Follow whiskey trail in Ireland, Scottish isles

  • Article by: PETER MANDEL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 9, 2013 - 2:24 PM

A journey to Ireland and the Scottish island of Islay uncovers a storehouse of local quirks, along with a few special drams.

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Irish whiskey set out in glasses during a tasting at the Bushmills distillery in Northern Ireland. Bushmills brags that its roots go back to 1608.

Photo: Peter Mandel , Special to the Star Tribune

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Shots of courage. Lightning in a bottle. Bottoms up. Whiskey has its own liquid poetry. Sip it and you talk, or sing. My Scottish cousins can be almost eloquent about the drink itself. It is, they say, an education. As richly cultural as wine.

This started me thinking. If wine has terroir — the special traditions, soils, sunny hillsides that end up affecting its taste on your tongue — what about alcohol that’s distilled from grain? Would it matter if it came from sacks of barley in Indiana? Or did Scotland and Ireland (supposedly the birthplace of the drink, with records dating back to 1405) have something no one else could claim?

I began to map out a trip to those distillery-dotted countries to try to find out. But since I am a whiskey amateur, not an aficionado, I’d want to get a full-fledged vacation out of my route. It wouldn’t be a string of cellar tastings. I wanted meat pies in pubs, philosophical walks by the sea and whatever local quirks I could find (including the Scots’ distinctive spelling of “whiskey,” without an “e”).

Landing in Dublin, I'm met by morning, and by rain. Passengers on my plane are pointing. There is something out there. When we board our shuttle, we can see it crouching, darting behind a pile of luggage, zooming away.

“Hare!” says the bus driver. “An’ it’s a giant.”

Rabbits are lucky, I think. Could it be a sign? I head directly to the first distillery on my list. This one belongs to Jameson and it’s a replica of how its Bow Street warehouse might have looked when Irish whiskey was made here back in the 1780s, when the company was founded.

Unlike Scotches, which are double-distilled, Irish whiskeys are distilled three times for supposed smoothness. I’m especially eager to see what Jameson has to show visitors since it’s currently America’s most-requested brand. One of the things it has are mannequins like you might see in a museum. Replica workers stack up barrels. Realistic cats glare at tourists, guarding the grain.

“Warehouse mousers,” explains the distillery guide. “And very important members of the team. Each of the cats was given its own milk allowance out of petty cash.”

One of the best parts for me is learning a little about the label’s master barrel-makers, or coopers. I pore over a list of cooper nicknames. “Duck-Egg” Byrne was an admired craftsman here. “Snowball” Mills another. Not to mention the legendary “Nizzler” Brannigan. None of them seem to be on duty at the moment. But I can tell these are men I would have liked to drink with.

I catch a bus the next morning for County Cork to check out Jameson’s Midleton distillery, about 160 miles southwest. It’s been drizzling throughout the night and there’s so much green in the landscape that even tree trunks seem tinged with it. This could be moss, I think. Or it could be jet lag.

The tourist sitting next to me, another American, whiles away the ride by telling me about a job he once held at the Phantom Fireworks Co. in Youngstown, Ohio. By the time we arrive, I’m more than ready for a dram.

It turns out I am not disappointed. Along with other samples, I enjoy sips of 12-year-old Midleton Distillery Reserve, which eases down as if it were a gentle sherry. According to the guide who’s pouring, Irish whiskey is not just a popular drink at the moment. “It’s on fire.” It’s a lighter taste, he tells us, than Scotches. “Easier drinking.”

Waylaid by potatoes

On to Kilbeggan in County Westmeath, which, I’ve read, dates back to the mid-1700s. It’s one of two distilleries in Ireland that bill themselves as the “oldest in the world.” Here I find some of the history and atmosphere I’ve been craving. There’s a water wheel from the 19th century that creaks and splashes as it turns, and I’m delighted that a good chunk of the original machinery is still in place, including an old steam engine that roars into action on special days.

I get to talking with a shy-looking person who is listening intently throughout my tour. Turns out he is executive director Willie McCarter. “Do you live anywhere near Boston?” he asks. When I say yes, his face spreads out into a Santa Claus smile. “I miss it,” he tells me wistfully. “I was at MIT years ago. Spent much of my time there at a pub called the Plough & Stars.”

Remembering pints of my own at the Plough, I do a tour and tasting at the last Irish maker on my list, Bushmills, in Northern Ireland, which has a list of regulations for us lucky visitors: no mobile phones, no pictures and no food allowed. But, should we require them, “ear protectors are available on request.” Bushmills, we discover, scoffs at Kilbeggan’s lineage, bragging that its own roots go back even further, to 1608.

I don’t have hopes of sorting this battle out, and back on the road, I try some Rowntree’s Randoms candy to clear my palate. The miniature chews are shaped like rockets, bowties and suns. “Twenty percent fruit juice,” assures the package.

Maybe it’s an aftereffect of the candy, but in County Meath I am positive I’ve passed a sign for something called “Taytoland.” Should I spend some time here, checking it out? I am out of Rowntree’s Randoms, but I can’t resist.

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