DUBLIN – True or false? Irish whiskey is practically the same as Scotch whisky.
Did you answer true? Blarney! You lose. Their rich shades of amber are about the same, but in tradition and taste, the two couldn’t be more different.
And I have to admit, I didn’t know that, either, until I embarked on a journey to Ireland, a country I’ve had a romantic fascination with since I was a child.
I didn’t visit just for the whiskey, of course, but for its legendary beauty, architecture and culture. Still, it was the whiskey that held the most intrigue.
The tiny island, which is about the size of West Virginia, is surrounded by the cold waters and salty mist of the North Atlantic and the Irish Sea. Rain is often and plentiful.
This roundup of pure, sweet water is the base of Irish whiskey. And while it may be true that the Irish like their Guinness, it’s even truer they like their whiskey.
Irish whiskey, relatively speaking, hasn’t been around long.
The process of distilling dates back to about 500 A.D., to the Arabs who extracted oils from plants to make perfume. Thus began the unique process of evaporation and condensation, the essential principles of whiskey-making today.
Later on, Celtic Christian monks, who traveled throughout Europe spreading the Gospel, used those same principles to creatively distill local ingredients into alcohol.
In France, for example, grapes were distilled for eau de vie, the cognac and brandy of today. Scandinavian countries produced aqua vit, while in Ireland grains like barley yielded uisce beatha. These romantic-sounding words simply translate to “water of life.”
In the late 1400s, the first accounts of grain distilling appeared in Scotland, but Ireland was deemed so close geographically that historians generally agree that for both countries the era of whiskey- and whisky-making began. To distinguish themselves from their Irish cousins, the Scots left the “e” out of whiskey. The first official license for distilling was granted in 1608.
And here begins our journey.
Our group began our whiskey education in Dublin, touring its narrow, flower-lined streets resplendent with statues, churches, shops and pubs. Lots of pubs, where the whiskey pairs well with local specialty dishes like corned beef and fish pie.
The first stop was Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin, where we teamed up with Emer, our bubbly, happy guide. “We take whiskey making seriously here at Jameson,” she said before missing a significant beat, then adding with a wink, “but we also take drinking it seriously.”
As we toured the distillery, which dates to 1780 but closed as a working distillery in the 1970s when operations were moved to Midleton Distillery in County Cork, Emer explained the biggest differences between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky is that the Irish version is triple distilled and doesn’t have the smoky, peaty taste that is the hallmark of scotch.
She then took us through the complicated process of whiskey-making, which begins with barley that’s malted in a kiln before it is milled to a flour-like coarseness.
Next it is mixed with pure Irish water in the mash-tun to produce wort – it sounds nasty but is actually sweet – which is then fermented to convert the sugar into alcohol. From there it is distilled to separate the water from the alcohol before being placed into handcrafted barrels for maturation.
With whiskey information overload, we finished our tour at the visitors center, where a quarter-million visitors come each year, before heading south to Cork to visit the Old Midleton Distillery at the Jameson Heritage Center.
While you can’t visit the actual working distillery, you can take an educational and historical tour of the superbly-preserved old distillery to learn more of Jameson’s time-honed craft of producing whiskey, have lunch at the Malt House Restaurant, or browse the gift shop for distinctly Irish gifts.
“What makes us so unique is that we hold on to the traditions of the past,” says master distiller Barry Crockett as he shows off the world’s largest pot still and a ye-olden-days waterwheel that once powered all of the machinery at the distillery.
Crockett also reiterates Emer’s musings that Irish whiskey is triple distilled, declaring the final product is “cleaner, more pure, and sweeter in taste, like apples, pears and peaches.”
Following an afternoon stop at the famed Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, our group, heads filled with a cornucopia of fruity images, traveled to County Westmeath to the Kilbeggan Distillery Experience, a gorgeously restored working distillery.
One of the things I most enjoyed about Kilbeggan, dating to 1757 and drawing about 45,000 visitors annually, was its amalgamation of unusual sounds, from the rhythmic ba-ba-boom-ba-ba-boom of some sort of mechanical gears grinding together to the flip-flipping of waterwheels to gurgling, bubbling streams.
Andrina Fitzgerald, who at 24 years old is one of the youngest whiskey distillers in Ireland, showed us a 185-year-old pot still, said to be the oldest in the world. Funny. It didn’t look a day over a hundred.
Northern Ireland was next in our sights, to the village of Bushmills in County Antrim. As we drove northward, I sighed contentedly at the emerald green and gorgeously lush scenery of Ireland’s pastures and craggy cliffs. It’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing, and the serene countryside is punctuated by the bones of ancient castles, pastoral stone fences, and masses of fat, happy sheep and cattle.
Finally arriving in Bushmills after a stop at mythical Giants Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we found a quiet Old World village crammed with taverns, shops and restaurants. From our accommodations at Bushmills Inn, the distillery, which brings in about 120,000 guests a year, was less than a half-mile walk.
“Bushmills is the heart of the Irish whiskey industry,” said Robert Galbraith, our guide and Bushmills ambassador, before explaining the heritage of its distilling process really hasn’t changed in the more than 400 years since King James granted the first license to distill in 1608.
We had booked a premium tour, so Galbraith took us to a comfortable tasting room. Before us sat glasses of whiskey, the liquid inside shimmering like gold from light pouring in through the windows.
The whiskey went down smoothly as we sipped our way through several centuries of whiskey-making traditions. Quietly I raised a glass and silently cheered “slainte” to King James.
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