A wine enthusiast goes to the land of clurichauns in Ireland for a lesson in Irish whiskey—its origins, distillation nuances, and nomenclature. By Rathina Sankari
“Get me two bottles,” said my friend, when I told him I was set to travel to Ireland. He meant the world-famous Irish whiskey, of course. This drink from the Emerald Isle finds many aficionados across the globe. Mark Twain once famously said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Twain’s Irish contemporary and Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw called the drink ‘liquid sunshine’.
For one, I prefer medium or light-bodied wines with a fruity, sweet finish to any other drink. But I was eager to explore the history of the Irish whiskey, which is as complex as its country of origin. Called uisce beatha in the native Gaelic language, it translates to ‘water of life’. But how could whiskey be the water of life? What came first—the Irish Whiskey or the Scottish Whisky, both being Celtic? Why was Irish whiskey distilled for three years and one day? What is the ‘angel’s share’? There were too many questions swimming in my head.
So I headed to the Irish Whiskey Museum in Dublin, bang opposite the renowned Trinity College. My guide Grace, with her Irish accent, told me that the earliest written records of the Scottish whisky (the Scots spell it without the ‘e’, but more on that later) go back to 1494, while that of Irish whiskey date to 1405 in the book Annals of Clonmacnoise, now found in the Trinity College. Later, when I searched the realm of the internet, I found that author Kate Hopkins in her book 99 Drams of Whiskey says there is no proof to determine the birth country of this tipple. Grace further went onto inform me that Irish whiskeys are traditionally triple-distilled, which gives them a smoother and lighter finish, while the Scottish version is double-distilled and some experience a burn while drinking them.
Drinking whiskey neat is an art that needs to be acquired. Purists say you need to part your lips slightly after taking a sip, and let it sit in your mouth, thus letting it settle and building the flavours in your mouth. As you swallow the drink, you should breathe out from the mouth to avoid experiencing tightness and burn in the chest. In a way, learning to drink whiskey is a crash course in anatomy.
Grace led me to the origins section of the museum, where a video showing the evolution of the drink was playing. During the Victorian era, Dublin was the second-largest city of the British Empire. The River Liffey was swarming with boats carrying whiskey to the rest of the world. The city housed numerous whiskey warehouses, where the drink was matured for three years and one day.
One day? I looked at Grace questioningly. Turns out that one extra day of ageing was meant to beat the Scots, who aged their whisky for three years. Talk about a cold war. The Irish even added an extra ‘e’ to whisky just to differentiate their product from the Scottish variety.
The origin of the drink is attributed to Irish monks. By the eighth century, the art of distillation was already prevalent in the Middle East—for making perfumes. When Irish monks visited the region, they learnt distillation and made a magical potion in their monasteries that was administered to the ill for all kinds of ailments—runny nose, broken legs and even the bubonic plague that ran rampant in the 14th century. No wonder it came to be called the water of life. Obviously, it didn’t cure the plague. But it is said to have worked wonders whenever there were language barriers. For instance, when the Irish pirate Grace O’Malley’s sons were imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century, she managed to convince the Queen to release them by offering her Irish whiskey.
By the 17th century, the introduction of tax on alcohol meant that home-brewing of the beverage called poitín and selling it in illicit bars called shebeen became illegal. Made of potatoes, sugar, yeast and vegetable scraps, with an alcohol content ranging from 60 to 90 per cent, this moonshine was strong enough to knock you off your feet. “In 1834, there were more than 8,000 illegal distilleries operating in Ireland,” said Grace at the old-style section of the museum that exhibited a crude setup of the poitín distillation unit. Whiskey, it is said, was discovered accidentally—by ageing poitín in barrels for a few years, thereby changing its colour and flavour.
The 19th century was the golden age of the Irish whiskey. About 70 per cent of the global whiskey market was under the control of Irish distillers, wrote Alfred Barnard in his 1887 chronicle The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom. The Liberties area in Dublin was the hotspot. Guinness and George Roe & Company—the then largest producer of whiskey in the world—were among the big names found in the industrial quarter also called the Golden Triangle. Dublin was also home to the renowned John Jameson & Son, Marrowbone Lane and John Power & Son distilleries. At the Victorian era-bar replica in the museum, Grace gave me a rundown on the fall of Irish whiskey. Two World Wars in the 20th century meant not enough barley grown in Ireland was available for whiskey; it was being sent to feed war efforts. Moreover, 60 per cent of the Irish whiskey industry met its end when the ‘Volstead Act of 1919’ brought prohibition in the US. The Irish independence in the same year meant clamping of its market in the British Empire. By 1960, there were just about five distilleries left in Ireland. In 1966, three distillers—John Power & Son, John Jameson & Son and Cork Distilleries—joined hands to form the Irish Distillers Ltd (IDL).
The tables turned when the French company Pernod Ricard took over IDL in 1988 and showcased Jameson as the brand ambassador of Irish whiskey to the world. Today, there are about 18 whiskey distilleries in the country, the latest in the Liberties area being the Teeling Distillery, which opened its doors in 2015, and became the first new operational whiskey distillery in Dublin in over 125 years.
The next day, I headed to this recent addition to understand the fermentation and distillation processes of whiskey-making. I watched as barley was plunged into warm water so that it could germinate and get converted to malted barley, roasted in oven and then crushed in the mill. The sugary wort was mixed with yeast in the fermenters, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol. Three large copper pot stills used for distillation gleamed in the noisy background. My guide told me that port, sherry, bourbon and cognac barrels are used to age whiskey here. Over the years, whiskey acquires a woody flavour that lends it a distinct character. In the bargain, though, you lose some whiskey to the grain of the barrel. Given that the Irish are strong believers in fairy tales, it is not surprising that this loss is called ‘the angel’s share’.
Legends and leprechauns aside, I did not want to miss out on tasting the water of life when in Ireland. So I headed back to the museum for a large cup of Irish coffee—the perfect beverage to beat the short, chilly days in Dublin. Over the next week, I would start my day with a traditional Irish breakfast of black-and-white pudding and Irish porridge—made with a splash of Bushmills Irish Whiskey. Didn’t someone say too much good whiskey is barely enough?
There are one-stop flights daily from major Indian cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru and Kochi, to Dublin.
The Westin Dublin: The Irish Whiskey Museum is a stone’s throw away from this luxury hotel at College Green. The hotel was built in the Georgian era, and once housed a bank. From INR 19,000.
The Shelbourne Dublin, A Renaissance Hotel: Located in the city centre, this hotel is opposite St Stephen’s Green. From INR 27,000.
The Westbury Hotel: Situated in prime location, this plush hotel serves the best Irish food and drinks in its restaurants. From INR 21,000.
Irish Whiskey Museum: Tours run every 30 minutes, from 10.30 am to 5.30 pm. A one-hour guided Classic Tour with tasting from INR 1,615. Whiskey Blending Experience from INR 2,422.
Teeling Distillery: Tours from INR 1,211.