RAISING THE BAR for Irish Whiskey
If you’re looking for Christmas cheer, step this way, as STUART CLARK meets one of the fomenters of the Irish whiskey revolution, the chairman of the Irish Whiskey Association, BERNARD WALSH of Walsh Whiskey, and lists the festive season’s must-try beers, spirits and, well, whatever you’re having yourself…
Along with a Beatles Yellow Submarine Lego kit, Hot Press is looking forward to waking up on Christmas morning and finding some quality brews, spirits and mixers in our Santa sack.
2016 has been another incredible year for the drinks industry here, with Sullivan’s in Kilkenny and Dot Brew in Dolphin’s Barn becoming what by our reckoning are Ireland’s 62nd and 63rd production breweries – there are a further 24 gypsy brewers, who’ve decided to go the collaborative route; and there’s also what can only be described as an Irish spirits revolution with the likes of Teeling Whiskey Distillery, Dingle Distillery, Connacht Distillery, Waterford Distillery, Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin, Bertha’s Revenge Gin, Kalak Vodka and Micil Irish Poitin all joining the fray over the past 12 months.
Jameson has, of course, led the way, carving out a market for Irish whiskey that others have been able to capitalise on. The increasingly high-regard in which our distillers are held internationally is underlined by Teeling picking up three gongs at the prestigious World Whiskies Awards in London, and the whiskey that West Cork Distillers have developed in association with The Pogues winning ‘Best New Product’ plaudits in the States.
“Six years ago, there were only three fully operational distilleries in Ireland; now we have sixteen, with a further twelve being constructed or in the planning,” reveals the Chairman of the
Irish Whiskey Association, Bernard Walsh. “We’re the fastest growing whiskey in the world, and have been given our own geographical indication, like Champagne and Cognac, in order to protect it and the strict quality guidelines that make Irish whiskey so special and unique.”
1999 saw Bernard and his wife Rosemary set up Carlow’s Walsh Whiskey, which now exports its premium, triple-distilled ‘Writers Tears’ and ‘The Irishman’ brands to 40 countries worldwide – and rising.
“Our aim was to recreate the 1800s, when Irish whiskey was the world leader and distilled in copper pots, using only the finest, locally-farmed ingredients,” he explains. “Faced with writer’s block, the novelists, playwrights and poets of the day would take to the bar for an hour, or a day, or a week, seeking inspiration. When they cried, their tears were said to be of whiskey – hence the name!”
As with all great distillers, Bernard is inspired by both a sense of history – and the importance of the finest ingredients.
“We were inspired by both that rich Irish legacy and what was going on at the time in the US, where you had micro distillery brands like Baby Hudson and Angel’s Envy reinvigorating the bourbon market. Rather wonderfully, you’ve now got bartenders in the States using Writers Tears and The Irishman in what were traditionally bourbon-based cocktails.”
Bernard makes the point that there is no longer such a thing as a ‘typical’ whiskey drinker.
“Whiskey used to be what your grandfather drank, but it is now cross-generational,” he resumes. “Increasingly, you’ve got 25-35 year-olds who love the experimentation around whiskey and the diversity of expressions you can have. Like most of the country, we went to our local bar after Ireland beat the All Blacks – Joey Carberry is from just down the road in Athy, so we had extra reason to cheer! – and celebrated by drinking Highballs with Writers Tears, mint and lots of ice packed in there.
“On a Sunday evening, you might just have a dram warming up in your hand and take an hour to sip it,” he adds. “It depends on the time of day, the mood – and the sporting occasion! You can go into any whiskey bar in Ireland and say, ‘What should I try here?’”
Walsh Whiskey celebrated its 17th birthday at Easter this year by moving into a new €25 million distillery at Royal Oak, a glorious 18th century estate on the banks of the River Barrow.
“It’s been a dream of ours for a long time to build a new distillery in the heart of the Irish countryside,” Bernard enthuses, “where we can use local water – ours comes from the Barrow Valley Aquifer, which is an underground lake – and barley from nearby farms, to create this beautiful aromatic whiskey.”
“Whiskey used to be what your grandfather drank, but is now cross-generational”
Tears of joy: Bernard Walsh in the new Walsh Whiskey Distillery