WHISKEY TRAIL

Liq­uid tourism in the U.K.

DRIFT Travel magazine - - Inside This Issue - BY: PETER MAN­DEL

Whiskey has its own liq­uid po­etry. Sip it and you talk, or sing. My Scot­tish cousins can be al­most elo­quent about the drink it­self. It is, they say, an ed­u­ca­tion. As richly cul­tural as wine. This started me think­ing. If wine has ter­roir - the spe­cial tra­di­tions, soils, sunny hill­sides that end up af­fect­ing its taste on your tongue, what about al­co­hol that’s dis­tilled from grain? Would it mat­ter if it came from sacks of bar­ley that had ma­tured in In­di­ana? Or did Scot­land and Ire­land (sup­pos­edly the birth­place of the drink, with records dat­ing back to 1405) have some­thing no one else could claim?

I be­gan to map out a trip to those dis­tillery-dot­ted coun­tries to try and find out. But since I am a whiskey am­a­teur, not an afi­cionado, I’d want to get a fullfledged va­ca­tion out of my route. It wouldn’t be a string of cel­lar tast­ings. I wanted plates of pota­toes and meat pies in pubs, philo­soph­i­cal walks by the sea, and what­ever lo­cal quirks I could find.

Land­ing in Dublin, I am met by morn­ing, and by rain. I head di­rectly to the first dis­tillery on my list. This one be­longs to Jame­son and it’s a replica of how its Bow Street ware­house might have looked when Ir­ish whiskey was made back in the 1780s, when the com­pany was founded.

Un­like scotches, which are dou­ble dis­tilled, Ir­ish whiskies are dis­tilled three times for smooth­ness and I’m es­pe­cially ea­ger to see what Jame­son has to show vis­i­tors since it’s cur­rently North Amer­ica’s most re­quested brand. One of the things it has are man­nequins like you might see in a mu­seum. Replica work­ers stack up bar­rels. Re­al­is­tic cats glare at tourists, guard­ing the grain.

One of the best parts for me is learn­ing a lit­tle about the la­bel’s mas­ter bar­rel-mak­ers, or coop­ers. I pore over a list of cooper nick­names. ‘Duck-egg’ Byrne was an ad­mired crafts­man here. ‘Snow­ball’ Mills an­other. Not to men­tion the leg­endary ‘Niz­zler’ Bran­ni­gan. None of them seem to be on duty at the mo­ment. But, well, I can tell. These are men I would have liked to drink with.

I catch a bus the next morn­ing for County Cork to check out Jame­son’s Mi­dle­ton dis­tillery, about 160 miles south­west. It’s been driz­zling through­out the night and there’s so much green in the land­scape that even tree-

trunks seem tinged with it. This could be moss, I think. Or it could be jet lag.

By the time we ar­rive, I’m more than ready for a dram. It turns out I am not dis­ap­pointed. Along with other sam­ples, I en­joy some sips of 12-year-old Mi­dle­ton Dis­tillery Re­serve which eases down as if it were a rare and gen­tle sherry. Ac­cord­ing to the guide who’s pour­ing, Ir­ish whiskey is not just a pop­u­lar drink at the mo­ment. “It’s on fire. It’s a lighter taste,” he tells us, than scotches. “Eas­ier drink­ing. A gate­way, you might say, for the ladies.”

On to Kil­beg­gan in County West­meath which, I’ve read, dates back to the mid-1700s. It’s one of two dis­til­leries in Ire­land that bill them­selves as the ‘old­est in the world.’ Here I find some tastes of the his­tory I’ve been crav­ing. There’s a water wheel from the 19th cen­tury that creaks and splashes as it turns, and I’m de­lighted that a good chunk of the orig­i­nal ma­chin­ery is still in place.

I get to talk­ing with a shy-look­ing per­son who is lis­ten­ing in­tently through­out my tour. Turns out he is a spy: Wil­lie Mc­carter, the dis­tillery’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor. “Do you live any­where near Bos­ton?” he asks. When I say yes, his face spreads out into a Santa Claus smile. “I miss it,” he tells me wist­fully. “I was at MIT years ago. Spent much of my time there at a pub called The Plough & Stars.”

Re­mem­ber­ing pints of my own at The Plough, I do a tour and tast­ing at the last Ir­ish dis­tillery on my list, Bush­mills, which has a list of reg­u­la­tions for us lucky vis­i­tors: no mo­bile phones, no pic­tures and no food al­lowed. But, should we re­quire them, ‘ear pro­tec­tors are avail­able on re­quest.’ Bush­mills, we dis­cover, scoffs at Kil­beg­gan’s lin­eage, brag­ging that its own roots go back even far­ther, to 1608.

I don’t have hopes of sort­ing this bat­tle out, and back on the road, I check out signs for a tu­ber-themed amuse­ment park called ‘ Tay­toland’ (might be fun if I had more time) and try some Rown­tree’s Ran­doms candy to clear my palate.

For my scotch whiskey tast­ings, I head for Is­lay (pro­nounced ‘Eye-lah’), the south­ern­most is­land in Scot­land’s In­ner He­brides, which is only about 25 miles north of the Ir­ish coast. Some­times called The Queen of the He­brides, Is­lay is known for its strong peaty fla­vors. Scotches dis­tilled here tend to be sin­gle malts, as op­posed to the blends I’ve mostly en­coun­tered in Ire­land.

In­stead of fly­ing or board­ing a ferry, I chip in for a share of a char­ter boat with some other Amer­i­cans I’ve met.

What we get is some­thing called the Kin­tyre Ex­press - a ‘Storm Force’ - brand rigid in­flat­able speed­boat. In min­utes, we are shoot­ing spray and ric­o­chet­ing off the tops of white­caps. This may be the Ir­ish Sea, but in the glint­ing sun­light, it says Scot­land, Scot­land, Scot­land: It is as blue as a loch.

My first Scot­tish dis­tillery feels more con­vo­luted than what I’ve seen so far. A study in shiny brass and scoured cop­per, Laphroaig is al­most steam­punk with its valves and pipes and di­als. If Wil­lie Wonka owned a dis­tillery in­stead of a choco­late fac­tory this would be it.

My tastes here are on the strong side. I feel like I’m swal­low­ing liq­uid oys­ters that have been smoked over an open fire. But the la­bel’s freshly white­washed build­ings and wa­ter­front views make me linger long into the evening be­fore head­ing to town.

Is­lay is a place of gorse and green. Bumps and rip­ples of land are neatly car­peted, and along the is­land’s sandy edge, flocks of sheep and clumps of cat­tle come very close to the sea. At the Bow­more dis­tillery, the tour guide lets us climb up to the kiln that’s used for dry­ing bar­ley and pad around on the beach-like dunes of grain. One in­ge­nious man flops down to wave his arms and make a bar­ley an­gel - some­thing ev­ery­one has to try.

The Ard­beg dis­tillery in the vil­lage of Port Ellen is even more of a sur­prise. There’s a SPE­CIAL — TO­DAY ONLY! at the on-site café: ‘ The Is­lay Lamb and Hag­gis Burger.’ It’s topped with ched­dar and, ac­cord­ing to the sign, with an ‘Ard­beg-in­fused 10-year-old spe­cial sauce.’

Just as I’m think­ing of or­der­ing one, my tour group is joined by Hamish Tor­rie, one of the com­pany’s top man­agers. He’s sport­ing a pair of pea-green tar­tan slacks and is ea­ger to tell us about a test tube full of Ard­beg that at this very mo­ment, is be­ing ‘aged in space.’ Say what?

“It’s an ex­per­i­ment, you see,” ex­plains Tor­rie. “A bit of whiskey, a sliver of bar­rel-wood. Shot that off to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.”

“But why?” in­serts a visi­tor.

“Science!” says Tor­rie. “We wanted to see how Ard­beg ages in zero grav­ity.”

“What will hap­pen?” in­ter­rupts some­one else. “To be hon­est,” says Tor­rie. “We have ab­so­lutely no idea.”

I’m down to my trip’s last dregs. One more tast­ing to do — at La­gavulin — and it is a good one. Maybe it is the co­zi­ness of car­pet, the plates of mar­malade and jam, a pre-drink bite of a scone. But the whiskies here turn out to be my fa­vorites of all, in­clud­ing a 16-year-old sin­gle malt that seems a per­fect blend of Ir­ish eas­i­ness and Scot­tish strength of char­ac­ter: some­thing dis­tinc­tive in the nose and, slowly, sun­set-to-gloam­ing, slid­ing down.

As we tourists com­plete our work with rows of glasses, we’re told to blurt out im­pres­sions of what is on the tongue.

“Berries!” says a man.

“I rather think it’s raisins,” cor­rects his friend.

I’d like to shout my own im­pres­sions, but it would not go well. I re­al­ize that my tastes are strange. They’re mixed up with the names of coop­ers. With a mill wheel. With grain an­gels. And with night­time rain.

“Ire­land!” I might yell.

Ev­ery­one would turn. And I would have to try, with my fi­nal sips, to ex­plain.

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