Whiskey galore

 

Ireland used to have dozens of distilleries. Now there are just three. But between them they have five visitor centres. YVONNE GORDONdecided to tour them all...

INHALE THE AROMAS of a 12-year-old whiskey and words such as vanilla and honey come to mind. The glass I’m tasting from has a very narrow opening to keep in those smells, which is why they seem so potent. The fragrances of this whiskey remind me of Christmas cake, and I find it smoother and richer to drink than the peaty, smoky Scotch and sweet Tennessee whiskey beside it.

This is the taste test at the end of a tour of the Old Jameson Distillery, on Smithfield in Dublin. I’m not a big whiskey drinker, but a visit to the Old Bushmills Distillery, in Co Antrim, prompted me to look into our whiskey-making heritage.

Although Scotch is famous worldwide, whiskey is believed to have been made first in Ireland, around 600, when monks began distilling uisce beatha, or water of life, for medicinal purposes. By 1800 whiskey was the world’s leading spirit.

A century or so ago Ireland had about 30 distilleries. Although only three working examples remain – Old Bushmills, in Co Antrim, Midleton, in Co Cork, and Cooley, in Co Louth – Ireland has five whiskey visitor centres. Each offers a rich experience for everyone from the teetotaller to the connoisseur.

Bushmills

My first stop is Old Bushmills Distillery, in Co Antrim, the world’s oldest surviving whiskey distillery. It was granted its first licence in 1608, although locals believe the whiskey-making tradition in the area dates back a lot longer. The drive around the Causeway Coast to the village of Bushmills is spectacular in itself: to the right, rugged cliffs noisily meet the blue waters of the Atlantic; on the other side, the romantic Glens of Antrim sit in silent contrast.

It is at the distillery, during a tour of the whiskey stills and a peep at the old mills and warehouses, that I learn how Bushmills has been made for generations and how important local ingredients, such as water, are to the taste. From the crisp waters of Co Antrim to the peaty midlands water of Tullamore, water can influence the flavour of a whiskey.

The water for Bushmills makes its way from St Columb’s Rill, a tributary of the River Bush, running over the same basalt rock that produced the Giant’s Causeway, a couple of kilometres away, before reaching the distillery. It is crisp, clear and abundant, from a fast-flowing river – all particularly important considerations in the 17th century, when the water needed to drive giant waterwheels.

The other key ingredient is malted barley – sprouted barley that is dried in closed kilns. It is ground into grist in the mash house and added to boiling water in tuns, or vats, to become wort. Yeast is added, and the consequent fermentation turns the sugars to alcohol. This wash then goes into a copper pot still to be distilled three times, each distillation making the alcohol purer. (Most Scotch is distilled only twice.) The spirit is diluted a little before before being matured, for between five and 21 years, in oak casks seasoned by sherry, bourbon or port.

Standing in the warehouse, I am mesmerised by the barrels stacked floor to ceiling. These casks are empty, but the distillery here has 10 warehouses, with 190,000 barrels of whiskey. The 2 per cent that evaporates each year is known as the angels’ share.

Locke’s Distillery

Locke’s Distillery Museum, in Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath, really gives you a sense of the old times. Locke’s obtained a licence in 1757, and by the end of the 19th century it was producing up to 190,000 gallons of whiskey a year. Economic depression, competition, prohibition in the US and two world wars were too much, however, and it closed in 1957.

To walk through the old distillery is to step into history. Much of the machinery dates from the 1920s, and you can see millstones, an old steam engine and a waterwheel. The museum also lets you into the lives of people who worked there.

Locke’s got turf from nearby bogs, grain from nearby fields and water from the River Brosna (which also powered the waterwheel, via a canal). The water was said to be full of minerals, giving the whiskey its flavour. At the end of a tour you can taste Locke’s Irish Whiskey, a smooth malty blend.

Tullamore Dew

Ten kilometres from Kilbeggan, across the border with Co Offaly, Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre sits in a beautifully restored warehouse on the Grand Canal. Tullamore Distillery was established here in 1829, and by 1897 bottles of Tullamore Dew whiskey were being shipped by barge to Dublin for export.

The tour starts with a short film about the town and its history, followed by a walk through the small museum, which has replicas of some of the equipment that was used.

In 1947 the distillery also began to produce Irish Mist, a blend of whiskey, herbs and honey based on an old recipe for heather wine. In 1954, faced with a warehouse full of whiskey, the distillery’s owner, the Williams family, decided to focus instead on the liqueur, halting production of Tullamore Dew. They sold the brand to Powers in 1964, and distillation resumed in Co Cork, where it is still produced.

At the end of the tour we taste Tullamore Dew, Tullamore Dew 12-year-old Special Reserve and the award-winning Heritage Blend. Matured for eight years or so, it is mild but rich, with hints of that Christmas-cake taste.

Jameson

At the Jameson Experience in Midleton, Co Cork, our tour takes us through the courtyard where farmers delivered barley to the distiller’s cottage and past the huge waterwheel that powered the machinery. We see the still house and the world’s largest pot still, which can hold more than 100,000 litres. The distillery, which was founded in 1825, made whiskey for 150 years, when production moved to a new complex nearby.

At the company’s Dublin visitor centre, where whiskey was distilled from 1780, the tour includes a walk through the whiskey-making process. It is packed, with tours leaving every few minutes the day I am there. It is a less intimate experience than at some of the smaller distilleries, but our guide is witty and fun, and takes us through the distillation process in detail, with plenty of anecdotes.

AND NOW, ALTHOUGH I can’t quite captivate friends when I try to explain the difference between the mild woody undertones of a 12-year-old Jameson and the long, dry finish and hint of chocolate and vanilla in a 10-year-old Bushmills malt, I have acquired two certificates that say I’m a qualified whiskey taster. In straitened times, you never know when the extra qualifications will come in handy.

Visiting the distilleries

Bushmills

Old Bushmills Distillery, 2 Distillery Road, Bushmills, Co Antrim, 048-20733272, bushmills.com.

Where to stay

Bushmills Inn (9 Dunluce Road, Bushmills, 048-20733000, bushmillsinn.com) is a great place to stay – and the cosy bar in this romantic hotel has its own cask of Bushmills malt. Also try Whitepark House (150 Whitepark Road, Ballintoy, Co Antrim, 048-20731482, whiteparkhouse.com): you’ll get a warm welcome in this beautiful BB, set on the stunning Whitepark Bay.

Where to eat and drink

Bushmills Inn (see above) has a great restaurant serving local produce, and the cosy snugs are great for a romantic dinner. The stylish Distillers Arms brasserie (140 Main Street, Bushmills, 048-20731044, distillersarms.com) is not far from the distillery, whose owners once lived here.

Locke’s Tullamore Dew

Locke’s Distillery Museum, Lower Main Street, Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath, 057-9332134, lockesdistillerymuseum.ie.

Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre Bury Quay, Tullamore, Co Offaly, 057-9325015, tullamore-dew.org.

Where to stay

Bridge House Hotel (Tullamore, 057-9325600, bridgehouse.com) is a decent hotel with a top-quality spa. If you’d like to try anything equestrian, Annaharvey Farm Equestrian Centre Guesthouse (Tullamore, 057-9343544, annaharveyfarm.ie) is a comfortable BB on 140 hectares.

Where to eat and drink

The Brewery Tap (High Street, Tullamore, 057-9321131, brewerytap.com) is a traditional pub with a great atmosphere. The Wolftrap (William Street, Tullamore, 057-9323374, thewolftrap.ie) is a relaxed pub and restaurant serving good-value food.

Jameson Midleton

The Jameson Experienc, The Old Distillery, Midleton, Co Cork, 021-4613594, jamesonwhiskey.com.

Where to stay

Run by the Allens of Ballymaloe Cookery School, Ballymaloe House (Shanagarry, Co Cork, 021-4652531, ballymaloe.ie) is famous for its food. Barnabrow Country House (Cloyne, Midleton, 021-4652534, barnabrowhouse.ie) is a relaxed manor house with a walled kitchen garden and great views of the sea.

Where to eat and drink

At the Woodside restaurant (Saleen, Co Cork, 021-4651100, thewoodside.ie), try a 10oz chargrilled Jameson sirloin steak – the owner is passionate about whiskey. Farmgate (The Coolbawn, Midleton, 021-4632771) offers delicious organic and home-baked produce. Whiskeys on sale include the locally produced Midleton Very Rare.

Jameson Dublin

Old Jameson Distillery Bow Street Distillery, Smithfield, Dublin, 01-8072355, jamesonwhiskey.com.

Where to stay

The stylish Morrison Hotel (Ormond Quay, 01-8872400, morrisonhotel.ie) is a short walk from the distillery; sip a whiskey cocktail in the cool bar. Just across the Liffey is the smart, elegant Clarence Hotel (6-8 Wellington Quay, 01-4070800, theclarence.ie). Its Octagon Bar has a good selection of Irish whiskeys and cocktails.

Where to eat and drink

The Brazen Head (20 Bridge Street Lower, 01-6779549, brazenhead.com), Ireland’s oldest pub, has a great selection of whiskeys, as well as good food and lively music sessions. Nancy Hands Bar Restaurant (30-32 Parkgate Street, 01-6770149, nancyhands.ie) is an old-style pub with a great selection of Irish whiskeys and Scotch, including rare limited editions.