The name jumps out at me from the whiskey section of the menu at Hairy Lemon, a green and yellow pub in Dublin’s popular Temple Bar district. As a writer who has shed tears, particularly when a stressful deadline is coming up, it makes sense I try the whiskey! The single pot, triple distilled drink has spicy notes and a lingering finish.
Later, I learn more about this whiskey. Created by Walsh Whiskey in Dublin itself, Writers’ Tears is a tribute to the golden age — 19th and early 20th century — of Irish whiskey and, Irish literature. It is said that many an Irish scribe found solace and even inspiration in a dram of whiskey, and when they cried, it was tears of whiskey.
It’s my maiden visit to the Republic of Ireland and I am on a mission to try as many whiskies as I can in a country known for producing some of the best in the world. It makes sense to start that journey in the capital, Dublin. It’s a city that has witnessed the golden age of whiskey-making, its subsequent fall and now, its revival.
Every drop of whiskey comes with a story.
It begins with history.
It is widely believed that whiskey originated in Ireland, created by monks who learned the art of distillation from perfume makers in the Mediterranean. The first written record of whiskey comes from 1405 in the Annals of Clonmacnoise — it talks about the head of a clan dying from a ‘surfeit of aqua vitae’ (meaning water of life). The Gaelic name was uisce beatha (pronounced ishka baha), which got anglicised into ‘whiskey’.
It’s the first thing I learn at Irish Whiskey Museum, a fascinating place full of whiskey memorabilia, a collection of whiskey labels and advertisements, and a fully functioning bar. As part of a tour, my guide Paddy Hanna walks me through the Irish whiskey story, over two hours and across four rooms. Sitting in the first room, built like the inside of a church, I am told about the monks brewing ‘fire water’ and their first experiments with copper alembic stills.
In the second room, which resembles a rough distillery, Hanna talks about shebeens (private liquor houses), backyard distillers and the rise of Irish moonshine or poteen. Here I learn about the origin of the Irish wake. In those days, people who drank too much-methylated spirit or were struck by unknown diseases would appear dead, so the three-day funeral was a chance to ‘wake’ them up. It was three days of drinking and merriment; making a racket that could wake up the dead. “We don’t just drink. We drink like we are trying to wake the dead,” he quips. In this room, he talks about how whiskey-making evolved — as barrels were taxed, people start hiding them underground, unearthing them after years to find that the poteen tasted better; and when malted barley was taxed, they started using un-malted barley.
Seated in a Victorian bar, Hanna takes us through the 1800s when Ireland was the capital of the whiskey world, and Dublin it’s centre. Records show there were 88 licensed distilleries in and around the island, (and possibly hundreds of unlicensed). In those Victorian times, ‘the big four’ ruled whiskey production – George Roe, John Power, John Jameson and William Jameson and they were based in Dublin. They made whiskey in pot stills and used a mix of unmalted and malted barley. In addition, the patent of the Coffey still by Aeneas Coffey meant quicker output and was cheaper than the pot still. His invention was bought by English and Scottish whiskey distillers who started producing blended whiskey, which captured the market share dedicated to Irish whiskey.
Disaster struck in the early 20th century. The First World War, the Irish War of Independence and Prohibition in the United States and the rise of Scotch whisky had a significant impact on the industry. Without access to two major markets, production went into decline. The surviving distilleries — Jameson, Cork and Powers — joined forces to create Irish Distillers Group, and moved production to Midleton, County Cork; Bushmills joined them later. The revival began in the 1980s: in 1987, Dr John Teeling opened the first new distillery in 125 years called Cooley; and French distillers Pernod Ricard bought Irish Distillers Group in 1988, taking Irish whiskey overseas with Jameson as its flagship brand.
Now, Irish whiskey is cool again.
If you ask Hanna, he will say Irish whiskey was always cool, and it cannot compare to Scottish whisky (in more than just the name). In the last room of the museum, the renaissance room, I find bottles from different Irish distilleries over the years. We end the tour with a tasting of some popular whiskies — Kilbeggan, Powers, Connemara and my favourite, the Irishman.
Dublin is once again the centre of Irish whiskey, this time focused on its revival. The Irish Whiskey Museum is a good and entertaining prologue. The buzzing Irish capital has much more whiskey within its pages.
Step out of the museum and to the left is the impressive James J Fox, a cigar and whiskey store selling premium Irish whiskey, miniatures and gift sets. Around the corner is Butler’s Whiskey Café serving hot chocolate and rich, whiskey-fuelled chocolate bars.
The prologue completed, it’s time to flip the pages of Dublin’s whiskey distilleries and learn how they make whiskey. In Dublin, it is possible to wake up and wonder: which distillery should I visit today, and what new Irish whiskey can I try today?
The first should ideally be Jameson, easily the most recognised Irish whiskey in the world. The distillery was once on Bow Street, founded in 1780 and shut when production moved to Midleton. It is now a visitor centre with interactive sessions and media to help visitors understand their process and history.
The most interesting distilleries are in the Liberties region. Once outside the city walls, and thus its jurisdiction, it meant people were ‘at liberty’ to do what they wanted. They wanted to make whiskey! In 2015, the new generation of Teeling whiskey-makers opened a new distillery down the road from the family one, and opened it to tours. There’s the new Dublin Liberties Distillery, housed in a building dating back to the 1700s, which was originally a mill. Once upon a time, Thomas Street Distillery founded by George Roe in 1757 was the largest exporter of whiskey in Ireland. It shut in 1926 — all that remains are a windmill tower, and a pear tree. Guinness owners reopened that distillery as Roe & Co Distillery, giving it a swanky upgrade. The most fascinating of these distilleries has to be Pearse Lyons, which occupies the old (and now restored) St James’ Church. It opened in 2017 offering tours of the graveyard, the church fashioned into a distillery and even a cocktail-making, and food pairing experience. By the side, guides share the history of the Lyons family (the grandfather of the owner is buried in the graveyard).
Each of these distilleries offer basic tours with whiskey tastings at the end, and premium ones that include cocktails, and sometimes, a make your own blend.
There are non-distillery tours too like the Dublin Whiskey Experience where founder Gareth Downey shares insights into the city’s whiskey history through its historic pubs and distilleries.
History and distillery tours are fun but they just whet the appetite for the real deal.
Is there a better way to learn about Irish whiskey than drinking it? As a bonus, it gives me the chance to soak in the atmosphere of different typical Irish pubs. Throw a stone in Ireland and it will hit an Irish pub, typically one that offers live music at nights, has football showing on the telly, and only serves alcohol. Dublin has one on every turn, each boasting a decent, if sometimes impressive, whiskey collection. The whiskey at most places is on tap. At O’Donoghue’s — known for being the place where folk group The Dubliners began their career — I allow the bartender to pick the whiskey to accompany my Irish stew. She chooses a Green Spot, a robust single pot still whiskey whose origins go back to a Dublin merchant. An unassuming green façade greets me at The Celt, one of the few pubs to have Irish music all week. As pubs go, its busy, in terms of décor and popularity. Though most tables around me feature pints of Guinness lit up by old Jameson bottles acting as candlestands, I opt for Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old Special Reserve, a dry and spicy whiskey that’s a blend of three types of Irish whiskies: pot still, grain and malt. In the Temple Bar quarter, at Old Mill, I sip on my first Hot Whiskey (essentially, a hot toddy) with Jameson in it.
There are other dedicated whiskey bars, with their own history. The 1823 Palace Bar is a Dublin institution, a Victorian bar with gilded mirrors, lots of framed black and white pictures, mahogany and oak finishings, and a snug, which were shielded areas/rooms where women could drink away from prying eyes. At one time, this bar was the home for intelligentsia, and opened its doors to many famous writers, and journalists. It was here that Irish Times editor RM Smyllie used to hold editorial meetings in the back, and Mary Robinson’s presidential bid took off. At the Whiskey Palace upstairs, they serve over 100 Irish whiskies. Another Victorian pub is Dingle Whiskey Bar, home to 150 whiskies, including rare ones. On Tuesdays, they organise whiskey classes/tastings in their snug. Over at Brooks Hotel, their Jasmine Bar or ‘First great Whiskey Bar of the World’ has a library of over 130 whiskies; a sampling of which they offer as part of their whiskey tastings.
If you want to avoid the lines at The Loop, a duty-free shop with an impressive collection of whiskies, try the Celtic Whiskey Shop and Store.
Dublin once ruled the Victorian whiskey world. Though it’s known for the birthplace of Guinness pint, the city is at the heart of Irish whiskey revival. There’s whiskey everywhere you go: limited edition bottles served in Victorian pubs, distillery tours feeding history and sips of whiskey, bar crawls focussed on the spirits, stories that are half legend, half-truth, and whiskey finding its way into everything, including my morning porridge. It is enough to drive a whiskey-lover to tears.