The final frontier

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Whisky go leor

 

I love Edinburgh. It is a beautiful, upside-down and inside-out Rubiks Cube of a city, forever shifting and changing, and not just because of the trams and the excavations they wrought on its beautiful landscape. As the writer Murdo Macdonald said, Edinburgh is a city that makes you think about what a city should be. It has incredible history, architecture, modern, functional planning, and a sense that you will never know all its mysteries. I’ve been going there every year since an ex brought me over to meet her folks about 20 years ago. We parted, but my love for the city burns brighter every time I visit. And since I turned into some sort of whisky cult member, the city has revealed another piece of its puzzle to me. So this year was like a trip to Jonestown for me.

First up was a visit to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for a bite to eat and some drams. Operated as a members club, they offer their own bottlings, all with the same intriguing labels describing the flavours in the most bizarre and esoteric ways. The original site of the society, founded in 1983, was down in Leith in a venue known as The Vaults, but that seemed a bit far away so we visited the Queen Street branch, which – like almost all the buildings in Edinburgh city centre – was rather beautiful. After an especially classy burger and chips, we settled down for a few tastings, randomly selecting them with the help of the staff. The bottlings are anonymous save for the tasting notes and titles, and are presented at cask strength and without chill filtration. This is what R. Kelly might call real talk – pure and honest whisky, stripped of all the marketing bumpf, the spiel about the days of yore, the recalling of some pre-industrial Never Never Land. This is the beast in its natural state; naked, growling, unchained. These iconic, relatively anonymous green bottles let the drink do the talking: They all look the same, save for the number and the notes. It is pure whisky served in a place of worship – we spend the evening sipping, nosing, sharing, laughing and just kicking back and geeking out. The photos show some of the bottlings we sampled, and this is the one I brought home:

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Who could resist that? Certainly not me, but then I’m fairly sure that I am at least 34% bumblebee.  

Next on the list was WM Cadenhead’s, a shop that refuses to modernise – and is all the better for it. The recent online lottery on Master Of Malt for the new Yamazaki Sherry Cask makes you realise that Cadenehead’s is special – they just about have a website, do not sell online and have all their stock on a chalkboard – or an old ledger that looks like something from Hogwarts. They stock rare and valuable whiskies, some from silent distilleries, and they don’t charge the world. I bought a 23YO Ledaig from Tobermory, a steal at about the 100 mark. If this was an official distillery release I would have been paying double that – at least.

The shop also offers cask ends – they put any drops left into small 20cl bottles so you can try a few different samples without breaking the bank. I bought a 13YO Springbank ‘Green’. The ‘green’ part is a code for ‘organic’, but they can’t officially call it that as – according to the staff member I spoke to – someone in Springbank screwed up the paperwork and they were unable to get it certified organic. I tried the organic Benromach at Whiskey Live Dublin, and was not overly impressed – but then, it was late in the day and I was become overwrought from all the great drams. The Springbank is great, that sherry cask kick is something my bumblebee tastebuds crave, but it has an aniseed, liquorice sweetness in the aftermath that really takes it beyond standard issue. In both the SMWS and Cadenheads I asked for Irish whiskey – both places had bottlings from an ‘unnamed’ Irish distillery. Can you guess which one it was? Here’s a clue:

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We also stopped off at the St Vincent, not far from George’s Street, alongside the church yer man from Rockstar Games bought because he had stacks of cash and sher why not.

The guys in the Vin have started offering grub as well as a decent selection of whisky, bourbon, craft beers et al. I opted for the Dutch Rudder – a burger with peanut mayo and edam. Yes I eat a lot of burgers. Yes I used to be a chef in an upmarket bistro. No I don’t feel any shame. Yes a Dutch Rudder is a sex thing. And yes it was a great burger.

On my way back from Scotland I had a few hours to peruse the whisky in the airport. It was like a zombie film, except non-age statement whisky was patient zero and everyone had been bitten already. I actually found it hard to locate age-statement whiskies, and when I asked a staff member about the epidemic of NAS, they gave the usual spiel about how age statements were the real scam, that the NAS movement was about getting back to how it used to be, and blah blah blah. It seems I am the only one who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid on this matter. Or maybe I’ve just been drinking the wrong Kool-Aid, maybe there is less well-aged Kool-Aid out there that I just haven’t tried yet and that will change my mind. Or maybe I am just too insecure to rely on taste alone and live without a number on the label telling me how much I should appreciate the liquid within. Or maybe I simply spend too much time thinking about these things when I should be helping my kids with their homework. In fact, one of my daughter’s homework tasks this evening was coming up with metaphors to complete statements; one was ‘Chocolate is….’. My suggestion was ‘chocolate is getting punched in the face with happiness’. Which is actually the title of one of the bottlings we sampled in the SMWS.

I have no shame. And I also have no money, as I came home with this lot: 

Me explaining my purchases to my wife:

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Hey, remember when I used to post loads of stupid Lotto photoshoots?

Anyway: 

The €10m National Lottery midweek jackpot has been postponed until tonight after a technical problem stopped ticket machines working.

It is the first time in nearly 30 years of Lotto jackpots that a draw has been postponed.

OMG this means we are all going to win! OMG OMG! This is how excited I am right now:

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Also, do not contact me to point out that the photoshoots are for the EuroMillions and not the Irish Lotto or I will send my aircraft carrying dog to hunt you down.