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St Malachy’s Church in Belfast is a survivor. Built in 1841 in what Sir John Betjeman once described as ‘a cheerful gothic’ style, it had its windows blown in by a German bomb during the Second World War, whilst also having the remaining windows sucked out when another bomb hit the nearby gasworks, causing a massive vacuum. Some of the windows were then filled in with concrete, which ultimately damaged the surrounding brickwork, and eventually more than 80,000 handmade bricks had to be replaced. Apart from all those woes, the church also had to deal with some especially pedantic neighbours.
St Malachy’s is home to the largest and possibly loudest bell in Belfast – its din was so great that it started to bother the Dunville family, who owned the nearby Royal Irish Distillery. They claimed that the noise from the bell was disturbing the whiskey they had maturing in their warehouses, and managed to create enough of a headache for church bosses that they actually agreed to cover the bell in felt to help muffle the sound. Perhaps picking a fight with the church wasn’t the best idea for Dunvilles, as they went into voluntary liquidation in 1936, despite the fact that they were still in profit at the time. Many of the old Irish distilleries ended like this – brought down by a combination of bad timing, bad luck and the misfortune of having the canniest rivals they possibly could – the Scots. For almost a century, our Celtic neighbours have ruled the whisky world, and now we are in resurgence we have a lot of old scores to settle.
By now you will have heard that there is a whiskey boom here. All over the country distilleries are popping up, Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirits category in the world, and we are screaming back into the consciousness of drinkers like a rocket from the crypt. People are starting to talk about whiskey tourism, with industry body the Irish Whiskey Association even going so far as to say that they envision Ireland being a world leader in whiskey tourism by 2030. This is, of course, wonderful; everyone likes good news, especially when it involves the Irish doing well. However, it may take a little longer than 12 years to beat the Scots at whisky tourism, and all we have to do to realise this is to look across the Straits of Moyle to our old distilling rivals.
Scotland has two major whisky festivals – Feis Ile on the island of Islay, the location where Irish monks made the terrible mistake of teaching the Scots how to distill, and the Spirit Of Speyside, held in the true whisky heartland above the Cairngorm mountain range. While Islay has fewer than ten distilleries, Speyside has more than 50, many of them household names – The Glenlivet, The Macallan, Balvenie and Glenfiddich being some of the best known. They are the brands that permeate the consciousness of the average consumer. They have been in existence for up to a century or more, and have made their way into popular culture via cinema, art, and music. During the Speyside festival these titans of whisky and dozens more throw open their doors to their adoring public, and thousands flock from all over the UK, the US and Europe to be there. This, in a nutshell, is whisky tourism – people going to a place purely for the whisky, a sacred pilgrimage to the spiritual home of their favourite drink. It takes generations for a whisky brand to build up this sort of fanbase, because whisky is all about time. It takes three years for spirit to age in a cask before it can legally be called whiskey, but it takes far longer to become an icon. A ten year old single malt is considered to be entry level, and you will need considerably older stock than that to lure in significant numbers of tourists.
So this is where we are lacking – our new distilleries are going to be waiting for a decade or more before their stock starts to really make an impact on the global whiskey scene. Combine this with the fact that, outside of Dublin, we really don’t have any clusters of distilleries like they do in Speyside or Islay, where fans can walk, cycle, or simply stagger from distillery to distillery. If whiskey tourism is to work in Ireland, it will need more than just distillery visits, and that’s where we can learn from the Speyside festival.
I’ve been to the festival twice, in 2015 and this year, and it is an excellent illustration of how whisky tourism should work. Distillery visits and the drink itself may be the bedrock, but the festival is more about Scottish culture than anything. There were nature walks, ceilidhs, formal dances, incredible food, and treks into the mountains on amphibian Argocats. I went to talks on geology, a water tasting session, a distillery tour where we munched on malted barley, and more fine food than I should have eaten. There was breathtaking scenery, beautiful architecture, wonderful people and memories that will last a lifetime. This wasn’t a booze cruise – it was about losing yourself in heritage, history and tradition (whilst drinking some of the world’s greatest single malts, obviously).
We may not have mature distilleries that hark back two centuries, but we have all the other elements ready to go. In fact, Alan Winchester, the legendary master distiller of The Glenlivet – the person who told me about Dunvilles versus the bell of St Malachy’s – was singing the praises of the startling beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way, a route that is now peppered with whiskey tourism attractions. Seeing what the Spirit Of Speyside has to offer is a lesson in how whisky tourism should be done – rather than claiming we are going to beat the Scots, we should be learning from them and working with them. If a tourist is coming from Canada to visit Scottish distilleries, it’s a mere hop, skip and a jump to Ireland, where whisky fans can visit iconic distilleries like Bushmills and relative newcomers like the innovative Echlinville Distillery, who resurrected the old Dunville brands, rebuilding a link to our lost distilling heritage.
Irish whiskey’s return to the world stage will be as much about respect as it is about sales and economics – the great bell of St Malachy’s still rings three times a day, a reminder that when it comes to spirit matters – both liquid and divine – faith, devotion and a decent measure of humility are key to salvation.