Ireland On The Rocks

A do-it-yourself tour of whiskey distilleries uncorks a world of enjoyment

December 02, 2007|By Rosemary McClure | Rosemary McClure,Los Angeles Times


Those plump little cherubs smiling rapturously from the depths of dark baroque paintings have reason to be happy, I thought as I listened to tour guide Niall Stewart expound on "the angels' share," a term used to describe the amount of Irish whiskey that evaporates daily while aging in casks.

"No one knows what the angels actually do with their share," said Stewart, as we began our tour of the Old Jameson Distillery here. "But we do know 6,000 bottles of Jameson are lost a day floating in the air."

I'd heard a lot of stories about those lucky angels, and I'd been exceptionally lucky myself: I was on the seventh day of a marathon eight-day journey exploring the Irish Whiskey Trail, tasting my way across the island, learning how to sip and savor one of its most intriguing exports -- its ultra-smooth whiskeys.

The do-it-yourself tour, stretching north and south from Dublin, took me and a few friends to four whiskey tasting centers. It also provided a quick look at some of Ireland's most popular sights.

Emerald Isle monks get the credit for developing whiskey distillation techniques around the year 600, an advance that irks the Scots, who would like to claim that distinction for themselves.

Since its inception, Irish whiskey has been fascinating foreigners.

"Of all the wines, Irish is the best," said Peter the Great, czar of Russia, who described whiskey as "the blessed elixir of the Gods." Anglo-Saxon invaders were equally as impressed; they anglicized the Gaelic term for it -- uisce beatha (ish-keh ba-ha), or water of life -- to whiskey.

There's no better place to get a taste of whiskey's history than at the first recorded distillery, Old Bushmills, which is about an hour's drive north of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and opened its doors in 1608.

On weekdays, it's a noisy, active place, and visitors can watch the process from distillation and fermentation through bottling. It's the only working Irish whiskey distillery open for tours.

Of course, the most popular place at the plant is the tasting room. (Make sure you have a designated driver before you start tippling. Ireland's twisting, two-lane roads can be scary even when you're sober.)

We booked a premium tour, which meant a special tasting in a private roomful of sofas, a handsome bar and a gathering table. We were shown to the table; in front of each of us were five glasses, half-full of golden liquids. To the side, each of us also had a beaker of water. Tour guide Robert Galbraith was in top form as he cracked his first joke. "A wise man once said, if you don't start in the morning, you can't drink all day." Indeed, it was only 10:30 a.m.

He told us a little about Bushmills' grand celebration: In April, the distillery will mark 400 years of making Irish whiskey. And he mentioned that the tour we just completed draws about 100,000 people a year.

"Some people frown, but a drop of water will open whiskey up and enhance it," Galbraith said, motioning for us to put a few drops -- "just a splash now" -- into the first whiskey we would taste, Bushmills Original. He called it a "gentle giant, a soft and mellow blend."

We twirled our glasses, smelled the heady fragrance, then tasted.

"With a good whiskey, you'll find the flavor will linger on your palate," our tasting maestro said.

We moved on to two other Bushmills: Black Bush and Single Malt 10-year-old. Galbraith helped us describe the flavors; for Black Bush, we used such words as "assertive" and "lovable rogue." (Isn't that the way every Irishman is described?) For the 10-year-old single malt, "delicate with a hint of chocolate-vanilla."

Next, he invited us to smell, then taste, Johnnie Walker Red Scotch. The smoky odor and taste were startling after the mellow Irish whiskeys.

We took a long sip of our Bushmills 10-year-old and then moved on to bourbon. Galbraith expected another revelation, and for the others at our table there was one: The bourbon went down like fire compared with the Irish whiskeys. Still, I wasn't sure the comparison was fair. We were tasting Jim Beam White Label. It's the best-selling bourbon in the world, but it's a relatively low-end product.

But, hey, these guys aren't selling bourbon; they're selling Irish whiskey. And I had to admit their smooth mix of malt and vanilla was memorable.

It was time to move on. In the days ahead, we would visit more distilleries, but for a time Ireland's lush green scenery, thatched-roof cottages and rollicking pubs would hold our attention.

Although Ireland is only slightly larger than Indiana, its roads can be demanding and distances deceiving. When we began our Whiskey Trail journey, we left Dublin in the early afternoon, expecting to arrive in Bushmills

village about three hours later. It took twice as long. But by 9 p.m., we were dining at Bushmills Inn, a quaint re-creation of an old coach inn and mill house that was listed as one of the most romantic inns in Britain by The Sunday Times of London.

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