The Galtees

A few photos from various rambles up the Galtees. We should all get out more. Ireland is at its most serene and beautiful when you get to the summit of a mountain on a clear day and all you can hear is the wind and the jackhammering of your heart as you drink in a hundred miles of scenery. It makes you realise that, beyond all the negativity in the press and misery we sometimes like to wallow in, Ireland is a pretty special place. And sher a bit of exercise wouldn’t go astray, would it?

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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The gallowglass is half empty

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In the late Nineteenth century, the Scots adulterated our whiskey because it was better. They passed their own off as Irish because our whiskey was better. They savaged our industry and tarriffed it out of business because our whiskey was better, and they bought up and shut many distilleries in Ulster because our whiskey was better.

The Scotch industry’s products I like a lot. Their history I despise.

The Irish and the Scots have had their disputes. Over the centuries we have slaughtered each other on the battlefield, sometimes at the behest of the same cruel master, sometimes just for the hell of it. But the truth is that for two nations divided by water, we are effectively the same people. Our histories are intertwined to the point that it is hard to tell which where we begin and they end. Many of our names, such as MacSweeney and MacCabe came from the gallowglass, elite aristocratic mercenaries who settled here in the 13th and 16th centuries. Not long after this second influx of exiled gallowglass, the plantation of Ulster began – and Bushmills distillery was founded. And this brings me, as almost everything does, to whiskey. The quote above was taken from the Irish Whiskey Society forum and it encapsulates an attitude that pervades the Irish whiskey scene. There is a feeling that the Scots stole our thunder – we invented the drink, they became known for it and built a magnificent industry on ‘our’ idea. They are Zuckerberg, we are the Winklevoss twins. We are Woz, they are Jobs. We created something, they made it their own. Of course, this is a reductive approach to it – this incredible product deserved to be shared with the world, it was the same Irish monks who discovered distilling that then brought it to Islay, the little island that lies between Northern Ireland and Scotland. But any yah-booing does us both a disservice, for just like our people, history and culture, our variations on this one theme are more alike than they are different. Yet I’ve felt the hot rush of resentment when Scottish friends tell me that they think John’s Lane is ‘pisswater’ or that Irish whiskey ‘isn’t really whiskey at all’ – not to mention the classic line “you need that third distillation, but we get it right the second time”. 

But we can focus on the differences or we can focus on the similarities; our communal glass can be half empty, or it can be half full. The divisions that plague the community of Northern Ireland are an example of people looking to make ‘others’ of their neighbours, seeing only difference. But they are, effectively, the same – be it Protestant or Catholic, whisky or whiskey, ultimately everyone is worshipping the same holy spirits. 

In the Scots spirit world, few have had the evangelic appeal of Charles MacLean. An author, presenter, bon viveur and raconteur, to me he personifies all that is great about Scotch whisky – a passion for good food, good fun, a good story, and a great dram. I had the pleasure of meeting his bewhiskered and bekilted self at Strathisla last year, where he hosted a dinner accompanied by some cask strength drams.

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A masterful speaker, his tasting notes are made up more or less on the spot, and change constantly, moving from random comparisons to vegetal notes, to bath salts, to soft leather, to detergent; and he is usually right.

So when the IWS arranged for him to speak in Dublin in the significant venue of Wynns Hotel, I had to be there. Granted, it clashed with the Cork IWS branch’s tasting with the aforementioned Bushmills, but this was an opportunity to celebrate our shared heritage with some fantastic drams drawn from the vaults of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

It was booked out, as the current president of the IWS, Peter White, told us. Peter is what whisky geeks call a peathead – he makes a pilgrimage to Islay each year for the whisky festival, and obviously loves the briney, smokey drams – ironic, given that he is a firefighter. We had an introduction by Peter, and then a few words from Fionnan O’Connor, author of A Glass Apart. It was Fionnan’s book that inspired MacLean to speak in Dublin, having written to him to congratulate him on such a fine work. In fact, if you want to pick a single Irish text to read to learn more about Irish whiskey, it is now the go-to.

And so MacLean – wearing his trews, as is the tradition for a Scots gentleman abroad – took the floor. He spoke for a little over two hours, we had six great drams, lots of laughs, a brief chemistry lesson, and some great stories both from Maclean’s life and from whisky lore. I won’t go into the details, as I recorded the whole thing. You can listen to it below.

The audio isn’t the best thanks to my ailing iPhone, but hopefully MacLean’s velvety tones will not be swamped by lo-fi hiss and my occasional yawping.

And here are some pics of the various bottlings:

I popped into the Celtic Whiskey Shop last week whilst killing time before a funeral. The staff member I spoke to made this point about Scotland’s famous whisky regions  – region really doesn’t exist any more; we live in a post-whisky region world. He said that, apart from the bonfire of congeners that is Islay, most Scotch styles are not dictated by geography. Longitude and latitude no longer figure as controlling influences on flavour profile – if they ever did. The same obviously goes for here – on a small island, the difference between whiskey from Cooley or Dingle will be minimal. Ingredients and production methods are the ultimate decider. It’s not in the where, but the how. And so it holds that really, the difference between Dingle whiskey and Scapa ultimately isn’t something worth fighting over – both come, as the Celts do, from the same traditions, the same rugged landscapes, the same sad and beautiful history. The idea that one nation’s product is the ‘best’ is incredibly limiting – to claim our’s is best or their’s is lesser is to deny yourself the full epicurean experience, and makes us sound bitter.  Maybe it’s time to let the past go. After all, when the world’s number one whiskey is Canadian, and the Asian whisky markets are booming, it might be time to recall our gallowglass ancestors and unite under one flag…until March 19th in the Aviva, of course. Then it’s hammer time.