A journey to Ireland and the Scottish island of Islay uncovers a storehouse of local quirks, along with a few special drams.
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.
“No, not Taytoland,” corrects the taxi driver I’ve contracted for the trip. “Tayto Park. Potato attractions, you know. Characters shaped like a spud.”
Of course, of course, I say.
Tayto Park’s chief character, Mr. Tayto, sports a necktie and top hat that’s slightly too small for him, and is chased around nearly everywhere by clusters of small children. I tag along, too.
According to my brochure, there’s a factory tour to see how crisps are made, plus “plenty of good grub, adventure, animals and a few surprises.” Among these surprises, at least for me, is the park’s Pow Wow Playground, its Geronimo Thrill Zone and its Native American Village.
Am I in Ireland or Oklahoma? It is high time, I think, to get back on the trail.
For my Scotch whisky tastings, I head for Islay (pronounced “Eye-lah”), the southernmost island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides and about 25 miles north of the Irish coast. Sometimes called “The Queen of the Hebrides,” Islay is known for its strong peaty flavors. Scotches distilled here tend to be single-malts, as opposed to the blends I’ve mostly encountered in Ireland.
Instead of flying or boarding a ferry, I chip in for a share of a charter boat with some other Americans I’ve met. What we get is something called the Kintyre Express, a rigid, inflatable speedboat. In minutes, we are shooting spray and ricocheting off the tops of whitecaps. This may be the Irish Sea, but in the glinting sunlight, it says Scotland, Scotland, Scotland: It is as blue as a loch.
Out on deck, I talk with first mate Jimmy MacLean of Campbelltown. “Ye see a lo’ of dolphins here,” he tells me. “Puffins, as well.”
As if on cue, MacLean begins a jag of pointing out invisible animals and birds that are supposedly demanding attention on our port side.
Me: “What are we seeing?”
MacLean: “Gone now. Ye’re too slow.”
Me: “Are puffins black and white?”
MacLean: “No. White an’ black.”
My first Scottish distillery feels more convoluted than what I’ve seen so far. A study in shiny brass and scoured copper, Laphroaig is almost steampunk with its valves and pipes and dials. If Willie Wonka owned a distillery instead of a chocolate factory, this would be it.
My tastes here are on the strong side. I feel like I’m swallowing liquid oysters that have been smoked over an open fire. But the label’s freshly whitewashed buildings and water views make me linger long into the evening, picking my way along pebbly beachfronts before heading to town.
Islay is a place of gorse and green. Bumps and ripples of land are neatly carpeted, and along the island’s sandy edge, flocks of sheep and clumps of cattle come very close to the sea. At the Bowmore distillery, the tour guide lets us climb up to the kiln used for drying barley and pad around on the beach-like dunes of grain. One ingenious man flops down to wave his arms and make a barley angel, something everyone has to try.
One of my favorite places on the island is the pub on the ground floor of my hotel, the Port Charlotte. The menu is full of filling classics like bangers and mash and savory pies. There always seems to be someone playing music in here, which leads to patrons singing, which leads to sort-of-Celtic dancing, which leads to stumbling into bar stools as the evening wears on.
The Ardbeg distillery in the village of Port Ellen is almost as lively. There’s a SPECIAL — TODAY ONLY! at the on-site café: “The Islay Lamb and Haggis Burger.” It’s topped with Cheddar and, according to the sign, with an “Ardbeg-infused 10-year-old special sauce.”
Just as I’m thinking of ordering one, my tour group is joined by Hamish Torrie, one of the company’s top managers. He’s sporting a pair of pea-green tartan slacks and is eager to tell us about a test tube full of Ardbeg that at this very moment, is being “aged in space.”
“It’s an experiment, you see,” explains Torrie. “A bit of whisky, a sliver of barrel-wood. Shot that off to the International Space Station.”
But why? inserts a visitor.
“Science!” says Torrie. “We wanted to see how Ardbeg ages in zero gravity.”
What will happen? interrupts someone else.
“To be honest,” says Torrie. “We have absolutely no idea.”
I’m down to my trip’s last dregs. One more tasting to do — at Lagavulin — and it is a good one. Maybe it is the coziness of carpet, the plates of marmalade and jam, a pre-drink bite of a scone. But the whiskies here turn out to be my favorites of all, including a 16-year-old single-malt that seems a perfect blend of Irish easiness and Scottish strength of character: something distinctive in the nose and, slowly, sunset-to-gloaming, sliding down.
As we tourists complete our work with rows of glasses, we’re told to blurt out impressions of what is on the tongue.
“Berries!” says a man.
“I rather think it’s raisins,” corrects his friend.
“Some salt and pepper.”
“Caramel or toffee.” “Biscuits!” “Biscuits and tea!”
I’d like to shout my own impressions, but it would not go well. I realize that my tastes are strange.
They’re mixed up with the names of coopers. With a mill wheel. With not quite seeing the puffins.
With grain angels. And with nighttime rain.
“Ireland!” I might yell.
Everyone would turn.
And I would have to try, with my final sips, to explain.
Peter Mandel is an author of books for children, including the new “Zoo Ah-Choooo” (Holiday House). He lives in Providence, R.I.