Why Ireland? Why would anyone want to holiday here? It’s overpriced, it’s wet, it’s miserable. The roads are in shite, the WiFi sucks, there’s nothing on TV. Why would anyone want to visit us at all? And yet, they do, in their hundreds of thousands, every year (bar pandemics). But among that vast throng, there is an increasing number who come here for a very specific purpose – whiskey. There are guided whiskey tours, but there is an increasing number of people who come here on self-guided trips; who will travel around the island visiting the distilleries and producers they want to. As Irish whiskey tourism is still in a relative infancy, we need to ask what works and what doesn’t for these visitors. So, taking the smallest sample possible – one person – ask is what I did.
According to a DNA test, North Carolina resident Hank Barnes is only 8% Irish, but he says it’s the 8% that matters most. His wife Connie, however, is firmly Irish American, with her family names being Doyle and O’Neill. The couple love Irish pubs (friends of theirs own one in Waxhaw NC named Mary O’Neills, if you’re ever in the area) and in 2014 they decided to holiday in Ireland. During that trip, Hank asked a bartender what whiskey he should drink, and was given a Redbreast. On his way home from that trip he bought five bottles of Irish whiskey from the Celtic Whiskey Shop. That was the start of a consuming passion.
As for what it was about Irish whiskey that appealed to him, it had less to do with flavour profiles and more to do with its status as a relative underdog: “I think what got me into Irish over others was that I like to be a contrarian (with boundaries). I don’t pick the well-known brands (for the most part); I look for things that are cool and different.”
The trips to Ireland have become an annual event for the couple, often with tickets to see an All-Ireland thrown in as they are both sports mad (they met playing volleyball and are avid fans of The Carolina Hurricanes). So while whiskey was a part of their trips to Ireland, it was not the sole motivation for them, as Hank explains: “While this trip was designed around whiskey, it was not a whiskey trip. My wife loves the people, but she is not a whiskey drinker (she’ll taste and sample but that is not her thing – Malibu Rum or Irish Cream is).”
While whiskey tilted the compass on this trip, they were also keen to take in the sights, as Hank explains: “I think it would be as interesting to highlight the other things you can do around distilleries. For our trip, we probably spent less than 10 hours of it focused solely on whiskey (not counting all our pub time). They were some of the best parts, but the Cliffs (Sliabh Liag, Moher, and Kilkee) might have been even better. We also met some interesting people and even had a sheep farmer back my car up about ¼ kilometre on a narrow road so he could get a truck and trailer full of sheep past – then we could continue our trip to a waterfall.”
When planning on where to visit, social media played a role – during the pandemic Hank started sharing whiskeys, picking up more bottles, and tweeting about it all. He started chatting online with some brand owners, connections cemented with real world interactions at Whiskey Live Dublin in June. As a consultant with Gartner, Hank travels to Dublin often, so when a meeting in the capitol was scheduled for September, he planned his whiskey journey around that.
“I asked Connie, “You ready for another trip?” And it went from there. The start of planning was that we needed to visit Sliabh Liag, JJ Corry, and WD O’Connell (if the timing worked for them). We also wanted to go places we hadn’t been before. We also planned a few stops along the way to break up the driving. We had never been to Donegal (it was amazing) so that was the start. Sligo seemed like a good place for a night. We then went to Lahinch (after the Cliffs), a night (somewhat disappointing) in Shannon, and then Clonakilty. We added them to the list because I love their whiskey and their brewery collaborations.
“We also stopped in Kinsale for a few hours. I’m in the Blacks Brewery and Distillery Founders Club so that was a good idea. We ended in Dungarvan to see Daithí O’Connell and team before heading back to Dublin for a night or two before heading home.”
Anyone familiar with a map of the Republic of Ireland will note that they pretty much hit all corners, from the far northwest to the deep southeast, with numerous hostelries in between – so how was the Irish whiskey representation in pubs and restaurants?
“Mixed. There are some places that are great – Darkey Kelly’s in Dublin, The Sky and The Ground in Wexford, Thomas Connolly in Sligo – but others were a mixed bag. Most of the pubs in smaller towns had a very limited selection and not many from their local distillers, merchants, or bonders. Hard to gauge awareness of staff, as I have too much awareness, but I was definitely (and hopefully not annoyingly) sharing that with others, trying to get them to try the local options.”
As for the idea of a whiskey tourism guide, one which covers all whiskey offerings, pubs, historical sites, distilleries, Hank says there is space for a single point of information for it all: “I think there is a spot for a more unified guide. You get some from Irish Whiskey Magazine (and their site) — Serghios reached out to me on Twitter and we ended up spending some time together talking whiskey; that was a great thing in Dublin. You get some info from Barry Chandler and the stuff he is doing around the Stories and Sips Club, which I am a member of. The Irish Whiskey Society of the USA has some too. But it is all over and you have to know and remember where to look.”
As for the idea of Ireland as a rip-off destination, it is an undeserved title, says Hank: “With the dollar versus the euro, no issues with prices. Lodging in Dublin was a challenge to find a reasonable place (it was worse for the work part of this trip), but we did.”
So what advice would Hank give to a whiskey fan coming here?
“First, make sure your trip is not all about whiskey. There is so much more to Ireland. But for the whiskey parts, go to some of the unexpected places. If you are hardcore, try to get to know the people behind it before you go. James at Sliabh Liag basically gave us a personal tour. The JJ Corry experience was minus Louise, but Caroline and Eric were fantastic. Daithí made time for me and we were his first visitors at his new place (and I stole a brief amount of time on his rowing machine so I could say I rowed in a rackhouse).
“Second, I’d recommend a car. You can explore so much more. We discovered Mahon Falls by accident when we had a little extra time.
“Third, what I really learned is how much work the whiskey business is. We see the end product and the external presentation (including standard tours). Those support the business, but aren’t the business. For our special visits, I left with a great appreciation and a concern that I had interrupted their work and made more work for them — hopefully we did not out stay our welcome. Keep that in mind as founders and teams are sharing their time with you.”
The experience of the Barnes may not be typical of every whiskey tourist who comes here, but therein lies the challenge for the Irish tourism board – how do you cater to people who look at a map with 42 points all across it and then randomly join them, criscrossing back and forth? How do you build a coherent package to whiskey lovers who want to explore Ireland as well as Irish whiskey? Do you highlight places of interest between all these producers, do you map whiskey pubs, what defines a whiskey pub? Ireland isn’t Campbelltown, Islay, or even Speyside – our whiskey producers all over the country (aside from four big guns in Dublin city – Pearse Lyons, Teeling, Roe & Co, and Dublin Liberties) and many don’t do tours per se, although many welcome fans like the Barnes. Perhaps a single unified guide isn’t needed, given that there is no single archetype for Irish whiskey lovers. But in the years ahead, if all goes according to plan and our glorious resurrection continues, we will need to think about how we map Ireland for whiskey lovers.