Inside the four best whiskey bars in Ireland

Now in its second year, the Irish Whiskey Awards are maturing nicely. Among the awards this year were those for the whiskey bars of the year – one for each province and an overall national winner. But what makes them stand out from the crowd?

 

BEST WHISKEY BAR IN MUNSTER and IRELAND: Dick Macks, Dingle

It won’t be a surprise to anyone who has been to Dick Macks in Dingle that it is now officially the Best Whiskey Bar in Ireland – most people will tell you it’s the best in the world, bar none. A family business since it opened, it’s now run by Finn MacDonnell, the grandson of Tom MacDonnell who opened the bar in 1899. There’s something very special about this place – the half-light, the calmness, the small oft-overlooked backrooms, the smell of turf and sound of slow, eager conversation.

The bar is stuffed with heritage, with shelves groaning from the weight of whiskey, shoe boxes, belt buckles and the relics of generations of buying and selling. Tourists probably miss the significance of the large painting of Charlie Haughey in the main bar, but plenty of Irish visitors shy away from its gaze.

Finn MacDonnell had hopes to win the regional award but says he was amazed when they took the national title, too. He works hard with whiskey and credits his introduction and success with it to Peter White of the Irish Whiskey Society, who helped nurture his interest.

Staff are constantly training, he says. They have to know the whiskey themselves before they can recommend it. There is nothing more disheartening, he suggests, than seeing a barman read a whiskey from a menu and then go searching for it as if blind to the taste. The whiskey also brings in new people from the town that wouldn’t normally be there.

“They hear we have a particular brand or someone recommends a whiskey we have,” he says. “A lot happens by word of mouth.”

His personal destination whiskey right now is Connemara Turf Mór, a rich peaty single malt that is the heaviest peat flavour of the Connemara range. For someone who wants to appreciate Turf Mór properly, he recommends building up to it with a Redbreast 12 then perhaps a Teeling rum. You can’t dive in; all the other whiskeys would taste really weak after it, he says.

The range of whiskeys in Dick Macks is superb and although they don’t necessarily chase after the ultra-rare whiskeys, they have some really excellent ones that you’ll find hard to track down elsewhere, such as the Dungourney Midleton.

This pure pot still was discovered in 1994 by a master distiller doing his rounds at Midleton distillery who came across some undocumented casks laid down in 1964. A real gem, just like Dick Macks itself. If you still need encouragement to visit, they recently opened four rooms for rent above the bar, with four-poster beds and original coving.

Dick Macks, Dingle. Tel: 066 -915 1787

What they served me: Connemara peated single malt. Voted the World’s Best Single Malt in 2009.
 

BEST WHISKEY BAR IN ULSTER: The Duke of York

Duke of York 2

 

The story of the Duke of York pub in Belfast is the story of Belfast itself: bombed, rebuilt, encouraged through a tough upbringing and then waves of great success.

In 1973, an IRA unit, out to bomb another building, got caught in the narrow cobblestoned street that is home to the Duke. They ditched their car, leaving the bomb within it to bring the original three-storey building to the ground. In true Belfast fashion, new owner Willie Jack, who bought the Duke after it was rebuilt, can only see the bright side. He points to the blue sky above, smiling broadly as he declares the now missing third storey means the street is flooded with sunlight.

Throughout the 30-plus years since, the Duke of York remained a beacon in a drab city centre more known for shutting down at teatime than opening up for night-time business. But customers kept coming and today the Duke of York has five-star hotels and world-class museums as neighbours.

It is a jewel in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter and, as a whiskey bar, it is second to none. The walls are crowded with bottles of rare antique whiskey and irreplaceable paraphernalia: mirrors, trays and signage. It is a whiskey collector’s dream and assembling it became a lifelong passion for London School of Economics graduate Jack. With his staff, he has created a bar that is open and welcoming, stuffed with passion and confidence and absolutely unique.

There are no cheap reproductions here. Everything is the real thing – including, naturally, the range of whiskeys behind the bar. They have been told they have a better selection of rare Bushmill whiskeys than the famous distillery itself and they are regularly gifted special editions.

The shelves heave with every Irish whiskey brand you can imagine as well as the fruits of long quiet Irish distilleries. The family has extended now also with the Duke’s sisters, the Dark Horse and the Harp Bar, gathering their own loyal following right alongside them.

Karen Sheppard is the Duke’s manager and her eyes light up as she talks you through their range. Every bottle, every label has a story and it is clear she loves the bar and what it has become. For Karen, her destination whiskey of choice would be Redbreast 12-year-old. To get there, she suggests, you need an education that brings you through Jameson, Powers, Bush, Yellow Spot and Green Spot – but there’s absolutely no rush to arrive.

Spend time with them, talk, get to know the bar and its friends and you’ll soon receive a first-class whiskey education.

The Duke of York, 7-11 Commercial Court, Belfast. dukeofyorkbelfast.com

What they served me: Powers John's Lane – a single pot still whiskey, matured for 12 years in Bourbon casks with a small distillate matured in Sherry Oloroso casks.
 

BEST WHISKEY BAR IN LEINSTER: The Palace Bar, Dublin

Palace Bar 2

It is 125 years since Dublin had its own distillery but the Teeling family are changing that. Working alongside them in the renewal of Dublin whiskey is another famous family, the Ahernes, who bought the Palace from the Widow Ryan in the late 1940s.

William Ryan came up from Tipperary and started bottling his own whiskey on the premises, a common enough task at the time. His son Liam took over in turn and now Liam’s son Willie has played his part by reinventing the upstairs lounge into the Whiskey Palace, a purpose-designed whiskey bar steeped in history and nostalgia.

The shelves and cupboards are stacked with the best Irish whiskeys in the world but it’s the return of the Palace own label that has captured people’s attention. A single malt known as the Fourth Estate that features a former editor of The Irish Times on its label stands proudly beside a wonderful nine-year-old and a fantastic 14-year-old (itself married with a 21-year-old).

It is a steady coupling and far from the blends that characterised whisky drinking of old. Nowadays Ahern loves to pitch whiskey to new arrivals on the scene and points them towards single pot stills. He was a fan of Yellow Spot before it was common on Dublin shelves and is a great fan of Teelings. Writers Tears from the Walsh Distillery is another great whiskey that deserves mention, he says, and a brand that has its world market firmly in sight.

The Whiskey Palace isn’t only about whiskey. Willie Ahern let his romantic side out when he put an old record player on the bar playing vinyl jazz and blues. Sipping Irish whiskey and listening to Nina Simone – what could be better, he asks.

thepalacebardublin.com

What they served me: Palace Bar 14-year-old single malt married with 21-year-old single malt. A marriage made in heaven.


BEST WHISKEY BAR IN CONNACHT: Garavans Bar, Galway

Garavans

 

They’re jiving in Garavans when I arrive on a recent Sunday afternoon. Strict trad sessions might dominate the rest of the week but rock ’n’ roll knows its place as the weekend winds down. It is a welcome twist for an old-school traditional bar and somehow suits the stone-cut façade and wooden panelled walls that have held this famous Galway bar in place since Charles Garavan opened in 1937. His grandson Paul Garavan is in charge now.

Along with manager Brian Taylor they are building a whole new chapter around the appreciation of whiskey. It is a strategy that’s working hard for them and they’re quick to underpin it with great service. Garavan works closely with the distilleries, encouraging them to engage directly with Taylor and his staff, who, he says is the real powerhouse behind their success with whiskey.

Their menu is extensive and it’s not hard to see how it caught the eye of the Irish Whiskey Society. Alongside all the great modern whiskeys that are emerging, Garavan has collected an incredible selection of antique and rare whiskeys, even travelling abroad to grab some of his most exciting finds, such as a rare Kilbeggan distilled in 1946 and bottled in 1980.

Garavan’s biggest hit is their whiskey platters: three different whiskeys served up in specially designed tasting glasses with an envelope of tasting notes to bring customers on a journey through their favourite whiskeys – their classic Irish range, the distiller’s platter or the single pot. It’s a destination in itself and Garavan’s are well aware how often the three glasses given out don’t always make it back to the bar – you need a souvenir, it seems, when the experience is so enjoyable and rare.

Garavan’s Pub, 46 William street, Galway. Tel: 091-562537

What they served me: Teeling Small Batch, a blend of grain and malt whiskeys that have been matured in rum casks and bottled at 46 per cent.

 

For more on the Irish Whiskey Awards see irishwhiskeyawards.com

Email: gquinn@irishtimes.com Twitter: @GaryQuinn_IT

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