Recently I returned from an 8-night whiskey adventure through Ireland. The goal of the trip was to understand the history of Irish whiskey, the process of pot and triple distillation, and the reason behind the buzz of new whiskies being released. My familiarity of Irish whiskey was somewhat limited due to the lack of selection or “interest” in this category at our local drinking establishments in Upstate New York. Over the last year I had purchased more Irish whiskey out of curiosity including the Tullamore D.E.W. Phoenix and Green Spot and had tasted others including the Red Breast line. But my true interest was getting to Ireland to see first-hand and learn from the source.
Over the last year I have visited over 20 distilleries in Scotland and the United States. Each of these distilleries taught me something different which is why I continue to make plans to visit more. In Ireland I visited 6 distilleries during my week-long trip. They included the Kilbeggan Distillery, Tullamore D.E.W., the Jameson Midleton Distillery, the Dingle Distillery, the Walsh Distillery, and the Teeling Distillery. It was in this order that I visited these distilleries and it worked going from the older traditional distilleries learning about the history of Irish whiskey to the newer ones with their fresh perspectives on the future of Ireland and its whiskey.
Here are some of my conclusions from this whiskey trip:
- Irish whiskey is really trying to brand itself. At Tullamore D.E.W. we learned of the fire in the town of Tullamore in 1785 and of the phoenix of their Irish whiskey distillery rising out of the ashes in the early 19th century bringing the town back. Teeling also uses a phoenix in their branding. This theme could be seen at each distillery where there was a new hope for the future for Irish whiskey. They accept some failures or circumstances in the past and are really looking to take off in the future. The new Irish Whiskey Museum in Dublin had a great section describing the roller coaster ride of their whiskey history.
- When visiting the Kilbeggan, Tullamore D.E.W. and Jameson Midleton distilleries, the tours were mostly about the history and past. They all included a detailed process of the stages of creating their whiskies, but they used props or antiquated equipment to show each stage. There was very little “working” distillery viewing. In fact, the Tullamore D.E.W. experience was in their old bonded warehouse which was converted into a visitor’s center. You can visit the actual distillery if you do their high-end day tour, but most visitors are not able to see this. This was different from many of the distilleries in Scotland or the United States that I had visited. There is something exciting about seeing the stills in action and the washbacks full of bubbling yeast. Kilbeggan and Jameson Midleton did have some stills that you could see where they did experimental distilling, but they were not the main working stills.
- “Sourcing” of whiskey in Ireland reminds me of the challenges that some U.S. distilleries face when they are not transparent of where their whiskey comes from. I understand that the Cooley and Midleton distilleries supply many of the newer brands of Irish whiskey, especially the ones that have whiskies labeled over 5 years old. I remember how big of an issue that became in the United States when this “sourcing” was not clear. We didn’t visit West Cork Distillers or Hyde, but I would have liked to understand more about their whiskey production. I understand how difficult it is to start a distillery and the reality of having to wait as your whiskey ages, but if you are coming out with a 10-year old whiskey, it would be nice to know where and by whom it was distilled.
- Triple distillation is truly Irish. If there was one common theme among all of the distilleries we visited, it was triple distillation. It almost seemed sacrilegious if whiskey was double distilled. Sorry to the rest of the world… But it does give the Irish a unique way of labeling it “Irish”.
- There is no love lost with the Scots. The Coffey still was a good example of this. Invented by the Irish, it was determined that the whiskey distilled by the Coffey still was bland and tasteless. Mr. Coffey then took his continuous still to Scotland where it was used to produce a lot of whiskey which eventually hurt the Irish through competition. The other thing that we constantly heard was that “all” Scottish whisky uses peat. It almost got to the point where I just smiled and laughed inside when I heard this. But this is the image that they are trying to get across: Scotch is smoky, Irish is smooth and easy to drink. To each his own…
- It seemed that they all knew each other. It was amazing to see the connections and/or relationships among the distilleries, especially the newer ones. Maybe this is due to the fact that this new era of Irish whiskey is just starting, or that they all worked together at some point in the past.
- A lot of money is being invested in the new Irish whiskey distilleries. It was amazing to see the new Walsh and Teeling distilleries. They were the most polished distilleries I had ever seen! The Walsh distillery was interesting in that they said that this was the beginning of a 120+ year history. They were looking generations out. The Tullamore D.E.W. experience was also high tech with videos, lots of different lighting and effects, and a nice tasting room. We saw Dingle’s plans for the future as well, and they are going to redo their whole visitor experience with a new remodel.
- The highlight of the trip was the day we spent at the Dingle distillery. Being able to spend an entire day “working” with the crew was unforgettable. Not only did we get to see and work their process, but we were able to discuss their vision for the future and the industry in general. They were gracious hosts and I can’t wait to go back to Dingle.
Overall, it was an incredible trip and I came back with a new appreciation and knowledge for Irish whiskey. I look forward to returning in a few years to revisit some that I visited and many of the new ones that are just starting. Here are some interesting bottles that I picked up that we will use for our next tasting with the Saratoga Whiskey Club (www.saratogawhiskeyclub.com).
If you are interested in any of our future trips around the world visiting distilleries, make sure to check out: http://mytraveldirections.com/whiskey-tours/