Whiskey in the Jar: Ireland Sees New Growth in Longstanding Industry
My latest work trip to Ireland last week was fueled by food. The island nation is in the throes of a new three-month festival, Taste the Island, spotlighting its current culinary renaissance and luring international travelers with myriad foodie events. I spent the week doing recon by following my taste buds, and by happily gaining a few pounds in the process.
Among my most fascinating finds was the recent growth in one of Ireland’s longstanding traditions: whiskey. The spirit’s smoothness is legendary, of course: it’s triple distilled, which, for many of us, offers it the flavors, aromas and soft mouth feel that makes it an easier commitment than Scotch or bourbon. And a new batch of distilleries is putting a new, modern spin on a timeworn tradition.
An industry that began to grow in the late 18th century and flourished in the mid-19th century found itself languishing by the mid-1900s. Indeed, only two distilleries were functioning in Ireland when the industry began to see its comeback – what many in the know call Ireland’s Whiskey Renaissance – in the late 1980s, a movement driven by new investment and a new focus in its ability to attract foreign interest. This year, as global sales continue to surge, Ireland’s whiskey industry is humming along nicely, driven by no less than 24 distilleries across the country.
One of Ireland’s newest whiskey-inspired experiences can be found at Powerscourt Distillery, which opened the doors to a gorgeous state-of-the-art whiskey-making facility and visitor center in May. Located on a beautiful 1000-acre estate in County Wicklow, about 15 miles south of Dublin, the property is also home to a luxurious resort, sprawling gardens and even Ireland’s tallest waterfall. Under the tutelage of world-renowned master distiller Noel Sweeney, Powerscourt’s Fercullen line of whiskeys – a trio that includes a premium blend ($49), a 10-year-old single grain ($64) and a 14-year-old single malt ($104) are “quite approachable for anyone starting out in whiskey,” brand marketing manager Caroline Gardiner tells me. “But they also offer the layers of complexity and texture that would appeal to the higher discerning end of whiskey drinkers,” she adds. With all production and aging done onsite, and with six tasting rooms and a series of tasting options available to the public, Gardiner calls it “a fully immersive experience.” Fercullen is a nod to the Gaelic word for the ancient land that is the Powerscourt estate today, solidifying that link between old and new. Visits to Powerscourt can be scheduled online.
In County Meath, and located about 30 miles northeast of Dublin County Meath, 18th century Slane Castle now offer a most forward-looking approach to whiskey making. This historic property has been owned by the Conyngham family for generations, and the decision to turn to crafting Ireland’s most famous spirit “was a way to take us well into the future,” Lord Henry Conyngham told me last week, during a rare one-on-one audience. “We have the water,” he said, referencing the famous Boyne River that runs through his estate, “and we have the land.” The new modern production facility transformed from old stables and barns takes visitors through the beginning-to-end production process and offers a taste of a unique blending process. “We achieve complexity through the blend of three unique casks,” son Alex Conyngham tells me, “including Oloroso sherry casks from Jerez, Spain” that lend flavors of raisins and spice. Seasoned Tennessee bourbon casks are used, too, for plum and butterscotch flavors, as well as virgin casks, for notes of tasted oak and vanilla. The end result of blending all three components, as I discovered last week during a late-night whiskey-and-cheese pairing session, is a delicious beverage with honey colors, a vanilla and brown spice aroma, layered flavors of caramel and dried fruit and lingering finish of wood and vanilla overtones. Myriad tour options, including a two-hour experience with Alex Conyngham, can be booked through the company’s website. Slane Whiskey ($30) is distributed by Brown-Forman and is available at several Santa Barbara spirits shops.
Other Irish distilleries worth a visit on your next trip to Ireland include Jameson, both at its facility in Dublin and its distillery in Midleton, County Cork; the historic Teeling Whiskey Distillery in the Liberties area of Dublin; and Dingle Distillery in the eclectic and beautiful town of Dingle, a Santa Barbara sister city.
Check out ireland.com for more information on the Whiskey Trail that will have you exploring whiskey all over Ireland.