The final frontier

In June 1940, a man walked from the surf onto a beach on the Dingle peninsula. He stopped to bury a radio transmitter in the sand, walked inland until he stumbled across an old railway line and then headed towards the town of Dingle. With an hour to kill until the bus to Tralee, he accepted an invitation into a local pub – even though it was 7am. There, he had three whiskeys and, in the grand Irish tradition of drinking on public transport, he bought a bottle of whiskey for the journey. In Tralee he got on the Dublin train, and spent much of the journey talking about how ‘that great man Hitler would set Ireland free’. Unsurprisingly, he was arrested in Dublin, and identified as Walter Simon – a German spy. In fact, he was one of two spies who tried to enter England via the wild western frontiers of the Kerry coast, although he was the only one undone by a lethal combination of Kerry hospitality and Irish whiskey.

If you saw the Dingle peninsula, you could see its appeal to a U-boat captain looking to land a covert operative – miles and miles of jagged coastline and sparse population give parts of it the feel of an abandoned outpost on some deserted, beautiful planet. When you go to Dingle from almost anywhere outside Kerry, it feels like you have crossed a timezone or two. You can’t just got to Dingle for the night – you have to commit to a trip down there, clear your schedule for a few days.

The last time I spoke to Oliver Hughes, he asked me to come down for a festive celebration in Dingle Distillery to mark the release of their first whiskey. I could have made it, albeit for just a few hours, but then I wouldn’t be able to relax, as I had work the next morning. So with a heavy heart I declined. I felt terrible about it – when I was took part in the Dingle Whiskey School I had been talking to Oliver and the rest of the staff about how hard it was to get journalists to cover events outside The Pale, especially at the far end of the country. He made the point that he could have built the distillery somewhere in the hinterland of Dublin, but he loved Dingle, and knew it was a special place, so for him there was nowhere else.

One evening during the whiskey school he drove myself and fellow journalist Eleanor Cosgrove along Slea Head, pointing out various landmarks such as the Sleeping Giant, the site of the village in Ryan’s Daughter (sadly levelled after filming finished because the council couldn’t sort out the insurance) and the iconic Dunquin Pier. At the top of the long zig-zag down to the pier is a shed, held to the ground with ropes and rocks, because when a storm hits here, everything is fair game – the terrifying storm scenes of Ryan’s Daughter weren’t shot on a soundstage; in fact, due to the temperamental Irish weather, some of the beach scenes where sun was required were shot in South Africa. The trip around the peninsula was a memorable one, as Oliver told us some great stories about his time in Kerry, as well as a few insane tales from his days as a barrister.

That night Oliver brought us and some of the Founding Fathers (the title for investors in the distillery) out for dinner to Ashe’s. It was there we got to see the actual bar tab run up by Bob Mitchum during the filming of David Lean’s beautiful epic. Much like Walter Simon, Mitchum indulged in a dram or two when in the area.

Over dinner we all chatted and got to know each other, Oliver cracking jokes and keeping the chat and wine flowing. He was a great host, despite the fact that he was a busy man – when I met him for a dram before dinner in Dick Mack’s, he was tucked away in the back talking over some new ideas he had with business associates. He was an ‘idea guy’ – someone who was almost plagued with creative visions. How else could he have had the foresight to start a craft beer business in Ireland? I remember walking into the Porterhouse on Parliament Street in the late Nineties and ordering a pint of Heineken, only to be told they didn’t have it on tap. I thought ‘haha this place is doomed’ and ordered a bottle of the heinous swill instead, refusing to try anything new. Thankfully, there are people out there who weren’t as obnoxiously close-minded as I, and his business thrived. But I don’t believe he was trying to create an empire, or even build a legacy, he just wanted people to try something new. What he did for Ireland was to change the way people thought about beer – no longer was it a few different types of nondescript swill to get shamefacedly blotto on. With the craft beer movement it was now something to be enjoyed, explored, celebrated.

The last time I saw Oliver in person was at Whiskey Live Dublin. I was at the Tamdhu/Glengoyne stand trying a few drams when suddenly he appeared and started talking to the assembled group about his distillery, his whiskey, his vision. I’m not sure the Scottish reps quite knew what to do as he completely took over their pitch by sheer force of will. He had a gloriously punk DIY attitude, despite the pinstripes. He was a pioneer, a man on the wild frontiers of food and drink. Little wonder then that he chose to build his distillery on Ireland’s western front.

In a world of bland corporate personalities, he was a breath of fresh air – electric, acerbic, outspoken – and, at 57, far too young to die.

Footnote: You can read some of Oliver’s posts on the original Dingle Distillery blog here.

The west’s awake

Dublin isn’t Ireland. Obviously, it is part of the Republic and we all love it very much, but as a representation of what Ireland is, it is far from the definitive article. When you meet people abroad who tell you they’ve been to Ireland because they spent a weekend in Dublin, there is always the urge to point out that far from the urban sprawls of our dirty-beautiful capital, there are huge expanses of open country, peppered with the odd house, terrible WiFi and breathtaking scenery.

In terms of ‘places that are not Dublin’, Dingle in West Kerry is as good an example as any: Remote, stunning, and devoid of the brash cacophony of The Pale. My love affair with Dingle started after I finished my Leaving Cert. A group of us drove to Schull, spent two days on the lash, then I hitched down to Dingle (this was back in the days when you were able to hitch without ending up in The Hills Have Eyes). In Dingle I met up with my girlfriend and in an abandoned house not far from the village, I lost my virginity to her. It might not seem like the most romantic of spots, surrounded by the ghosts of the faithful departed, but it was, as it always is, a turning point.

Years later I went back to Dingle, this time with another girl, a Scot who was obsessed with Fungi, the harbour’s resident dolphin for the past three decades. On my 23rd birthday, we went out into the harbor and she swam with Fungi in the middle of a solar eclipse. Bizarre. We later went our separate ways, I married and settled down, but this year I went back to Dingle consumed with another great love affair – whiskey. I spent four days in Dingle Distillery – a stone’s throw from the abandoned house I stayed in all those years before. The distillery is compact and bijou, staffed by a group of young lads with enthusiasm and passion to burn.

I got to meet Oliver Hughes, the visionary behind The Porterhouse and the distillery. Oliver is an interesting guy, constantly moving, bristling with energy and ideas. A former criminal barrister, I’d imagine he was a formidable opponent to face across the courts. He was a great host, generous with his time and his passion for the area, where he too had found love, having brought his girlfriend-now-wife there many years before.

While we were there the distillery was visited by one of the Founding Fathers, the title for investors and supporters who bought a cask to help fund the distillery. Bob Dunfey’s name may not mean much to you, but he holds a very important role in Irish politics. Bob and his brother attended a meal during the very early stages of the Peace Process, and shocked the world by inviting Gerry Adams despite the fact that Martin Trimble would be attending. It may not seem like a big deal now, but back then it caused consternation, with many invited guests threatening to pull out. But they didn’t, and it was the start of an incredibly important period of our history.

Bob and his wife Jeanette at front left with some whiskey school students, teachers and distillery staff.

Bob, who had a background in hospitality, cracked open his cask in the distillery, and shared it with us. It was just another special moment from a very special place.

On one of the evenings Oliver drove us out around Slea Head. We stopped off to admire Inishtooskert, the island better known as The Sleeping Giant. The spot popped into my mind as I read an email informing me that Dingle’s other giant is about to awaken from its three-year sleep:

After three years of careful maturation on the Corca Dhuibhne coast, the first public samples of Dingle Whiskey are just about ready to be pulled from cask! Specifically, we’ll be dipping our glasses into Cask #2 – a first-fill American white oak barrel seasoned with bourbon, filled to the brim with our own triple distilled single malt, left to sit until December 20th and, on that auspicious upcoming occasion, bottled at cask strength for your own full enjoyment! The day that it’s bottled, our little distillate ceases to be spirit and finally takes its place among the whiskeys of the world.

And we’ve been at it a while now. The first-to-start in what has recently grown into an erupting craft distilling movement, the Dingle Distillery’s first three-year-old will also offer tipplers their first taste of Irish craythur crafted outside the ‘big three’ producers in over thirty-five years. Using Irish barley, Irish mash bills, and three small pot stills hand designed by legendary distiller John McDougall, the Dingle distillery aims to make both artisan single malt and single pot still expressions – the first of which is finally ready to call itself whiskey.

We may have started doing this back in 2012, but Irish whiskey takes a while. As the barrels bask in the warm gulf-stream summers and cool winters of the Irish southwest, the oak staves expand and contract, allowing the spirit to breathe and injecting it in return with oaky tannins, sweet vanillins, honeyed bourbon residues and in the case of our own seaside warehouse, a brine-stung breeze that leaves one last signature of place on this famous old process. Whatever it tastes like, this first small batch sample will be unmistakably a spirit of Dingle…

The price for this limited edition whiskey is €350. To order your bottle, contact The Dingle Distillery.

If you’re thinking ‘but didn’t they already release a whiskey?’ then you are sort-of right – they released a Cooley blend as a revenue generator.

Chas and a bottle of the Cooley blend they released under the Dingle Gold brand. Fun fact: One of the chaps working in the distillery is a direct descendent of Michael Collins. 

I bought one of the last bottles of it when I was down there and even had the cheek to get Oliver Hughes to autograph it. I asked him to sign it ‘to eBay, love Oliver’ – sadly he didn’t, but he did sign it with a wry smile.

As for the blend – I think they regretted releasing it, as they felt it devalued the brand and confused the consumer – but hopefully any confusion will be cleared up on December 20 when the world will finally get a taste of what the land, sea and sky of West Kerry can produce.

Drambusters

A nice PR shot of me mincing across the floor at last year’s Irish Whiskey Live with some sheets of paper and zero mates. This year I am going to be there again, but this time I am dragging my brother in law along so I don’t look like a total sad case. That said, I had a ball last year, having the bants with stallholders from far and wide and chatting to other geeks about whisk(e)y. Anyway, this year sounds rocking: Here’s the deets –

The best of Irish and International whiskey will be celebrated as Whiskey Live returns to Dublin for the fifth time on Saturday 24th October in its new city centre location of The Printworks at Dublin Castle, Dublin 2. The move to this new location has allowed the event to grow to accommodate up to 1200 visitors over two sessions 1.30-5.00pm and 6.00-9.30pm. Tickets are limited and available from www.whiskeylivedublin.com.

 

Whiskey Live Dublin showcases an eclectic collection of whiskeys from around the world, along with great food pairings, cocktails and a range of entertaining master classes to learn more about whiskey. This year also sees the introduction of craft gins and vodkas, reflecting the continuing growth of distilleries and the whiskey industry in Ireland.

 

Visitors will have the unique opportunity to sample whiskeys, whiskey cask-matured craft beers, whiskey cocktails and other Irish spirits and liqueurs whilst mingling with their producers and distillers. Among the large variety of exhibitors are Nikka Japanese, Wild Beech Leaf Liqueur, Kilbeggan Distillery, Teeling Distillery, Dingle Gin & Vodka, Glendalough, Longueville House Apple Brandy, Single Pot Still Whiskeys of Ireland (Midleton, Redbreast, Powers), Isle of Arran, Saint Patricks Distillery, Walsh Whiskey and Bulleit Bourbon.

 

Mixologists from Koh Bar, Bull & Castle and Native Blenders will be at hand serving up samples of delicious Irish whiskey cocktails. A selection of Dublin’s best restaurants, including Koh Bar, L Mulligan Grocer and FXBs will present a menu of delicious food pairings to match the excellent whiskeys. Whether you are a whiskey enthusiast, an uninitiated newcomer or just looking for a day out that offers you something different, Whiskey Live is an inspiring experience.

 

Organiser Ally Alpine of The Celtic Whiskey Shop commenting on the event says; “This year’s line up of exhibitors is the strongest Dublin has ever seen and it really reflects the new investment and energy in the Irish whiskey category. Over recent years there has been significant interest in Irish whiskey globally and this is evident in how this indigenous industry has grown and will flourish over the next decade.”

 

Tickets for Whiskey Live Dublin are priced at €39.50 plus booking fee with The Celtic Whiskey Shop donating €10 per ticket to Down Syndrome Dublin. Tickets are available via www.whiskeylivedublin.com or from the Celtic Whiskey Shop, 27-28 Dawson Street, Dublin 2, or by phone at 01-675 9744.     Visit www.whiskeylivedublin.com for more details

Confirmed exhibitors to date include:

 

  • Adam Elmegirab Bitters
  • Auchentoshan
  • BenRiach
  • GlenDronach
  • Benromach
  • Boann Distillery
  • Bowmore
  • Bulleit Bourbon
  • Bushmills
  • Celtic Cask
  • Celtic Whiskey Club
  • Celtic Whiskey Shop
  • Cocoa Atelier
  • Coole Swan
  • Dingle Gin & Vodka
  • Echlinville Distillery
  • Gaelic Whiskies
  • Glendalough
  • GlenGlassaugh
  • Glengoyne
  • Glenmorangie
  • Gonzalez Byass
  • Gordon & MacPhail
  • Great Northern Distillery
  • Greenspot
  • Hyde Whiskey
  • Irish Whiskey Awards
  • Irish Whiskey Society
  • Isle of Arran
  • Jack Daniels
  • Jack Ryans
  • Jefferson Bourbon
  • Kalak Vodka
  • Kilbeggan Distillery
  • Knappogue Castle
  • Laphroaig
  • Lexington Brewing  & Distilling
  • Longueville House Apple Brandy
  • Muldoon
  • Nikka Japanese
  • Palace Bar
  • Quiet Man
  • Saint Patricks Distillery
  • Single Pot Still Whiskeys of Ireland (Midleton, Redbreast, Powers)
  • Teeling Whiskey Co
  • Tullamore Dew
  • Walsh Whiskey
  • Whisky Magazine Wild Beech Leaf Liqueur
  • Woodford Bourne
  • Yellowspot

Gif reaction: 

Dingle and ready to mingle

I took part in the Dingle Distillery whiskey school – it’s a great way to spend a couple of days in an amazing part of the country. I highly recommend it. The article ran in the Irish Examiner over the summer, but here it is in full.

If Oliver Hughes has a crystal ball, he isn’t telling – and as a former criminal barrister, his poker face is probably more resilient than most. But the evidence suggests that he might.

Exhibit A: Back in 1996, before micro breweries were becoming such an industry that they were getting tax breaks in the budget, Oliver and his cousin Liam LaHart decided to set up the Porterhouse. Oliver had seen the success of micro-breweries in the UK and decided the stagnant beer market here could do with some revitalizing. Many thought he was mad – the notion that a pub could survive without serving big brand beers on draught was completely alien. Some publicans began betting amongst themselves on how long it would last – six months, maybe a year. But last he did – in fact, the Porterhouse thrived, and expanded.

Exhibit B: Oliver had another idea – open a distillery. The current liquid gold rush in Ireland has seen big hitters investing here in the past 12 months, with up to 25 distilleries in various stages of development. But Oliver’s vision of an independent Irish distillery came long before the current boom. In fact, it was more than a decade ago that he first envisioned it. As for the reasoning behind his startling act of foresight: “Well distilling is actually a lot easier than brewing, so it just made sense,” is his reply.

‘Easy’ it may be, but he still brought in some expert help. John McDougall is one of the few people alive who has worked across all the whisky regions of Scotland and across multiple styles, and he helped design and set up the distillery. And as for its location, in beautiful Dingle, Oliver’s explanation is just as deceptively straightforward: “I came to Dingle with my then-girlfriend-now-wife 30 years ago and fell in love with the place, so it was perfect.”

But it isn’t just the romance of Dingle that makes a difference – the distillery sits next to the estuary of Dingle harbor, warmed by the briney, balmy airs of the Gulf Stream and the temperate microclimate it creates in west Kerry. Whiskey ages faster in the warmth here; and the barrels will absorb sea air, brushed by the occasional cool breeze drifting down from the mountains. Whiskey from Dingle will never be the same as whiskey from Dublin, or Belfast, or any of the other traditional centres of distilling in Ireland. Or at least that is what you would expect, as their spirit has not yet reached the three years minimum spent in a cask, a period which imparts almost 80% of the flavor.

All this detail may seem confusing to the average consumer, but Oliver’s distillery is hoping to educate the public on the who, what, why and when of Irish whiskey.   The Dingle Distillery Whiskey Academy is two days of hands-on training in this most ancient – and Irish – of arts. What marks this academy out is the fact that it is entirely conducted within the distillery itself – as you are learning the theory you are also seeing it happen in front of you. This is no sterile classroom setting, far from reality– this is right in the beating heart of a busy operation. As you absorb the lore of distilling you are inhaling the evaporated spirit (known as the angel’s share), with lessons occasionally interrupted by the sound of clanking pipes.

The tutor for the academy is Michael Walsh, who at just 25 must be one of the youngest in the world to assume the role of Master Distiller. Most of the distillery staff are young men who would have emigrated if it hadn’t been for Oliver’s vision, a fact that distillery manager Mary Ferriter is quick to point out. Mary was our host for the two days of the academy – serving Dingle Gin and tonics during lunch on the lawn outside, next to the old waterwheel that powered the sawmill that once occupied the building. Mary is as warm and enthusiastic as you would expect from someone who once ran a year-round Christmas shop named Dingle Elf. Like all the distillery staff, Mary is a multi-tasker – she also delivers their award-winning Dingle Gin and Dingle Vodka to outlets along the peninsula, like a legitimate Dukes Of Hazard. On one run to Castlegregory we travelled over the Conor Pass, far above valleys littered with remnants of Famine villages, places so isolated they are almost cut off from the rest of the world. Even in this day and age, access to broadband is a problem down here. But the community understands the importance of banding together – they are all behind the distillery, and proud to support it.

Within Dingle itself there is a growing whiskey scene. Dick Mack’s pub recently won Munster Whiskey Pub Of The Year and then went on to win the national title – manager Finn MacDonnell the latest in his family to run the pub, founded by his family more than a century ago. It boasts an incredible array of Irish and international whiskeys, including a bottle of 1973 Midleton, a measure of which costs 200 euro. Many recession-scorched Irish people may balk at that price, but while I was there one American tourist paid the asking price and more in dollars for a single dram. Finn’s selection of whiskeys was co-ordinated with help from Peter White, a Dublin firefighter by day (and night) and whiskey guru by night (and day). Peter, the current president of the Irish Whiskey Society, frequents Dingle a lot, as his mother hailed from the village, and is just one of the whiskeyvangelists promoting our national drink out of sheer love for it.

Another enthusiast is John Moriarty of The Park Hotel Kenmare and Dublin Bar Academy, who is also one of the tutors in Dingle Distillery. John and Michael work like a tag team, talking us through the history of distilling, from Irish monks adapting Mooirsh alchemists’ equipment, to the revolution of the column still, the rise of blends, the decline of Irish whiskey in the late 1800s/early 1900s, and on to the present day – which is seeing Irish whiskey become the fastest growing spirit in the world. They also talked us through the lexicon – single malt, pure pot still, wort, mashtun, draff, feints, low wines, cuts, non-age statements – and on to the different types of cask used.

We also got to fill a cask each – not to take home sadly. Putting a hose in a barrel and pulling a lever might seem like a straightforward task, but this writer still managed to spray the exterior of the barrel, himself and the master distiller in one fell swoop.

But as the last module of my two-day experience at the academy, I think I still graduated. As for the Dingle whiskey, we will just have to wait – it reaches legal age at the end of this year, with a release expected early next year. But you don’t need a crystal ball to know that as the first independent Irish whiskey in a long time, this is going to be one special release.

The Dingle Distillery Whiskey Academy runs on the following dates: August 12th & 13th; October 27th & 28th; November 18th & 19th; December 16th & 17th. The two days cost €450, while the distillery tour is €10 per person. For more info email tours@dingledistillery.ie or call: 086 777 5551 or 086 829 9944.

I also made a ridiculous video: 

Bob Mitchum’s bar tab for Ryan’s Daughter

David Lean’s beautiful epic was shot on the Dingle Peninsula in the late Sixties, pumping huge sums into the area. Notorious bon vivant Bob Mitchum did his part for the local economy too, setting up a tab at Ashe’s in the village centre – the record of that tab still exists, and I got to see it during the week.

Sadly, when filming was over they levelled the village they built as part of the set, thus robbing the area of a massive tourism draw. You can visit the remnants of it, but unless you know what you’re looking for you won’t find it. You can read loads more about the film and its impact on the region here.

Factoid: The family who own Ashe’s are related to Gregory Peck, and there are photos in the bar of him visiting.