and dreary. The road to Cork passes through some beautiful countryside. There is a sense of being inside a painting with impossibly green fields framed by rolling hills dotted with sheep who seem to frolic on cue. Through the pretty towns of Cahir and Fermoy, we are heading to Ireland's largest distillery, Midleton which for many years has been the custodian of the Irish whiskey category.
Midleton Distillery produces an impressive 64 million litres of whiskey a year. It is home to the blends Jameson, Paddy and Powers as well as the growing suite of single pot still whiskeys such as Redbreast and Green Spot. Single pot still whiskey is a style unique to Ireland and was born of a wily desire to evade a British tax on malted barley. The style uses both unmalted and malted barley in the mash and the resulting rich, oily whiskey forms the backbone of the modern Irish blend. Irish Distillers, owner of Midleton Distillery has been the steward of the Irish whiskey category for many years.
A tour of Midleton is similar to that of the Old Jameson Distillery Museum in Dublin, but with the added thrill of knowing the whiskey tasted at the end of the tour has been distilled on site. The cooper's workshop is of particular interest with many of the ancient tools housed within still being used by master cooper Ger Buckley. We retire to our accommodation at nearby Castlemartyr Resort with a bottle of Yellow Spot, a vibrant fruity drop which contains whiskey matured in Malaga wine casks.
In coming years, this touring trail will doubtless include many of the distilleries springing up across the island. The road will head south to the Dingle Distillery, who have been maturing spirit for two years. No stranger to being an upstart, charming and opinionated owner Oliver Hughes is responsible for the Porterhouse group of pubs, which led the microbrewing revolution in Ireland. He promises something similar from his distilling operation. The tour will soon extend to Glendalough, where a group of lads aim to reinvent regional styles, looking to a terroir based approach to whiskey production. The trail will deviate west to visit Walsh's Distillery in Carlow, where the owner of the Irishman and Writer's Tears brands is building a new distillery in partnership with Italian drinks brand Illva Saronno. Looking east to the Ards Peninsula, Echlinville Distillery is the first to receive a licence to distill in Northern Ireland in 125 years. Local man Shane Braniff has been distilling, filling barrels and maturing spirit for eighteen months. In Belfast there are plans for a distillery in the Old Crumlin Gaol. The port town of Waterford will also feature, where Mark Reynier has acquired the old Guinness brewery, with intentions to turn it into a distillery.
From the whistlestop tour of Ireland's working distilleries and a glance at what a future road map might look like, there are certainly great days ahead.
Dublin or Belfast Airports have the widest choice of flights www.dublinairport.com www.belfastairport.com Ferry remains a popular way to travel from the UK and France and there is something magical about arriving by sea.
While the major cities are well served by public transport, hiring a car is recommended for seeing the sights at your own pace. Ireland has strict drink driving laws, so it is best to plan to stop over if you plan to sample. Remember to drive on the left! Car hire from Dublin.
For an authentic Irish experience, check out the offerings on www.airbnb.ie which range from a former pub to a stone clad farmhouse. Tourist Information Both the Northern Irish and Irish governments maintain very good tourist information websites.