Rath­drum res­i­dent’s book on whiskey

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KATE Am­ber is just about the most un­likely ad­vo­cate for Ir­ish whiskey imag­in­able, a Ger­man lady who has lit­tle time for the al­co­holic drinks of her na­tive coun­try. She turns up her nose with a the­atri­cal shud­der at men­tion of the Kusstenebe­l liqueur, which is the par­tic­u­lar pride and joy of the Ham­burg re­gion she hails from.

‘I have no in­ter­est in the stuff,’ she de­clares em­phat­i­cally, ‘or in beer. Wine maybe – but not ev­ery day.’

In­stead she has de­vel­oped a love for good whiskey and de­clares that there is none bet­ter than the ‘uisce beatha’ of her adopted Ire­land.

The Rath­drum res­i­dent has even writ­ten and pub­lished a book on the sub­ject, colour­fully il­lus­trated with her own pho­to­graphs. So how did this in­fec­tiously jolly woman come to be a res­i­dent of County Wicklow, trans­form­ing her­self to be­come an ex­pert in the pro­duc­tion and his­tory of this fiery spirit?

She an­swers by hark­ing back to her late fa­ther, who died at the age of 55 as a re­sult of can­cer, un­der­lin­ing to Kate how life can be all too short. Amidst her grief and the wreck­age of a bro­ken re­la­tion­ship, she be­gan to com­pile a bucket list of the things she re­ally wanted to achieve while she still has the chance.

‘The bucket list is im­por­tant to me,’ she pon­ders. ‘My dad said you can do any­thing you want.’ She de­ter­mined to set out her am­bi­tions, such as writ­ing a book and plan­ning trips for peo­ple.

Also fea­tured was a de­sire to im­prove her scope as a pho­tog­ra­pher, hav­ing loved us­ing a cam­era since she was small. Learn­ing English was high on the agenda and she wanted to take up sail­ing, am­bi­tions that might have taken her to Syd­ney, Seat­tle or Southamp­ton.

In­stead, for rea­sons never thor­oughly explained, she ar­rived in Shan­non seven years ago: ‘I packed up my car and said I’ll find a job – so I landed up in Ire­land.’

A qual­i­fi­ca­tion in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion helped her to se­cure employment and she has re­mained here ever since, with ev­ery prospect of re­main­ing. She aban­doned the west when the com­pany she had work with in Shan­non closed down and she ar­rived in Dublin.

But the cap­i­tal seemed to her not much dif­fer­ent from any other large city around the world, while she was han­ker­ing af­ter some­where more dis­tinc­tively Ir­ish. Hence the ap­peal of Wicklow, which had the ad­van­tage of a thriv­ing sail­ing club, find­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion first in Ash­ford be­fore later mov­ing into the town and more re­cently up the road to Rath­drum.

The way she tells it, she sim­ply turned up at the pier in Wicklow and was rapidly re­cruited as a crew mem­ber on a yacht which com­peted reg­u­larly in races around the bay. It may not have been quite that sim­ple but the sail­ing club cer­tainly of­fered her a friendly place and maybe an in­tro­duc­tion to whiskey.

Kate con­fesses that for many years she never re­ally dab­bled much in spirits, with ap­ple juice her most reg­u­lar drink of choice. She thought whisky tasted like dish­wa­ter be­fore dis­cov­er­ing that, for some rea­son, Ir­ish whiskey (with the ex­tra ‘e’) was more palat­able. And it was around whiskey that var­i­ous el­e­ments of her bucket list be­gan to co­a­lesce – the book writ­ing, the travel plan­ning and the pho­tog­ra­phy.


How­ever, this was no in­stant project, as ‘Ire­land’s Whiskey Guide’ by Kate Am­ber could not be as­sem­bled overnight. It re­quired her to travel all over the is­land of Ire­land and con­duct ex­ten­sive re­search into the ori­gins of whiskey, from a medicine de­vised by monks to be­come the so­phis­ti­cated mod­ern sprit it is to­day.

As she points out, no whiskey may be sold as such un­less it has been ma­tured for at least three years and a day. The process of writ­ing and as­sem­bling her guide took Kate around three years and a day, which seems ap­pro­pri­ate.

It all started with a trip to Gal­way when she chanced to visit the Kil­beg­gan dis­tillery in West­meath to take a break in the jour­ney. She found her­self im­me­di­ately in­trigued and smit­ten. ‘I was fas­ci­nated by this old craft,’ she re­calls.

The clinch­ing fac­tor in lur­ing her to take a deeper in­ter­est was the feel­ing that, in a world which craves in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, whiskey can never be con­jured up on a whim. Gin or vodka may be created within a few days of as­sem­bling the equip­ment and the in­gre­di­ents, but pa­tience is re­quired for the ‘spirit of life’.

Af­ter Kil­beg­gan, she started tast­ing whiskeys, de­vel­op­ing her palate to ap­pre­ci­ate the va­ri­ety of of­fer­ings on the mar­ket. As it hap­pened, her tim­ing was per­fect as the dis­till­ing in­dus­try in this coun­try stood poised for trans­for­ma­tion.

Where there were just four pro­duc­ers five years ago, sud­denly there has been an ex­plo­sion of man­u­fac­tur­ing. The big four at Mi­dle­ton, Tul­lam­ore, Bush­mills and Coo­ley have been joined by a rash of young pre­tenders bring­ing the to­tal zoom­ing up to two dozen.

Some of the new­com­ers are small scale, de­pend­ing as much on in­come from tourists as on com­mer­cial sales, while oth­ers are more sub­stan­tial un­der­tak­ings. Nowa­days, whiskey is be­ing made in Din­gle and Dublin, Car­low and Clon­akilty, Slane and Slieve League.

Wicklow has joined in the move­ment with two new en­ter­prises in the field. Glendaloug­h is the brand name adopted by an ambitious out­fit which has set up its still in a New­town­moun­tkennedy Busi­ness Park.

Mean­while, Powerscour­t in En­niskerry is where Kate Am­ber chooses as the best place to meet the re­porter from the ‘Peo­ple’ news­pa­per. She says that they serve good cof­fee in their café here, and in­deed they do, in the won­der­fully scenic sur­round­ings of the old demesne.

How­ever, this place is con­sid­er­ably more than a pic­turesque tourist at­trac­tion set in an old mill build­ing which has been adapted for the pur­pose. The mill-house has been trans­formed to pro­vide, not only the café but also a vis­i­tor cen­tre de­voted to all things whiskey.

And be­hind the au­dio-visual pre­sen­ta­tions, the tast­ing rooms and the whiskey shop, the real in­vest­ment has been pumped into a very sub­stan­tial dis­tillery. The mod­ern build­ing is carefully sited away from the gaze of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple who de­scend here each year from all around the world.

The three hefty cop­per stills are in op­er­a­tion un­der the di­rec­tion of Noel Sweeney, who worked mak­ing whiskey at Coo­ley in County Louth for 27 years.

He and his staff, who work two shifts a day, are ca­pa­ble of churn­ing out a mil­lion gal­lons of whiskey per an­num to be stored in tim­ber bar­rels. Many of th­ese oaken bar­rels are im­ported from the United States, where they once con­tained bour­bon.

The first of the pre­cious liq­uid from the new en­ter­prise, made from lo­cal bar­ley of course, was pro­duced in June of last year. While they wait for it to reach the three year and a day thresh­old, the whiskey al­ready on sale was dis­tilled else­where but fin­ished here in En­niskerry.

It is be­ing mar­keted as Fer­cullen, which was the name of the area be­fore the more an­gli­cised Powerscour­t name was in­tro­duced in the 17th cen­tury.

As Kate points out, the re­cent pro­lif­er­a­tion of new entrants into the mar­ket has a long way to go be­fore they will match the hey­day of Ir­ish dis­till­ing. There was a time in mid-19th cen­tury when there were more than 90 dis­til­leries on the is­land, plus in­nu­mer­able home brew­ers who made il­licit po­teen.

At that time, Scotch whisky, now the dom­i­nant force in the world mar­ket, was only in the ha’penny place. In her book , Kate sides with those who sug­gest that Ire­land’s triple dis­till­ing method is the su­pe­rior ap­proach and that the Scots have taken short­cuts.

The script for her guide was drafted in Ger­man, but trans­lated into English and is now on sale to as­sist any­one who wishes to fol­low in her foot­steps.

She trav­elled around Ire­land with her cam­era to re­search the con­tents and man­ages to sneak in plenty of Wicklow pho­to­graphs.

Read­ers are in­tro­duced not only to Fer­cullen and Glendaloug­h but also to the ‘Dun­bur Rasp­berry Infusion Ir­ish Whiskey Liqueur’ pro­duced in Wicklow.

Pressed to nom­i­nate her favourite whiskey among the many she has tasted in the cause of re­search, she is re­luc­tant to answer.

‘Ev­ery­one should find their own favourite,’ she sug­gests diplo­mat­i­cally. ‘Whiskey is about na­ture and Ir­ish na­ture is won­der­ful.’

She con­tin­ues to have a day job, putting her Ger­man lan­guage skills at the dis­posal of var­i­ous com­pa­nies but she has set her sights on writ­ing more books and per­haps putting out a ver­sion of ‘Ire­land’s Whiskey Guide’ in her na­tive tongue.

She reck­ons that she will re­main in Ire­land and one item on her bucket list re­mains not quite com­pletely fulfilled. ‘The English is not yet per­fect – so I have to stay,’ she laughs.

Kate Am­ber’s book on Ir­ish Whiskey.

Au­thor Kate Am­ber among the whiskey bar­rels at the Powerscour­t Dis­tillery.

Stephanie McKenna of Powerscour­t Dis­tillery lets Kate sam­ple the scent of some ma­tur­ing whiskey.

Kate ex­am­in­ing the wood used in the bar­rels at Powerscour­t.

The first whiskey pro­duced by the Powerscour­t Dis­tillery is be­ing re­lease as Fer­cullen.

One of the whiskey bar­rels at the Powerscour­t Dis­tillery.

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