It was the last night of the 2015 Spirit Of Speyside festival, and the great and good of distilling in the region were gathered at the Laichmoray Hotel in Elgin for one last hurrah. Across the table from me was Alan Winchester, who I suspected I ought to have known, but really didn’t. We chatted about the feat of modern engineering that is Midleton distillery, and he enthused about some of the great hill walks along the Wild Atlantic Way. Then he said “So you’re following in the footsteps of your fellow countryman Maurice Walsh?” As I obviously had no idea who that was, Winchester explained about Walsh – author of The Quiet Man amongst many others – being an exciseman in the region, and how his descendant Barry Walsh, who sadly passed away since, was master blender in Midleton. I was delighted to get all this info, as it formed the backbone of the piece I wrote for the Examiner on my trip. Up to that point the only line I had on my trip was ‘Local man goes on free holiday, gets trolleyed, cries going home’.
As part of my rummaging into the life of Maurice Walsh I came across a snippet of info about his time at Glenburgie; he and other excisemen had written their names on a cupboard door in the duty office. I was fascinated by this, and contacted Chris Brousseau, chief archivist at Chivas Brothers, to see if he might be able to send me a photo of the door. Sadly, Chris informed me that the cupboard was lost to a series of renovations over the years and was no longer on site. Feeling a little crestfallen, it slowly faded from my mind, and I didn’t think about it after that – until I got an email last week.
Los Gatos is a small town in Santa Clara County, California. Located in Silicon Valley, it is a prosperous place, famous for being the HQ of streaming giant Netflix, and also home at various points to violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Two Face himself Aaron Eckhart, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and John Steinbeck. Another resident of Los Gatos is a man named Tom Ovens, who was the bar manager from 1981 to 2010 at C.B. Hannegan’s Restaurant in the town.
Los Gatos is twinned with Listowel in Kerry – close to where Maurice Walsh is from – and Mr Ovens visited The Kingdom in September 1994 as part of a twinning delegation from California, a trip he has fond memories of: “Listowel was charming. We were there for the Harvest Festival: Horse racing, Wren Boys, bags of periwinkles eaten with a toothpick, chatting with John B. Keane in his pub and him autographing a book for me.
“On our final day in Listowel, we all met at a large pub outside of town. The narrow road had cars parked on both sides making it a tight squeeze. As I attempted to leave, I kept looking out my car window, to the back, then to the front trying to fit into traffic. A Garda walked up to me. I thought that he might put his hand up to stop traffic and let me out into the flow. He just leaned in to me and said, “You have no courage” and walked on.”
But the Listowel-Los Gatos connection isn’t the reason Mr Ovens got in touch. In June of 1994, he had been in Scotland, an annual trip he undertook for 15 years, as he also created and maintained the malt whisky program for C.B. Hannegan’s.
“I consider myself fortunate that I was able to travel before single malts and the whisky industry itself became a going tourist concern. No Spirit of Speyside festivals, to be sure. Few distilleries even had visitor’s centers and the managers were quite happy to break up their daily routine to show a visitor around.”
One one such trip he was in Speyside, and that’s where my story and his intersect: “So it was that in 1994 I paid a visit to Glenburgie. The distillery manager, Brian Thomas, met me and after the usual pleasantries, said, “You’ll be wanting to see Maurice Walsh’s signature, I suppose.”
“He brought out the cupboard door where many of the excise men of the day had written their names – not carved as I have read elsewhere.”
Thankfully, Tom took photos of this tiny piece of whisky lore – you can see the signature on the right in the upper quadrant:
And a close-up:
And finally, with the signature redrawn:
So there you have it – it exists, or at least it did, given that its current location is unknown. It’s a shame the cupboard wasn’t kept, as the distillery seemed quite proud of the Walsh links when Mr Ovens was there: “And later in his office, over a wee dram, he excused himself, left the room and came back with a stack of four old editions of Walsh’s books. They had belonged to his father-in-law who had been a real Walsh fan and Mr. Thomas was keen to show them to me. As was always the case with my distillery visits, he made me feel welcome and quite at home.”
There is little trace of the original Glenburgie, as it was demolished and rebuilt as a modern facility. Most of its malt goes to Ballantine’s, apart from the odd indie bottling like the G&M one I bought in the airport on the way home from Speyside. I will enjoy it a little more now, thanks to a fellow whisky aficionado on the other side of the world, and a small measure of serendipity.