I was spoilt for choice.
My birthday lunch, this year, was at a buzzing Irish pub in Dublin and I wanted to celebrate with whisky. The bar menu had two pages of options, all of them local Irish whiskies. I was familiar with just one, Jameson. I settled on Writers’ Tears, which felt apt given my profession and the frequent bouts of writer’s block. This light and sweet spirit was my stellar introduction to Irish whisky.
The dark spirit played the starring role in my recent vacation to Ireland. On being asked, I told people that high on my itinerary was the desire to taste as many whiskies as possible. In ten days, I managed to do just that—drinking it in museums, at whiskey tastings, boat tours, and at every meal.
Each experience offered something memorable. Irish whisky used to be made with oats, which would explain why every hotel breakfast bar had bottles of the spirit standing near their oatmeal porridge station. Adding a dash of whisky to oatmeal is common in this cold country—it adds spiciness and warmth to the bland porridge. Another warming drink is Hot Toddy, which in Ireland is made with whisky and spiced enough to make your throat give grateful thanks. It was my last drink in the country and also my first and only taste of Jameson.
Belfast’s Grand Central Hotel is home to the tallest bar in Ireland, called the Observatory and truly worthy of much observation. There, seated by a window that gave me a bird’s eye view of the weekend Irish crowd out to party, I sipped on a Roe & Coe. The blended Irish whisky honours George Roe & Co, a prominent figure in spirit's golden age in the country, and whose distillery in Dublin was once the largest exporter of the whisky.
Dublin has seen the golden age of whisky, its subsequent demise and, these days, its revival. In the 1800s, when Irish whisky sales were booming, records say there were at least 88 licensed distilleries in the city including the big four: George Roe & Co, John Jameson, James Power and William Jameson. Today, you can still find the Jameson and newly renovated Roe & Coe distilleries open for tours, which end with a tasting of the brand’s best spirits.
My four days in Dublin were spent traipsing through these distilleries, and checking out Irish pubs—the old-timers that served only alcohol, and the updated ones that also offered a hot meal. At O’Donoghue’s, I let my bartender choose and she serves me a robust single pot still, Green Spot, which pairs well with my beefy Irish stew. At the busy Celt bar, lit by Jameson bottles turned candleholders, and listening to Irish music, I sipped Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old Special Reserve, a dry and spicy whisky that’s a blend of pot still, grain and malt. In the Liberties region, widely accepted as the historic centre of whisky distilling, lies a stunning cathedral, which has been converted into a distillery. St James’ Church is now the home of Pearse Lyons whisky and tours of the space include a visit to graveyard, where the owner’s family is buried.
The connection between Church and drink deepens as the history of this spirit unfolds. In a make-shift cathedral-like room at the Irish Whiskey Museum in Dublin, I learnt that the spirit is believed to have been the creation of Irish monks, who picked up the trade from Arabic perfume makers. In fact, the word whisky comes from the Gaelic uisce beatha or ‘water of life’. Interestingly, the earliest record of whisky was mentioned in the Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405, making this 6th century monastic site the birthplace of the spirit. The ruins of Clonmacnoise, which include seven churches, are the inspiration for the little-known Seven Churches whiskey. This robust spirit warmed me up on a two-hour Viking Tour in Athlone. It felt apt to be drinking a whisky inspired by Clonmacnoise on the same day that I visited the awesome ruins of the early Christian centre.
Elsewhere, at the Hinch Distillery in Northern Ireland, there are statues of angels looking down at the production floor. Some of the Irish believe its good luck to have angels in their distilleries. Hinch opened in 2010 and is one of the few Irish distilleries to make peated whisky (which is usually produced in Scotland). Beyond the angel statues, a tour of the distillery revealed a spirit safe used to control the distillation process, and a spectrum room that shows how the spirit matures and changes colour over time. There, I sampled four whiskies of which two stand out: the smoky and faintly sweet Peated Single Malt, and the fruity but smooth 10-Year-Old Sherry Finish.
As was evident at Hinch, and every other place I visited, the Irish love their whisky and are quite possessive of it. They will talk about it and offer recommendations, and even join you for a drink, should you need company. It’s something that I learned first-hand in Killaloe, a lovely little quiet town in County Clare, Ireland. The Washerwoman’s Pub is named after the town’s women ancestors, who protested the building of a railway track that would impede their path to the river where they washed clothes; the protests yielded a bridge.
In that surprisingly large pub, filled with furniture sourced from churches, I befriended three men, two regulars and one bartender, who welcomed me warmly and for the next few hours treated me like an esteemed guest. Over a shared packet of Ireland’s favourite snack, Tatos potato chips (on the house), we discussed religion, politics, and Indian food. I got a brief history of their town and learned who owns the best whisky collection, and in return, I told them about India’s love for whisky. On their recommendation, I tried two stellar whiskies: the light and crisp Bushmills 10 Year Old and spicy and fruity Redbreast 12 Year Old. Hours later, I walked out filled with the warmth only a good whisky and wonderful company can offer.
Sometimes, the best experiences happen over alcohol but, you don’t have to be drunk for it.
Joanna Lobo is a Goa-based journalist