October 14th 2001 is the date Laurie O’Dwyer joined the defence forces. The Corkman was 20 years of age; there was no family military tradition, no great calling or vocation. He says he enlisted because he needed ‘a straightener’. Twenty one years later, he still marches along that thin green line and has five tours overseas under his belt; two to Lebanon, one to Syria, one to Chad, and one to Liberia. On the latter, the Irish defence forces were assisting in the post civil war disarmament, which saw them housed in a ruined holiday village previously owned by former dictator Charles Taylor. When I point out how dangerous his line of work was, he shrugs it off. However, there are less dangerous careers, even within the defence forces.
On his last tour of Lebanon he got a call asking if he would take over the running of the bar in the officers mess in Collins Barracks in Cork city. Realising he was getting older and that all the adventure he had craved in his earlier years in the Army was getting less appealing, he took the role. Around this time he joined the Cork Whiskey Society to expand his knowledge of whiskey, and started stocking more whiskeys in the mess. Soon, he was a fully fledged whiskey nerd – he took his WSET2 in spirits, got his general certificate in brewing and distilling, spent his annual leave working in various distilleries around Ireland, and started a podcast, Whiskey Chats. Whiskey had become an all consuming passion, something that he admits is a trait of his: “When I recognise something is worth obsessing about or it means a lot to me, I am all in.”
His podcast is testament to this drive and focus – at 117 episodes and counting, his recordings don’t follow the usual whiskey podcast template of pals chatting (although there are episodes of his ‘garden chats’ where like-minded friends gather to sample whiskeys), as O’Dwyer has travelled the length and breadth of the country interviewing distillers, blenders, bonders, bloggers, brewers, mead and cider-makers, maltsters, and everyone in between. His podcasts are an oral history of Irish whiskey in the last two years of our oft-vaunted resurrection; he seems unconcerned with the amount of hours he has spent editing the episodes, although he admits that he has hundreds if not thousands of hours of recordings that he has captured. As for the variety of his interview subjects, he says they are all in the whiskey periphery: “I know people say ‘oh I am into whiskey’ but it’s more that I am into flavour. We enjoy flavours, we appreciate flavours. So if you appreciate the flavour of a whiskey or a spirit you can also appreciate a wine, an ice wine, a cigar.”
After a trip to Belfast Whiskey Week last July with his wife Sonya, O’Dwyer got to thinking – wouldn’t it be great if there was a festival like this closer to home. On the drive home they talked about how it would look and by the time they were back in the rebel county, the plans were already being laid and Cork Whiskey Festival was born.
Taking place from March 24th to 26th, it runs across three days, with most of the events taking place in and around MacCurtain Street, rebranded in recent years as the VQ or Victorian Quarter. Once a street that you only went to to get a cab, hit a casino, or munch a chicken snackbox, it’s now a bustling, vibrant hotspot. Perhaps it is the fact that it lies at a higher point than the rest of Cork city centre – thus it sits above the annual floods – that has seen it become a focal point for gentrification, but it is now home to one of Ireland’s top whiskey bars – The Shelbourne – as well as bourbon bar The White Rabbit, two wine bars, the award-winning cocktail lounge Cask, classic pubs like Dan Lowry’s and the Cork Arms, multiple award-winning restaurants such as the Glass Curtain, and the iconic Metropole Hotel, itself a venue for the festival which offers a reduced accommodation rate for festival attendees.
Starting with a brand expo in the luxurious surrounds of the Metropole Hotel on the Friday night, there are more than thirty events featuring producers such as Sliabh Liag Distillers, The Liberator, Lough Ree Distillery, Irish Distillers, Killowen Distillery, Kinsale Mead Co., Pearse Lyons Distillery, Dingle Distillery, Dunville’s, Rebel City Distillery, West Cork Distillers, newcomers Element Whiskey, Blacks Distillery and Brewery, Thomond Gate, WD O’Connell Whiskey Merchants, Baoilleach, Bushmills, Boann, and from the Midleton stable, the Spots, Method & Madness, Redbreast, and Powers. There are history walks, talks, masterclasses, tastings and cask demos. The line-up is impressive for any festival, but especially so for one in its first year.
Once word got out that the festival was happening, brands asked up to take part, with the end result being that the billing has been full since October. O’Dwyer was keen to keep ticket prices reasonable as he wanted the festival to be as accessible as possible to the hardcore whiskey lover and the newcomers. But he is keen to stress that the festival is about savouring and enjoying whiskey in moderation; an epicurean approach to alcohol; good spirits, good craic, and good food in pleasant surrounds. Several events are booked out and with only a few weeks to go, O’Dwyer thinks the rest will be at capacity by the time the weekend arrives. You have been warned.