Further Thoughts On Whiskey Tourism

Ah Kilbeggan – Irish whiskey’s Marie Celeste. A distillery that has that perfect blend – the old side is as if it was trapped in time, all dusty and decrepit, full of charm and character. Then there is the actual functioning distillery, compact and bijou, with a little grit and not much glam, but a real, honest-to-god whiskey making exercise. Really, Kilbeggan should have it all, and yet somehow, it does not. I was there earlier this year and did the tour, and while the person giving it was perfectly pleasant, it was clear that they had no interest in whiskey, and most likely, little interest in giving tours. It wasn’t their fault, and I also have a lot of sympathy for an employer in a rural area trying to find guides with enthusiasm, knowledge and the communication skills to bring the whole experience to life; people like that are a rare breed. Similarly, I have a lot of sympathy for anyone who takes a job in a distillery when they clearly have no interest in anything other than just paying the bills.To spend your day talking to people on a topic you have fuck all interest in must be a Sisyphusian hell, not to mind the odd whiskey nerd asking you about molecular processes when you just want to go home and watch Fair City. After the tour, I popped into the gift shop. I mentioned to the lady behind the counter that Irish whiskey was expensive, and she proceeded to give me a lengthy and wildly inaccurate explanation as to why I was wrong. Irish whiskey is older than Scottish whisky, she said, in a pointedly grumpy fashion. I left shortly after. 

Then we went to the Old Bonded Warehouse in Tullamore, which was like being transported to a different world; friendly, well-informed staff, excellent service and an all-round experience I would recommend (even though it isn’t a distillery). It was a reminder that tourism is as much about people as it is about place – Kilbeggan was all place, Tullamore was all people. But Tullamore – a large town – was always going to have the edge on a small village like Kilbeggan when it comes to finding the right staff. 

So what then of the big smoke and its recent whiskey boom – how is their tourism offering? Frankly, I have no idea – but I did pop into Teeling, Lyons and Roe one afternoon last month. I was curious to see Lyons and Roe, given that they have colossal firms behind them. Both are located in remarkable buildings – Roe an old power station, Lyons a centuries-old church – and have been kitted out in spectacular style. Yet somehow they lack soul; at least the abundance of rust and dust in Kilbeggan brought character. Roe is very modern, stylish and bold, whereas Lyons has a remarkable and profound history – and yet they opted to stick faux-pub frontage to the walls of a place of worship that has been there for centuries. I have long since thrown off any semblance of faith, but there is something of a desecration about it all – gift shops, stained glass celebrating a Lyons ancestor, and those little stills up on the altar (and presumably a massive outsourced distilling contract resting in the tabernacle). The developers would tell you that they rescued the building, that without the Lyons family’s intervention, it would have fallen to dust – and they are right, as buildings need to be used to live. But those faux pub fronts were just an awful, awful idea. It’s hard not to see them and think of Christ casting out the money lenders from the temple.  

Lyons and Roe will make a mint – tourism alone will contribute a sizeable sum to their income. 

What then, of Teeling? It is off the main drag, but well worth the short walk – it is very modern, very cool, and has the great bonus of an exhibition space you can walk around for free and learn about the history of distilling. Their tour is the cheapest of the three, and the upstairs bar is full of great little spaces for those Instagram pics. They also have the most interesting bottle-your-own selections – I think of all the distilleries in the last few years charging onto the scene, not many have created so many great expressions from sourced stock as Teeling. But then, could you expect anything less? 

So, to sum up – get good staff. Train them well. No need for tatts and moustaches, a smile will be fine, because if you are a drinks giant, sticking a few hipsters behind the bar won’t make you cool. Do try to find people who are interested in either tourism or whiskey or people. Do not tell your tour guides to rattle off the three-years-and-a day line, as it grates on my nerves like a fork across porcelain – you can call me a pedant, but it is just not true, and every time it is spoken aloud to a group, it moves further from myth and into truth. Three years is what it takes to become whiskey, and one day more does not ‘make it better than Scotch’. No point in being insecure about it – Irish whiskey is great, don’t bother comparing it to anyone. I’ve been on plenty tours in Scotland, nobody over there is rattling out the tired old line about how they double distill because they get it right the first time. That’s because the Scots don’t care what we are doing, or saying, or anything. They are going to continue to eat our lunch for some decades yet.

I’m not going to mention the IWA map again, but from my perspective, we have some way to go to get the the level Scottish whisky tourism operates at. It isn’t about having centuries old whisky – we have an incredibly exciting selection of distilleries here that don’t even have stock on the market yet – but it is about avoiding the Irish tendency towards glib backslapping and cheering that you will never beat the Irish (despite history teaching us otherwise).  We need to see our own failings and work on them, not don the green jersey and refuse to learn from others with more experience. Anyone here who has a whiskey tourism offering should take a pilgrimage to Scotland and basically steal their ideas. Sher lookit didn’t they steal the drink itself from us? Tis only fair. 

The Angle’s Share

Friends, I have been to the mountaintop; I have been there and I have looked beyond and I have seen the promised land. In other words – I have seen Scottish whisky tourism at work, in Speyside in 2015 and 2018. At the Spirit of Speyside Festival you can see first-hand just how the entire region and all the distilleries in it work together to make the event a success. It is in this model that Ireland can draw inspiration. Enter Irish Whiskey 360°:

One shared spirit, many unique characters.

Irish Whiskey 360° leads you deep into the homes and heartlands of Ireland’s extraordinary distilleries. Your journey will take you North, South, East and West, through ever-changing landscapes, from rugged coastlines to historic cities.

This is part of the Taste The Island initiative from Fáilte Ireland, the Irish tourism board, and it takes an all-island approach to food tourism. Bushmills, one of the greatest distilleries in the world, is located in the North, along with powerhouse newcomers Echlinville, to name but two, so no whiskey tourism programme could exclude NI. When it comes to something as niche as whiskey tourism, the last thing we need are divisions. 

I was filled with great expectations; the 360 site would operate as a vast guide to all the distilleries, telling you who had mature stocks, who didn’t, who you could visit anytime, who you could visit by appointment only. There would be a section telling you about distillery only bottlings, a complete, all-Ireland map showing preferred routes from distillery to distillery, perhaps even a few other places of interest for people coming here to travel around and really gaze into the heart of Ireland – silent distilleries, great whiskey pubs, the odd brewery that does collaborations with whiskey firms; there would be warehouses, whiskey experiences, good restaurants with a whiskey slant. We need to build those links between distilleries – a trail of breadcrumbs to lure fans out into the wilds. This would be one for the real whiskey tourist, not just the coach tours who just want to use the loo. 

Anyway, this is the map:  

Aside from everything else, what is the story with the red speckles? Has there been an outbreak of plague in the north west and sunny south east (again)?

Seventeen locations, and not all of them are distilleries – Tullamore Distillery is by appointment only, one day a week, so the location they are flagging is the Tullamore DEW experience in the town. Same for Bow Street – it’s a whiskey experience, not a functioning distillery. As for places on that list where you can buy indigenous whiskey, I reckon about half of them have gift shops where you can come away with something that was actually distilled there. So the website’s claims that with their guide you’ll get to know the many very different characters that make up the Irish whiskey family seem more than a little far fetched – you’re far more likely to get to know a lot of Cooley and Bushmills. 

The breakdown of the 17 distilleries is thus: 

Roe & Co Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

The Powerscourt Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

Dublin Liberties Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

Clonakilty Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

Slane Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

Pearse Lyons Distillery – new distillery, mature stock from when they were operating in Carlow, nothing from the new site (as far as I know).

Royal Oak Distillery – new distillery, should have mature stock shortly. 

Rademon Estate Distillery – mature stock coming out later this year. 

Connacht Whiskey Distillery – mature stock, no idea when it is being released. 

The Echlinville Distillery – mature stock, no idea when it is being released.

Dingle Distillery – mature stock.

Kilbeggan Distillery – mature stock.

Tullamore D.E.W. – no mature stock either in the distillery or the bonded warehouse tourism bit in the town.

Jameson Distillery, Midleton – mature stock. 

Teeling Whiskey Distillery – mature stock.

Bushmills Distillery – mature stock. 

Jameson Experience, Bow Street – has some maturation on site but to all intents and purposes, no mature stock. 

The Irish Whiskey Association are keen to point out that this is phase one of the project, so this might explain why they only listed distilleries that can take larger tours. The distilleries listed all also happen to be IWA members, and this is where my nerves start jangling. If the IWA wants to create a whiskey tourism offering that only features their members, there is no problem – some of the biggest drinks firms in the world (Brown Forman, Pernod, Diageo, etc etc) are members of the IWA via their Irish operations, so they can afford to create their own initiative and promote it themselves. My issue is that our national tourism board has partnered with the IWA for this, something which is thus far a remarkably limited view of Irish whiskey in 2019. It’s taste the island, not taste the IWA. 

So I put this query to the IWA’s PR firm: There are some distilleries in Ireland not on the list – what was the criteria for the ones currently on the map? Are other attractions going to be added – such as whiskey pubs? Or is it just for whiskey distilleries? The response I got was this: 

“Phase one features Drinks Ireland | Irish Whiskey Association member visitor centres/brand homes who came together to initiate and fund the development of the project. Future phases will see extension to other Irish whiskey tourism partners, including those in the on-trade.  The Festival of Irish Whiskey in October will include other participants beyond the 17 featured visitor centres and brand homes.”

All the distilleries here pay a lot of tax, and some of that tax goes towards funding the tourism board – I would be deeply concerned if I thought any whiskey firms might be excluded from any tourism initiative. Granted, some don’t do large scale tours, but places like West Cork Distillers and Waterford Distillery host visitors (albeit it on a very small scale at the moment). So I went back to the PR firm for clarity, asking: Are non-IWA members going to be included in the campaign, including having their presence marked on the map of distilleries, as well as on the website? Or is this initiative purely focussed on IWA members? The mercurial reply was: 

“Future phases will see more partners being included, on a commercial basis. The current focus is on the 17 founding members and the Festival of Irish Whiskey, which is open to non-IWA members to be included.”

Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, but there is something about those answers (‘on a commercial basis’) that leads me to think that non-IWA members might end up being left out, or treated as a lower tier in our whiskey tourism offering. Again, there is nothing against the IWA running a tourism campaign, but if this is the Irish whiskey section of the Taste The Island campaign, then we cannot leave out some places because they are not in the IWA, or even because they only take small tours, or are not normally open to the public. Have a look at the Visit Scotland whisky tourism site and how they portray Speyside – all the distilleries are listed. Then read this breakdown of the sheer power of whisky tourism in Scotland as a whole. If the Scots are getting it right, there is no harm in following their lead.

We either have a vibrant whiskey scene, or we don’t. We either have a thriving whiskey tourism offering, or we have a list of 17 places – some distilleries, some not – that you can go and walk around with your mouth open. Festivals are meaningless when the most basic tool of any tourist – a map – only shows a select few sites of interest. Who would look at the 360 map and think Connacht Distillery is worth driving across the country to see? There needs to be a trail, a route, a guide. I find it extraordinary that there is a far more comprehensive list of distilleries and upcoming whiskey projects available on the excellent Westmeath Whiskey World blog than there is on the 360 site. 

Part of the problem here is that the IWA has become the body to represent the industry, even though it doesn’t represent all of the industry. The IWA is there to represent business interests, but what happens to those who have no interest in paying a subscription to be a member? What about the smaller, indie firms who can’t afford to join? I understand that there needs to be some benefit to IWA members, but in this particular instance, there needs to be a bigger view taken. Firms can be rivals on the shelf, but should be comrades everywhere else.

I would very much hope that the next phase of the 360 project includes all distilleries; just last week I met up with an American tourist who came here purely to visit distilleries, and those that he couldn’t tour, he went along to and took photos from the outside. That’s the power of whiskey tourism, and understanding how it works will be key to harnessing it. We have a young scene, but it is vibrant, and, much like Scotland, it has one of the most beautiful backdrops in the world. By following the example the Scots have set, we too can find the promised land.