The Land of Ire

Pub in Belfast

So while Clutch was celebrating his father’s 60th in what he calls ‘whisky country‘, I was hanging out with musicians in what I suppose you could call ‘whiskey (with an ‘e’) country’. Except mostly, it wasn’t.

I’ve had it before of course – a Jameson’s here and there, the occasional Bushmills, and I like it fine – but I have to say that in comparison to Scotch, I don’t know a great deal about Irish whiskey. I mean, there were only three things I knew for sure:

    1) that the Irish stuff was distilled three times, rather than the Scottish method of distilling twice;
    2) that the Irish never use peat in the process – and that’s the bit that gives the competition their smokey, earthy overtones – especially in the Islay regions;
    3) Irish whisky tends to be blended – Scotch is typically (at least the good stuff) single malt.

The ill-informed Irish youth
My four days in Belfast were spent meeting, chatting, partying and drinking with various Irish musicians – both from Northern Ireland and from the South. And as I spent an entertaining few days freeloading on people’s couches and watching bands perform until the wee small hours, I had no end of conversations about whiskey.

And not one person knew a thing.

For a country proud of its whiskey-making tradition, they’re not very good at instilling their young with a knowledge of the basics, are they? Everyone knows a good Guinness from a less good one (and I had a few of each – though there’s really no such thing as a ‘bad’ Guinness)… but hardly anyone can name more than a couple of Irish whiskies – much less tell the difference.

I did notice that there was an amazing array of antique whiskey advertisement mirrors wherever you went – but not that much in the way of an actual whiskey selection, and sod-all expertise. At least, where I was looking.

Tried and true
I bought a small bottle of Black Bush and another of Jameson on my second night there, and split the former with my host, Nick from Penny Distribution (in the music business, distributing pennies) after a great night seeing up-and-comers General Fiasco and A Plastic Rose at the Empire.

It was a late one, but between the two of us, we managed to battle our way to the bottom of the Black Bush with the aid of ice (NEVER in a single malt scotch…) and some tasty snacks. By three o’clock in the morning, it was all gone, so we called it a night.

I ended up leaving the Jameson behind, convinced I wasn’t all that interested in Irish whiskies after all (morning after regret?). I called it a ‘thanks for having me’ gift.

But later, once the cloud had lifted, I became determined that there was more to the Irish stuff than the bottles you can buy cheap here in England. So I looked a little harder. And after some pestering, I managed to convince Walter the Goon (honestly) from the band John Shelly and the Creatures to find me a good Irish pub in the traditional ‘not-part-of-a-dodgy-chain’ sense. One with a decent whisky selection.

He did not disappoint.

Whiskey tasting on the fly
We made our way to The Duke of York – a worryingly English name for what actually turned out to be an Irish-as-it-could-possibly-be pub – and we had a quiet Guinness while we perused both sides of the closely-typed whiskey menu, which ranged in price from £2 a measure, right up to £55 a measure (they don’t call them drams, apparently).

We were on a bit of a deadline – my bus to the airport left in an hour, so we had to make a choice. At the proprietor’s insistence, I tried a Redbreast 12 year-old. Good sized measure, no water, no ice – just neat.

Oh. My. God.

Not the usual kind of smoky, fiery, paint-strippery pleasure you get from a peaty Islay malt – but a completely different category of delight. Sherry, honey, floral and fruity flavours… and just the smoothest whisky drinking experience I’ve yet encountered. A real pleasure of a drink – and if I can find a bottle of it anywhere, I’m grabbing it. Just amazing.

There’s clearly more to this Irish whiskey than they’re letting on. And the people in charge should be investing money in educating their children about the stuff, so that when they grow up to be musicians and reprobates, they can act as informed ambassadors to the likes of me.

Preconceptions shattered
At the airport, on the way out, I scoured the shelves for anything like it, but instead ended up taking home a Connemara as a souvenir of my trip instead. And it breaks all three rules of what I understood an Irish whisky to be:

    1) It’s distilled twice – not three times
    2) It’s peated
    3) It’s a single malt.

And it’s really pretty damn good. Again – no ice, no water – just neat. Smooth, but with a smoky edge that makes it feel like a proper grown-up’s drink.

I shall be heading back for more.

But, it has to be said – even though I had a thoroughly marvellous time in Belfast, that doesn’t mean I’m not deeply jealous and resentful of Clutch’s adventure.

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