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.