There is a grievously mistaken notion abroad that Dublin, and Dublin alone, is the home of the best Irish whisky. We fear, moreover, that this heresy has been encouraged, in no small degree, by the brilliant pamphleteering of our greatest living journalistic writer, George Augustus Sala.
At least one county in Ireland (Cork) owes him a grudge, for he has written what our orthodox friends might designate a “tract” on the virtues of “Dublin” whisky, utterly oblivious of the fact that, if the pure and beneficent crathur is anywhere obtainable in a state of maturity and immaculateness, it is at Cork, the centre of a great whisky-distilling district, whose products in this line are characterised by virtues that cannot be surpassed in the whisky trade of the world.
The heresy then of which provincial Ireland has a right to complain is best answered by the assertion that Dublin is no more Ireland for whisky than Paris is France for clarets and other French wines, and this proposition has been abundantly sustained at all the great international exhibitions both at home and elsewhere.
Those words were written as part of a profile of the Cork Distilleries Company in Stratten’s Guide, published in 1892, but they were also meant as a reminder to a Dublin-based media that there is life – and great whisky – outside the Pale. Not a whole lot has changed – there are distilleries springing up all over Ireland, but it is ‘distilling returning to Dublin’ that seems to make the majority of the headlines. But Cork has always been a distilling powerhouse. At the time of Stratten’s Guide, Cork had several distilleries in operation, mainly on the heavily industrialised northside. But Cork Distilleries Company had their head office on Morrison’s Island, just off the financial and legal heart of Cork – the South Mall. The CDC eventually became Irish Distillers Ltd and moved production to east Cork (and head office to Ballsbridge) but the South Mall is still Cork’s Wall Street (in a good way).
On the corner of the Mall and Grand Parade lies Electric, which has been transformed from a dilapidated branch of ACC Bank to a beautiful Art Deco gastropub by Ernest Cantillon. Ernest is one of the people behind the Cork Whiskey Festival, which saw events in participating pubs across the city over the weekend. On Thursday last there were two events in Electric, and so it was I headed along there to soak up the last rays of a dying sun – and some great whiskey. First off was a free Nikka whisky tasting, held upstairs in the fish bar, which sits above the south channel of the divergent River Lee and provides incredible views of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral. The cathedral looms over what was once the site of Walker’s Distillery at Crosse’s Green, one of the earliest distilleries in the city. Not much is known of it, and all it warrants is this short passage in Brian Townsend’s Lost Distilleries Of Ireland:
In the record of the letters to the UK Houses Of Parliament, there is this plea in relation to duty from the distillery owners in 1834:
You can read the whole communication here, and the sadly succinct reply. They were doomed, and the excise on their product was not to be cut or modified. But taxation is the foundation of empires – the very first tax levied by the newly formed American government was one on whiskey, which led to the Whiskey Rebellion of Western Pennsylvania (a state was named after William Penn, onetime resident of east Cork).
But back to Electric and Nikka, a brand which previously boasted these two celebs as spokespeople – eat your heart out, Suntory and Bill Murray.
Paul Maguire was the host of the Nikka event, and as we chatted about whisky I told him that, much as I love visiting the Celtic Whiskey Shop in Dublin or Bradleys on North Main Street in Cork, buying liquor from retail outlets is just too pricey – so I shop online, where I can get a bottle of Redbreast for 12 euro less than it costs in the town where it is made. Again, the curse of duty (and the curse of rents and rates for high street retailers). As we chatted, a dozen or so whisky fans came and took their seats, and I slipped away back downstairs for the whiskey supper – but not before I took a few photos:
So to the main event. I feel torn when it comes to food pairings with whiskey – it really is a small, powerful drink, with a dynamic flavour profile that often needs to be savoured and explored on its own. Canapés work really well with it, as do chocolate, but large meals like the one I had in Strathisla last year can just overwhelm the palate. Thankfully, the meal in Electric was light enough to strike a good balance, but more importantly it served as a great introduction to whiskey for the average consumer – even my long-suffering wife, who is neither a fan of whiskey nor of my ‘worrying’ devotion to it – was able to enjoy all four drinks served with the meal, especially the opener; a fantastic Old Fashioned.
Hyde Whiskey were the sponsors. The brand is the brainchild of Conor Hyde, who runs a food marketing firm called Bullseye Marketing in Blackpool. Conor got his hands on some ten-year-old Cooley single malt, distilled and matured in County Louth, which he then finished in sherry casks in west Cork for nine months. Conor also helps organise Cork Summer Show, which is where I first sampled Hyde Whiskey. They were also selling it for 50 a bottle – a considerable drop on the 70 or so they charge now – so I bought one there and then. It recently won Best Irish Single Malt at the San Francisco Spirits Awards, and is a great example of the sheer variety and quality of Cooley’s output. Hyde Whiskey is a good enough dram to stand on its own – I understand that whiskey marketing dictates that there be some sort of historic narrative and loose geographical rooting with each brand, but it really does it a disservice – this is a quality whiskey, by any name. And so to the food:
I used to work as a chef in a place called Proby’s Bistro, right on the site of the old Walker’s Distillery in Crosse’s Green, and my three years there gave me an appreciation for good food and an aversion to food snobbery that I still have. If I was a food critic, everything would be awesome, all of the time. So you probably can’t trust me when I say that the meal in Electric was awesome, but it was. It was just the right amount of flavour and complexity to compliment the three whiskeys. I was especially impressed with the grain whiskey, served with the main course. Grain whiskey is made using a column still, a device that has its genesis in the creation of one Sir Anthony Perrier, a former Lord Mayor of Cork, who also ran the Glen distillery in Kilnap, which also features in Stratten’s Guide:
There is a memorial to Perrier in what is now the Triskel Christchurch, a stone’s throw from Electric:
Perrier’s first attempt at this type of distillation was not a success – but it was perfected some time later by Aeneas Coffey, whose family had their roots in Barryroe in west Cork. Grain spirit is another divisive issue in the whiskey scene – but then, what isn’t? Grain is seen as something of a diversion, an occasional distraction from the main event of single malt (or pot still whiskey, if you’re Irish). It has always been viewed with suspicion – even The Glen distillery poured scorn on it later in their life:
I can safely say that after having Hyde’s grain whiskey, I suffered no more delirium nor decrepitude than I usually do. It was a great compliment to the weightier flavours of the burger, and goes to show that grain is there for more than taking the strain in blends. The whole meal was great, as was the company – I was sat next to Mick Hannigan, who I had worked with on the Cork Film Festival about 13 years ago, the year that Song For A Raggy Boy premiered in the Opera House. I even got to hold a door open for Aidan Quinn. He said thanks. As celebrity stories go, it isn’t that great – but when I was a chef in Proby’s, Robert Plant came in for a bite to eat (specifically, a baby spinach salad tossed lightly in olive oil with cracked black peppercorns; I know this as I was the one who made it). After his meal one of the waitresses told him she was a huge fan, especially of his hit song, Addicted To Love. He said thanks. So at least my celeb encounter isn’t as awful as that one.
In Electric I also met Rebecca O’Keeffe, one of the people behind Taste Cork, a food branding initiative by local government. Their aim is to make Cork the foodie capital of Ireland – with so many great food brands based here and so many great events, such as the Ballymaloe LitFest, it should be a perfect fit. Dublin has the nightlife, Galway has the arts, and Cork has grub. Events like the Cork Whiskey Festival are a great way of highlighting our great tradition of food and drink – after all, the vast majority of the world supply of Irish whiskey still comes from Cork. It’d be nice to see more heritage events at the next festival – you could easily do a walking tour from the Porterhouse, located in the whiskey warehouses of bonders Woodford Bourne, down to the North Mall site of IDL/Wyse’s, to Kryl’s Quay where John Daly & Co. made and bottled Tanora as well as their lesser known bonded release, Sláinte Irish Whiskey. Then take a walk down John Street to the site of James Daly’s distillery, on to Blackpool where the New Furniture Centre still has one wall standing from the old Watercourse distillery, on then to Distillery Court in Blackpool, where a solitary archway is all that remains of The Green distillery. And then back into town to raise a glass to The Apostle of Temperance, Fr Mathew, whose memorial church stands just downriver from Electric. How he would feel about all this great whiskey being served up the road can only be guessed, but perhaps we remember him as something of a killjoy; consider this encounter William Makepeace Thackeray had with Fr Mathew in the Imperial Hotel on the Mall:
There is nothing remarkable in Mr. Mathew’s manner, except that it is exceedingly simple, hearty, and manly, and that he does not wear the downcast, demure look which, I know not why; certainly characterises the chief part of the gentlemen of his profession. Whence comes that general scowl which darkens the faces of the Irish priesthood? I have met a score of these reverend gentlemen in the country, and not one of them seemed to look or speak frankly, except Mr. Mathew, and a couple more. He is almost the only man, too, that I have met in Ireland, who, in speaking of public matters, did not talk as a partisan. With the state of the country, of landlord, tenant, and peasantry, he seemed to be most curiously and intimately acquainted; speaking of their wants, differences, and the means of bettering them, with the minutest practical knowledge. And it was impossible in hearing him to know, but from previous acquaintance with his character, whether he was Whig or Tory, Catholic or Protestant. Why does not Government make a Privy Councillor of him? — that is, if he would honour the Right Honorable body by taking a seat amongst them. His knowledge of the people is prodigious, and their confidence in him as great; and what a touching attachment that is which these poor fellows show to any one who has their cause at heart — even to any one who says he has!
Avoiding all political questions, no man seems more eager than he for the practical improvement of this country. Leases and rents, farming improvements, reading societies, music societies-he was full of these, and of his schemes of temperance above all.
As a keen supporter of local business, I think even The Apostle Of Temperance could see the importance of events like the Cork Whiskey Festival, not to mention the unifying labours of Taste Cork and the earnest endeavours of the staff of Electric and all the other venues that hosted events over the weekend – just as long as we don’t all end up suffering delirium and decrepitude tomorrow morning.