Whiskey, not whisky

In the somewhat unclear history of whisky making, Catholic Irish monks are believed to have been the first people to produce whiskey. In approximate year 600, they are believed to have travelled to the Mediterranean Spain to learn the fermentation of wine and beer, learning the principals of distillation in the Moorish Spain. Upon their return to Ireland, they started working on production of these two alcoholic beverages.

However, their inventiveness and general curiosity led eventually to the distillation process of the beer, and as a consequence they distilled a first release of the “Water of Life” (“uisce” in Irish Gaelic), later to be known as whiskey. The craft of distillation saw its historical “golden era” in the 15th century both in Ireland and Scotland.

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Whiskey tasting in Midleton Distillery

Notice the difference: the spelling “whiskey” is mainly used in Ireland and occasionally in the US, and the rest of the world uses slightly shorter version “whisky”. The pronunciation is exactly the same in both cases; therefore do not try to order “whiskeey” in Irish bars as the barkeeps may look at you weirdly, not to mention the fellow whiskey connoisseurs.

The exact sources of different spelling are unknown, but there are two explanations circling in the world of whiskey: One is that it is simply a matter of how it is spelled in different parts of the world, whether with “e” or without. The other one is more interesting, and claims that the spelling should depend on the style or the origin of the spirit. Hence, you will see “whiskey” or “whisky/whiskey” to acknowledge the variation. This brings me back to Americans and their indecisiveness. Generally, they write “whiskey” on the labels of aged grain spirits made in US and “whisky” for aged grain produced outside of the country.

Going back to the Irish Water of Life. I had the pleasure to visit Ireland few weeks ago. I knew that Ireland was just about the greenest country in the world, but what I saw was went beyond my expectations. The country is stunningly green with the endless pasture lands and forests, many places to visit, good fish to eat, and of course ample amounts of Guinness to drink from some of the best pubs in the world! The initial idea for the trip was to see the green Ireland; however, our spontaneity set us instead on a path of discovering several distilleries and whiskey bars. You can imagine how much fun it was for me as a designated driver.

The first distillery on our fairly spontaneously forming itinerary was The Jameson Distillery in Middleton, Cork County. The original buildings there go back all the way to the 1800s, and when you enter the buildings you can smell two centuries of distillation and maturation of whisky in the air. In front of the entrance to the main building there is an original copper pot, which happens to be the largest one in Ireland and the whole world. You know you are in a whiskey distillery.

The founder, John James, was a Scott, who settled in Dublin in 1780. The first distillery was at Bow Street, Dublin, where there were few whiskey shops and distilleries already. Nearly 200 years later, in 1975, the Jameson whiskey distillation was moved to Midleton in Cork County, where it is still produced. Before Jameson took over the Midleton Distillery, it was used to mature Cork Distillery Whiskey, now known as Paddy Whiskey.

With his passion and love for whiskey, John James created a beautiful, smooth and triple distilled spirit that soon conquered the world. Nowadays, Jameson is visible in almost every airport, bar and liquor store.

There are also other types of Jameson whiskey and other whiskeys distilled in Middleton. You might be well familiar with the Jameson Original, but there is also Jameson Black Barrel, Jameson Caskmates, Jameson 12 Year Old, Jameson 18 Year Old Limited Reserve, Jameson Gold Reserve, Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve and Jameson Signature Reserve. Before this trip, admittedly I was not the biggest whiskey fan, but the Other Me is a connoisseur. However at this place, with all the smells and the history, I started to gain a new appreciation for the drink. It may have also been that I was slightly tipsy from a drink with the Jameson whiskey, ginger and lime. As I was a designated driver that day, I needed to stop the further tasting, and left my Other Me to carry on the drinking duties.

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Jameson Whiskey fill in your own bottle, Midleton Distillery

Moreover, the Jameson Distillery produces single pot whiskeys, as Redbreast, Green Spot, Powers and Middleton, amongst others. What differentiates the single pot still whiskey is that during the distillation unmalted barely is added to the mashbill. The origin of this is not very clear, but one of the stories goes that it was done this way to avoid paying taxes on malt.

I had the pleasure of tasting Redbreast and it instantly became one of my favourites! My Other Me tasted the same, but two days later in O’Loclainn’s Irish Whiskey Bar, he also decided to order Redbreast Mano A Lamh. The name means “hand in hand”, and uses Galician and Gealic translation of Hand. This is rather special type of single pot still whiskey. First, the name shows the cooperative link between the Midleton Distillery in Ireland and the collective of artisans in Spain who have been crafting ex-oloroso sherry barrels for Midleton for over 20years. Originally, the oak barrels are crafted in Galicia, in Northern Spain and then the process is completed by seasoning and aging them in Oloroso sherry barrels for two years. The taste and the texture of the liquor knocked his socks off! Unfortunately, this particular whiskey is rare and is rather expensive. The reason for the quite high price is that only 2 000 bottles of it has been produced so far.

The next stop on our unplanned whiskey trail was the aforementioned O’Loclainn’s Irish Whiskey Bar in Ballyvaughan in Clare Country. For all of you who are not whiskey drinkers, Ballyvaughan is a nice small town in the area of Cliffs of Moher and the Burren.

At this bar, there are more whiskey types then in some airport duty free shops! You will find not only Irish whiskeys, but also Scottish, American and some others that I had never seen in my life. This is also the place where you can ask for Redbreast Mano A Lahm. The bar had one bottle only, so one of us had to try it.

The bar is not very large in size, but has a great atmosphere, apparently tends to be very crowded, and beer and whiskey is poured by the owner of the place. This is a perfect place to stop on the whiskey trail, or simply after all day of sightseeing and driving. As I was already in the mood for whiskey, I tried the whiskey sour (sour indeed!) and Jameson Black Barrel. My Other Me started with a pint of Guinness and followed it with aforementioned RedBreast Mano A Lamh, Paddies and Green Spot.

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Kilbeggan Distillery with water wheel

Next day, we were already on the way to Dublin, and it was time for Kilbeggan Distillery in Westmeath. This is an old distillery, with old machinery, distillation and maturation on site, employing a traditional water wheel for whiskey production in Ireland. Their license goes back all the way to 1757. However, the production was ceased in 1954, after nearly 200 years.  Ceasing of the production by Kilbeggan was mirrored by the overall decrease of distillation in the Irish whiskey industry. Luckily, 25 years after the closure, the community of Kilbeggan restored the distillery and opened it to the public as a whiskey distillery museum. More or less the same time, the Cooley Distillery bought the license, and restarted the distillation of Kilbeggan and Lockey Whiskies.

They did not make my life easier either, as we finished the tour of historic machinery and buildings, there came time for “small” whiskey tasting. There was Kilbeggan Traditional Irish Whiskey, Kilbeggan Single Grain and Kilbeggan 21 year Old. Shelves were also filled by a selection of peaty Connemara, Tyrconnel Single Malt and  Locke’s 8 year Old.

I can tell you that sniffing a whiskey does not give it a full appreciation! I had a tiny sip of Kilbeggan Traditional and it was quite nice. This is what I could get from this tiny sip, as I was behind the wheel again. It was a good thing that we purchased a small collection of small sized whiskeys to do a tasting at home.

Sightseeing aside, Dublin is a place for bar goers! Just the Temple Street alone will make your head spin, and you will develop new skills like pushing yourself through a dense crowd to reach a bar with the skills of a gazelle. The car was happily returned to the rental company and hence I could stop sniffing or sipping the whiskey and I could start putting my taste buds into some more serious work.

We started with the historical O’Neill’s Bar and Restaurant at Suffolk Street. We had our dinner at the O’Neill’s. If you ever do manage to go there, you need to be patient in looking for a seat in the maze of rooms and floors. The food requires a self-service, and on a regular evening, a hungry guest has to be even more patient. However, their seafood chowder with Irish dark bread is worth the wait! It is so thick and full of seafood that it is quite a challenge to navigate a spoon in it.

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Kilbeggan Distiller Museum

Then, later in the evening, we paid a visit to the most famous bar at the Temple Street, the Temple Bar. The bar was so crowded that there was hardly space for putting your foot inside. We managed though. There were crowds of tourists pretending to be Irish for the night, listening to the live music and gulping down pints of Guinness. My Other Me and I managed to find courage to taste their Temple Bar Whiskey. We were not too thrilled with the taste, but the Other Me found his happiness when the live band started singing the “Drunken Sailor” song. Worth nothing here, that I was made to listen to this song already two weeks before we landed in Ireland as “preparation” for the trip. It really beats me what exactly I was supposed to be prepared for by listening to this song though…

During our last day in the city, we visited Teeling Whiskey Distillery, at the Liberties. This is the first distillery that has opened in Dublin in the past 40years, since the last one closed. Dublin saw 37 distilleries open at some point of time during the 19th century, and the Liberties was the centre of it, also known as the “Golden Triangle”. Unfortunately, the distilleries in the capital city experienced hard times starting with the Prohibition in US and economic wars With Britain, and the last one was closed in 1976. Teeling Whiskey has thus opened a new chapter of distilling whiskey in the capital city of Ireland.

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Teeling Distillery in Dublin

Actually, the Teeling Family is not new to whiskey. Their love affair with this spirit began in 1782, when Walter Teeling set up a craft distillery on Marrowbone Lane in the Liberties, Dublin. After decades of no distilling whiskey in Dublin, the distillery was opened to visitors in 2015, and in the exact same spot as Walter had opened one back in the 18th century. It was really fresh to experience the energy from tour guide telling the story of the family and excitedly describing all the details of the distillation process. This was my third distillery tour, and I needed to hear someone energetic telling me details about the grains and yeast.

The family focuses mainly on whiskey, distilling Teeling Whiskey Small Batch, Teeling Single Grain, Teeling Single Malt, and limited editions of Teeling Revival, Teeling Single Malt 21year Old Reserve, Teeling Single Malt 26year Old Reserve, and Teeling Single Malt 30y Old Reserve. However, they also produce two kinds of Spirit of Dublin Poitin (poitin is a traditional Irish beverage distilled in a small pot still, with alcohol percentage varying between 40% to 90%).

On the final night, the last bar to be visited was the John Kavanagh, The Grave Diggers Bar located right next to the entrance to the cemetery. The bar is an old-school, all-wooden pub dating back to 1833. There is no TV or live music and the actual entertainment is to actuallly talk to someone sitting or standing next to you. This is so refreshing in the world full of smartphones and tablets. However, this is the place to have a pint of Guinness not whiskey, as these kinds of bars are famous for the high quality of this beer. Hence, we ended our trip with a proper pint and headed back to hotel for the night before our flight home.

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Bottles, bottles, everywhere

After one week of tasting whiskeys, I am still not the biggest fan of it, but I have definitely developed a different level of appreciation for this Water of Life and can distinguish some of the main differences, like whether it is smooth comparing to overwhelming content of alcohol, or whether it has sweet aftertaste comparing to bitter ones. I realized that I prefer single malts to peaty whiskey, and that Jameson Black Barrel is the one that I will be looking for at the duty free shops at the airports.

My newly acquired appreciation made my Other Me quite happy, as he likes to sip his whiskey or whisky or bourbon on Saturday evenings. It made him happy because now he will have a slightly more experienced whiskey companion who will drink some of it from his home whiskey collection. But after 10 years of being married to a whiskey connoisseur, I have to remember one thing; whiskey/whisky is drunk neat or with a small drop of water to open up the taste. At our household, it is not allowed to sink cubes of ice and have a drink of something that keeps a colour of whiskey, but tastes like water.

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