A spirit reborn
The revival of Irish whiskey at home and abroad
A lot has happened in the past year from the release of new expressions such as Redbreast Lustau and the success of Jameson Caskmates to numerous announcements by new distilleries keen to be part of the resurgence of the Irish whiskey category.
As consumers we are becoming more and more discerning and this has translated into a growing interest in how Irish whiskey is made and the heritage behind the brands.
People are often mystified by what goes on inside a barrel as a whiskey is maturing. Here, head of maturation at Irish Distillers Kevin O’Gorman explains the process and the particular importance of different types of oak in the creation of various whiskey styles.
Irish whiskey’s position as a unique part of Irish culture has been reinforced and pubs, retailers and distillery visitor centres are all behind it. We talk to a selection of pubs which have upped their game in promoting Irish whiskey in recent years.
We also look at how Irish whiskey is now at the centre of Ireland’s growing cocktail culture.
Poised for growth
The landscape of Irish whiskey distilling is evolving as existing players’ commitment to the category has paved the way for new entrants.
It’s extraordinary to think that just three years ago there were only four distilleries in operation on the island of Ireland. Now there are 16 distilleries in operation with a further 11 projects with planning permission and many more planned. Between 2010 and 2025, €1.1bn will be invested into the category as part of this remarkable rebirth.
There is no doubt that it is an exciting time for the Irish whiskey category, which is now the fastest growing spirits category in the world, according to the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA).
In the past ten years, exports of Irish whiskey have grown by over 300% to reach €433m in 2015. Over 7.7 million 9-litre cases were sold to over 130 countries worldwide last year. This figure is set to exceed 12 million by 2020 and 24 million by 2030.
The growth of the category is due to a number of factors, according to head of the IWA Miriam Mooney. “Established distilleries continue to invest to further the reputation of Irish whiskey on the global stage, opening up new market opportunities and supporting emerging players by imparting time-honoured traditions, as well as their approaches to innovation,” she says. “As the Irish whiskey category continues its growth at pace, innovation will be key to realising its full potential. Existing players and new entrants are delivering exciting innovations, while continuing to honour the legacy and traditions of Irish whiskey. This brings more diversity and new taste profiles and supports the growth of the category as consumers have ample choice within the resurgent Irish whiskey category.”
Quality and the protection of the premium nature of the product are crucial and remain a top priority for the industry. To this end, the IWA recently launched a programme which will involve established global whiskey players such as Irish Distillers supporting the growth of new market entrants through active mentoring.
“Newer distilleries face a range of challenges. It requires a huge investment to build a distillery and create a brand and that’s before you even have your product on the shelf. Irish whiskey must be aged for a minimum of three years before it can be sold,” says Miriam.
“The IWA’s mentoring programme is focused on helping new entrants tackle a range of issues such as planning, production and commissioning, ensuring they grow sustainably in the long-term.”
There have been many announcements of new projects and distilleries that have started production across the island of Ireland in the past few of years. Two of these are Slane Distillery in Co Meath and The Connacht Distillery in Ballina, Co Mayo.
In September last year the ground was broken on a new distillery and visitor experience on the historic Slane Castle Estate in Co Meath, the home of the eighth Marquess Conyngham Henry Conyngham and his son Alex Conyngham, the Earl of Mount Charles.
American spirits and wine business Brown-Forman is investing US$50m in the project, its first foray into distilling Irish whiskey and also the first distillery built by the company outside the US. A former employee of Irish Distillers in Australia, Alex is on the board of directors of Slane Distillery and is currently involved in shaping how the whiskey will be made and the design of the visitor centre. When I speak to him he is on a bus in Kentucky having spent a week at Brown-Forman’s headquarters getting some behind-the-scenes insights from the team there.
“This is a long-term partnership between two families – the Browns of Kentucky and the Conynghams of Slane. Brown-Forman always thinks of the next generation and so do we. The relationship brings us a lot of technical experience in terms of making and maturing whiskey as well as expertise in building brands and selling spirits. Through Brown-Forman we have an excellent route to market,” he says.
“My father put Slane on the map by holding rock concerts on the estate since 1981. It was his idea to go into the whiskey business in 2009. One of the reasons was that we produce 2,000 tonnes of barley a year on the farm here and he saw the opportunity to turn that into whiskey. We have the option to launch a complete ‘grain to glass’ offering as we have control over the type of barley produced and are aware of the different soil types.”
Construction on the site adjacent to the castle is well advanced involving a combination of restoring old buildings and constructing new ones. “Some very talented stone masons have restored the 18th Century buildings which we have reroofed with Welsh slate. We’re not cutting any corners in being authentic to the fabric of the buildings. As part of the restoration of the 19th Century mill pond we have even built a fish ladder so spawning salmon can make their way along the River Boyne,” says Alex.
Three copper pot stills and six column stills will be arriving in mid-December which will allow Slane Distillery to make a range of products, including pot still, malt and grain whiskeys. The partners are on target to commission the new distillery in March or April of next year. Upon completion, it will have a potential output of 600,000 cases a year.
“We procured really good malt and grain whiskey from other distilleries which we are putting our stamp on by maturing it through our own triple cask process. We will be blending that onsite in Slane in February and expect to release the first bottles in April in Ireland followed by the US in July. We have enough stock to get us through the first few years and when our own whiskey is matured we will start substituting it,” Alex explains.
The idea for Connacht Distillery came about when cousins David Stapleton and PJ Stapleton were having a chat about life after a game of golf in Connemara three years ago. Living near the distillery, in Castlebar, Co Mayo David has extensive manufacturing and engineering experience while American lawyer PJ was previously chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
“I had noticed that Irish whiskey was becoming very popular in media circles and PJ could see its growing popularity in the US. On looking into it further, we quickly realised that as much as I know about manufacturing and he about sales of wine and spirits we had no clue about how to make or distribute Irish whiskey to the US,” says David.
“Master distiller Robert Cassell and former CEO of Remy-Cointreau USA Tom Jensen [both American] came on board in partnership with us and all of a sudden the project became more than just a coincidence.
“We share the dream of bringing pure pot still Irish whiskey back to the West of Ireland after an absence of over 100 years. Between the four of us we have the competence to make this a reality as well as market and sell it into the fast growing US market.”
An existing building alongside the River Moy in Ballina, Co Mayo was gutted and extended to house the new distillery. It had previously served as a bakery, but is now perfectly suited to manufacture a different product made from fine Irish grains. Connacht Distillery was officially opened in October 2014. It distils, barrel ages and bottles in its self-contained 2,700 sq m facility, which has the capacity to produce 400,000 combined litres of whiskey and white spirits a year.
Using three copper pot stills custom designed by Cassell, Connacht Distillery is currently distilling several different mash bills of pure pot still Irish whiskey and single malt Irish whiskey.
“Robert is a really creative guy with huge experience. What goes on in his mind is fascinating to me. The pot stills are the only ones of their type in the country and the mash bills he is working with are completely unique in the Irish context,” says David.
The young whiskey is aging onsite in once-used American oak bourbon barrels and the first batch should be ready towards the end of 2019. The team at Connacht strongly believes that the ambient temperatures and salty air of its location will differentiate the whiskey offerings from other regional distillers in Ireland.
“Whiskey distilled and aged in the northwest of Ireland should not and will not taste exactly like the Irish whiskey distilled and aged near Dublin,” says Robert.
While waiting for its flagship Irish whiskey to mature, Connacht Distillery is currently selling its Irish vodka and poitín under the Straw Boys label. It is also producing Conncullin Irish gin and is selling Irish whiskey sourced from other distilleries under the Spade&Bush label.
Connacht Distillery is actively selling its brands in Ireland and will look to export to the UK, France, Canada and some Eastern European markets in 2017. Its primary target market, however, is the US, based on the belief in its growth potential and the directors’ extensive knowledge and relationships within that market.
“We are really confident in terms of the liquid, the packaging and our brand story as well as our ability to sell into the biggest market in the world for whiskey,” says David.
Besides the directors, the investors in Connacht Whiskey are a group of Ireland and US-based friends and family with no corporate or private equity money involved.
On entering one of the new cathedral-style warehouses on the Midleton Distillery site in Co Cork recently I was greeted by the subtle aroma of oak along with vanilla and toasted wood. I sensed I was in the presence of greatness looking at the rows and rows of oak barrels towering above me.
It was here that I learned all about the alchemy of maturation from Irish Distillers head of maturation Kevin O’Gorman and the role that different types of oak have in the process.
When the new make distillate comes off the stills at the production plant – at 84% strength for pot still distillate and
94% for grain distillate - it is taken to the maturation area where Kevin’s job begins.
“The first thing we do is reduce the new-make distillate down in strength with demineralised water to about 63%.
Then it is filled into a range of casks. It starts its life as a clear liquid and over the years picks up colour, flavour and aroma,”
“A number of different things happen within the cask as the distillate starts to develop and mature. We break them
down into three distinct reactions: additive, subtractive and interactive.”
Additive reactions are where particular flavours and colour such as tannins or wood compounds are added naturally from the cask wood to the new-make distillate. Subtractive reactions involve the removal of certain compounds from the spirit. For example, some sulphur compounds are absorbed into the charred layer of wood on the inside of the cask. With interactive reactions, certain compounds react with each other to produce another compound.
“All of these things go on inside the cask over the years. Oxidation plays an important role as well. While oak doesn’t leak, it does allow oxidation to take place,” says Kevin.
The origin of the oak, what the cask previously contained and the length of time the liquid is left to mature all affect the resulting whiskey’s flavour. Casks can be used up to three times for maturing at Midleton, which also impacts the flavour profile.
Kevin allowed me to compare whiskey matured in an American barrel with a sample of whiskey matured in a port pipe from Portugal. The port pipe had previously been seasoned with wine for nine months to take out the heavy tannins from the wood followed by ruby port for two years.
Both whiskeys started as the same distillate but the flavours were completely different because of the casks they had been matured in. Kevin used a long silver pipette known as a valenge to extract the samples from the casks in the warehouse. The golden whiskey from the American barrel, which had been 25 years in the cask in Midleton, had a lot of vanilla and caramel flavour to it with deeper notes of summer fruits and ripe bananas on the nose.
The whiskey from the port pipe had been maturing for 21 years. It had a deeper reddish colour, tasted of dried fruit and plum pudding and smelled spicier.
There are two key factors that contribute to the very different taste profiles. Firstly, the species of oak. American casks are made mainly from Quercus Alba whereas port pipes from Portugal are made mainly from Quercus Pyrenaica. (Spanish sherry casks are made from Quercus Robur).
The second major factor is the origin of the cask and what previous spirit or wine was held in it. The previous contents of the cask, be it wine or spirit, will influence the different flavours and aromas imparted during maturation.
Most of the barrels in Midleton are American having spent the first part of their lives being seasoned with Bourbon or Tennessee whiskey in the Kentucky/Tennessee regions in the US. Each year around 150,000 of these casks are shipped fully intact for use in maturing Irish Distillers’ whiskeys. They are purchased according to an exact specification through a number of cooperages based in the US.
Each with a 200-litre capacity, the casks are made of American white oak. The inside of these casks has been charred. This creates a larger surface area for the spirit to ingress into the wood and makes a very important flavour contribution.
Charring of the inside of the cask creates many different types of flavours with the creation of vanillin being of particular importance. The flavours created during charring contribute to an enhanced level of caramel, vanilla and toasted wood notes.
Traditionally 30-40 years ago the American barrels were transported in shook form, which means they were broken down into bundles of staves. The disadvantage of this was that they had to be put back together again and thereafter tended to give lots of leakers and problems.
In the 1980s Irish Distillers decided it was more efficient to ship them intact in containers. Nowadays all of the casks are inspected by master cooper Ger Buckley and fellow cooper Donie O’Regan. Midleton has also recruited an apprentice cooper Killian O’Mahony as it is keen to ensure that the skills and craft of coopering are always maintained.
Irish Distillers also matures its whiskeys in casks made of Spanish, French, Portuguese and virgin Irish oak.
Sherry butts from Spain
Holding 500 litres, the sherry butts at Midleton come from a region in Spain in the province of Cadiz which is demarcated to only produce sherry. Most of the oak is harvested in Galicia in the north west of the country where Irish Distillers is collaborating on a forest sustainability and certification project with the University of Santiago de Compostela.
“Spanish oak is higher in tannins and certain wood compounds. We know the Galicia region very well and can work our way right back to the forest owners in terms of where the oak is sourced,” says Kevin.Once the oak is harvested it goes to a sawmill in Galicia where it is quarter sawn and cut into staves. They are then shipped to Antonio Paez Lobato’s cooperage in Jerez where they are allowed to air dry for 15-18 months. This brings the moisture content down from around 40-50% to about 17%. Antonio then makes the sherry butts to Irish Distillers’ exact requirements.
They are seasoned with top quality Oloroso sherry for about two years at two bodegas before being emptied and shipped to Midleton where they are mostly used to mature the Redbreast range.
“Antonio knows exactly what we want from a cask having worked with us for over 30 years. There are different grades of oak used for flooring, carpentry and furniture. Coopering uses the top grade. When using an oak tree to manufacture a cask it needs to have a straight grain structure with no branching otherwise you will have knots and end up with leaks,” says
“The trees used for our casks can be up to 180 years old when harvested, although they tend to be younger in the US, normally between 80 and 100 years old. The turnover of casks in the US is quicker than in Spain and Ireland.”
Midleton Dair Ghaelach
Irish Distillers started looking at the feasibility of using Irish oak eight or nine years ago bearing two key factors in mind –
the desire to produce great whiskey and the sustainability of Irish oak.
“Over the years, governments realised something needed to be done and further to Ireland joining the EU subsidies were introduced for farmers to plant trees. In the past 30 or 40 years there has been a huge amount of planting so that we have now reached about 11% land cover. There was a 15 % increase in terms of hectares of oak in Ireland from 2007 to 2012. There is a long way to go but we want to contribute to the long term sustainability of Irish oak.”
Further to investigating the status and amount of Irish oak with the help of forestry consultant Paddy Purser, Irish Distillers initiated a project seven years ago called Midleton Dair Ghaelach.
It involves working with farmers or estates in Ireland with a strong focus on sustainability and how they harvest their woodlands.
The first was Ballaghtobin Estate in Co Kilkenny where ten 130-year old trees were harvested. The logs were sent to Galicia for quarter sawing and Jerez where they were dried and turned into 250-litre hogshead casks
Back at Midleton, a selection of traditional single pot still distillates, matured for between 15 and 22 years in ex-bourbon casks, were married together and finished for ten months in these virgin Irish oak hogsheads.
The result was Midleton Dair Ghaelach, a robust yet mellow whiskey tasting of fudge, caramel, milk chocolate and some rich fruit aromas of red berries, pineapple and ripe bananas. Each of the trees felled was processed into separate barrels, so that every bottle can be directly linked to a specific tree.
“Because of the long growing season in Ireland and the mild climate the timber grows fast and you end up with a grain structure that is more open and less dense than Spanish and American oak. This means there is a more rapid contribution from the Irish oak so we had to keep a close eye on the whiskey as it was maturing. We checked it every month to make sure the whiskey was in perfect balance when it came out,” says Kevin.
“The thing with maturation is you just have to wait. Little subtleties between one month and the next can make a big difference to the flavour. It takes a few years and a lot of experience to find out what works. We have tried lots of different cask types and permutations to see how the liquid gets on and do a huge amount of tastings during the process.
“Machinery and automation play an important part in whiskey production now but these will never replace the skill and craft of nosing and tasting whiskey. At the end of the day, it’s the final aroma and taste of the whiskey that really counts.”
Sorcha Corcoran speaks to Shane Harte, manager of The Chelsea Drugstore on South Great George’s Street in Dublin about the surge in interest in Irish whiskey cocktails and how they are changing people’s perception of the spirit
What is your background and where did your interest in cocktails stem from?
I fell into hospitality when I was 16 when I got a summer job collecting glasses in the Abbey Manor Hotel in Dromahair, Co Leitrim. When I do anything I want to fully understand it from every aspect. I always had a genuine interest in products behind the bar in terms of how they smelled and tasted.
Studying hospitality management in Dublin Institute of Technology gave me the footing for where I wanted to be. I moved to Dublin ten years ago and worked in a number of big nightclubs. The Twisted Pepper in Middle Abbey Street (now Wigwam) was my real entrance into the mixed drinks world.
I worked with some talented people there and the owner pushed us to enter competitions. I moved to MVP in Harold’s Cross for a year and then came The Chelsea Drugstore 18 months ago.
What is the history and ethos of the Chelsea Drugstore?
Around 100 years ago it was an old-style chemist and then a butcher’s as it was beside the slaughterhouse that is now The Market Bar. Most recently it was an Asian market and lay empty for a few years before the Chelsea Drugstore opened.
We are a late night cocktail bar named after the London venue of the same name on the Kings Road that was open between 1968 and 1972. Part of a whole subculture at the time, it was mentioned in the Rolling Stones song ‘You can’t always get what you want’. Our owner John Reynolds is really into music having founded Electric Picnic and run other festivals.
We expect quite a lot from our bartenders. We do training every second Tuesday and test them every now and then. You never know who a customer could be so bartenders need to fully understand what they are serving. We recently had one of the biggest drinks bloggers in the world here, so you have to know your stuff.
How popular are whiskey cocktails in Ireland now?
There has been a few bars focusing on cocktails in the past ten years or so, but it has really exploded in Ireland in the past two to three years. You just have to look at the amount of bars that have opened in the past 12 months. Three opened in the same week as us in Dublin and cocktails are a huge element of what they’re doing. It seems to be now that when a new bar opens it is either focused on craft beer or cocktails.
The interest in cocktails in Ireland is very much driven by consumers who are well travelled – they have been to large cities where they have eaten and drank well and now demand the same product at home.
This is largely helped by the fact that Ireland produces the best whiskey in the world and there are so many fantastic Irish whiskeys being made on our doorstep.
There is also a good level of education coming from the brands in terms of exactly what they’re selling. I have been to Midleton Distillery twice. Getting to speak to the master distiller and watch the liquid being made is the best way to understand the product. This isn’t always possible for bartenders in other countries.
Can you give some examples of the popular Irish whiskey cocktails that you offer?
Irish whiskey is a good base for cocktails as it stands up well against different flavours because of its taste profile. One of our most popular cocktails is Alcock & Browne, which is a crisp, clean, aromatic drink based on Redbreast 12 Year Old.
It is a Tiki style drink using Polynesian summer island flavours and made with banana, fennel and fresh pineapple. Redbreast 12 Year Old with its spice stands up really well to these strong flavours.
Another favourite is Martin’s Pick Me Up named after a customer in Abbey Manor Hotel who used to come in at the same time every day and have coffee with a measure of Powers. It is made using Powers John’s Lane and cold coffee left to infuse for 24 hours and stirred down with orange and Aphrodite bitters and some sugar.
Where do you get your inspiration when making Irish whiskey cocktails?
Over the years you make a whole load of bad drinks and then suddenly start making good ones. It’s about understanding the flavours and you do need a strong palate. I am always reading up on different flavours and will talk to other bartenders. The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit is my bible.
Each of the four Irish whiskey types – malt, grain, single pot still and blended – are all very different and what works with one won’t necessarily work with another. Single pot still Irish whiskey is particularly good in cocktails and will work fantastically with tropical flavours because of its beautiful spice.
My inspiration mainly comes from eating and trying fresh fruit and vegetables. If I don’t know what something is in a fruit and vegetable market I will bring it home and try it.
When I am coming up with a drink I will have what the final drink tastes like in my mind and work backwards from there. I try to always complement the base spirit and want it to stand up and be identifiable in the drink. I focus on the flavour profile rather than the age of the whiskey.
How do you advise customers on which whiskey cocktail to choose?
Customers can often be overwhelmed by the choice, so we start by asking whether they prefer sweet, sour or ‘booze forward’ drinks, like the old fashioned Manhattan. The spirit they prefer will help us to steer them towards particular drinks. We’re quite conscious that all of our brown spirit drinks don’t need to be strong booze forward drinks.
Sometimes when people say they don’t like whiskey at all, we will advise them that there is more than one way to drink it. Cocktails help people to perceive Irish whiskey in a different way - a cocktail is a lot less intimidating than a neat whiskey if you are a novice.
What advice would you give to people who want to make their own cocktails at home?
The basic things you’ll need in terms of making cocktails are a shaker, spoon and measure. You don’t need a proper shaker, a big pasta jar washed out will do. For around €25 you will get a good bottle of Irish whiskey or gin. The bare essential base ingredients from there are orange liquor, maraschino (a spiced cherry liquor) fresh fruit and a decent sugar syrup.
The key to making really good cocktails is to use fresh fruit, not juices. We hand-press all of our lemons and limes and cut up and blend our pineapples so there is no added sugar. The only liquor we don’t make ourselves is banana because of its texture. This is the direction most Irish cocktail bars are going now, creating their own liquors, bitters and even their own spirits.
Irish Whiskey Cocktail Recipes
Powers 12 Old Fashioned
60ml Powers 12
One brown sugar cube
3 dash Angostura bitters
1 orange peel
Place sugar cube in a glass and soak it in bitters. Muddle the cube until it becomes a soft paste and begins to dissolve. Add the Powers and plenty of ice. Stir the drinks until the sugar has dissolved and the dilution is to your pleasure. Strain into a whiskey tumbler filled with ice. With a peeler take a large peel of skin off an orange. Squeeze the orange skin so that the oils are expressed over the drinks.
Jameson Black Barrell Whiskey Sour
60ml Jameson Black Barrell
25ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
15ml simple syrup 3 dashes Angostura bitters
15ml egg whites
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Hard shake for 10 seconds. Fine strain into a chilled glass. Express orange oils over the egg white head.
Martin’s Pick Me Up
60ml Powers John’s Lane
30ml cold coffee infusion
5ml simple syrup
2 dashes orange bitters
2 dashes Aphrodite bitters
Add all ingredients to a large glass and fill with ice. Stir for 12 seconds continuously. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Express Lemon oils over the glass
Alcock & Browne
12 10ml banana liqueur
25ml freshly squeezed pineapple juice
10ml fennell seed infused simple syrup
10ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 dashes Dr Adam Elmegirab Bokers Bitters
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Hard shake for 10 seconds. Fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Grate a small bit of nutmeg over the top for aroma
THE LONG HALL, GEORGE’S STREET, DUBLIN 2
Owner of The Long Hall Marcus Houlihan’s interest in Irish whiskey was piqued five years ago on a family holiday in Cork when he went on the tour of the Old Midleton Distillery. He soon returned there to complete a two-day intensive course at the Irish Whiskey Academy.
He went on to visit the Dingle Distillery in Co Kerry a couple of years later and then really began to realise the potential of Irish whiskey in terms of the future growth of his business.
“As a traditional Irish pub our thinking is that our real focus should be on Irish whiskey. To that end we now carry the entire Jameson range as well as a large selection from other brands including Powers, Bushmills,Mitchell & Son and Knappouge Castle,” says Marcus. “We regularly host whiskey tastings and for the past two years we have featured a ‘Whiskey of the Month’.”
To mark its 250th anniversary this year, the pub is launching a special Powers Single Cask ‘The Long Hall’ Release. Due to the yield from the particular cask, which was chosen with the help of Irish Distillers master blender Billy Leighton, this will be strictly limited to 252 bottles.
“For the remainder of 2016 it will only be available for sale by the measure in our pub and then into 2017 we are looking at releasing certain quantities on a phased basis for sale by the bottle,” says Marcus. “We are collaborating with Irish Distillers on this. We have also purchased one of the first 500 casks at the Dingle Distillery.”
Marcus believes that Irish whiskey is now appealing to a wider audience. “What was once the preserve of the older male customer - the ‘pint and a small one’ if you like - is now being enjoyed by a wide cross-section of our customers, both male and female,” he says.
One of The Long Hall’s most famous customers is Irish whiskey fan Bruce Springsteen, who has become a regular visitor to his ‘Dublin local’over the years. In 2009 at his concert in the RDS he told the audience: “The E Street Band and I have travelled thousands of miles to be here tonight. We didn’t come all this way to sip on Guinness and Jameson at The Long Hall, though that would have been reason enough to make the journey”.
“On his subsequent visits to the pub, we have recommended he try Redbreast 12 and 15 Year Old, which was very well received,” says Marcus. “In May of this year when he called in on the Saturday afternoon between his two Croke Park shows we presented him with a specially personalised bottle of Redbreast 21 Year Old complete with personalised plaque.”
GARAVAN’S, WILLIAM STREET, GALWAY
Winner of the Best Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year (Connaught) for the past three years, Garavan’s in the heart of Galway City takes its Irish whiskey offering seriously. The bar has five distinct tasting platters and holds tasting events regularly with all the trays accompanied by its own tasting notes.
“We have always had an association with Irish whiskey,” says owner Paul Garavan. “My grandfather started the business, which was a bar and a grocery shop, in 1937 and would have purchased barrels of whiskey and bottled them himself.
“I was and still am very interested in Irish whiskey. A few years ago we started focusing on increasing our offering to locals and visitors to Galway. I had read quite a bit about Irish Distillers and Jameson and the success they were having abroad as well as the rise in popularity of Irish whiskey generally.”
Garavan’s is a pub where you can learn about Irish whiskey.“We saw that visitors to Ireland had a huge interest in Irish whiskey, but were very unsure about the different types available. So we launched our Irish whiskey tasting platters with our own whiskey tasting notes,” says Paul.
Noticing that overseas visitors were interested in memorabilia, Garavan’s launched its own Irish whiskey gift sets including a Glencairn Irish Whiskey glass and a miniature Garavan’s 8 Year Old Single Malt Whiskey.
“These have been extremely popular for us and we are now selling directly to gift companies here in Ireland. We also run Irish whiskey tasting events here in the bar a few times a year in conjunction with Irish Distillers,” says Paul.
He agrees that the typical Irish whiskey drinker has changed somewhat. “You could say 10 or 15 years ago it was predominately perceived as a man’s drink or even an old man’s drink, but this is certainly not the case anymore.
“Our recent tasting event was basically split 50/50 between men and women with the typical age profile being 28 to 40 years of age. Irish whiskey is embedded in our history and people are curious to explore that.”
DICK MACK’S, GREENE STREET, DINGLE, CO KERRY
The iconic Dick Mack’s in Dingle, Co Kerry is something of an institution in the area since it first opened in 1899.
Now the pub is run by Dick’s grandson Finn Mac Donnell, who started to place more emphasis on Irish whiskey after a chance meeting with Peter White, who was at the time vice-president of the Irish Whiskey Society.
“We got chatting on a winter’s night at the bar and decided to start adding bottles that he would recommend here and there,” explains Finn. “A few key steps were taken soon after, including joining the Irish Whiskey Trail and the society. We held staff training and I made trips to distilleries here and over in Scotland, soon realising a hidden passion for whiskey and all it entails.”
Promoting Irish whiskey is probably one of the most enjoyable aspects of working behind the bar now in Finn’s view. “It has opened up a whole topic of conversation that is steeped in history and tradition and our staff and locals agree it is a thing of pride to be able to tell visitors all about the tradition of Irish whiskey making here in Ireland.
“In promoting whiskey we have tried to make it fun and accessible. Everything we get in will first pass our tasting panel, which is composed of some of our locals and staff.”
Finn believes Dingle has experienced a whiskey revolution.“It now boasts its own distillery, its own whiskey chapter with 30 members, and numerous bars and restaurants that have all added greatly to their whiskey range.
“The distillery employs about 12 people, most of whom are in their 20s or 30s. They are helping to make whiskey more appealing to a younger audience. Whiskey has become cool and people are no longer afraid to ask questions about it. In the bar I would say 90 pc of our customers want a recommendation. It just goes to show how important staff training is. This is something we plan to really work on in 2016/2017.”
Dick Mack’s aims to make whiskey accessible and this goes for the premium level whiskey as well. “We offer a wide range of premium whiskey from ultra-rare Midleton Pearl to the classic Green Spot and Knappogue 1951. We always stress that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to enjoy good whiskey and we always guide our customers through the range.”
ARTHUR MAYNE’S, PEMBROKE STREET, CORK
Arthur Mayne’s is a 120-year-old Victorian chemist turned bar. Very little changes have been made to the ground floor of this building that houses one of the most unusual pubs in Cork city, complete with that pharmacy feeling. There’s even a range of medicines behind the counter, along with a substantial Irish whiskey offering.
“Growing up in a pub as I and my brothers did and as my kids did, there was always an emphasis on whiskey,” says owner Benny McCabe. “There we were first taught what I now see was the ritual – making sure fresh water was in the jugs on the counter before we went to school. There was the odd customer who didn’t want to be served in that fashion, however all united in a fierce patriotic pride almost born out of revolution and subsequent economic war.”
Arthur Mayne’s stocks all the Irish whiskey brands but has a special affiliation with Midleton and all the good things that are going on at Irish Distillers. Such is its dedication to Irish whiskey, it is re-opening a 300-year-old room above the bar next spring in order to do justice to the whiskey ritual McCabe talks about.
“We are turning this room into a shrine to whiskey to celebrate the past and anticipate the future. I believe that whiskey should have a room of its own in a pub. It’s taking a bit of painful restoration because we want to retain the old while complying with fire codes, so it poses quite a challenge. It used to be some sort of restaurant – a bacon and cabbage joint we think.”
McCabe strongly believes the younger, confident, assertive generation – the millennials – is driving the whiskey movement. “All these people are now drinking whiskey and they’re telling us what to stock. It’s almost as if their energy has sparked life into those old enamel signs and faded pictures of whiskey from times past and it’s all clear and present now.”