AUTHOR KATE IN HIGH SPIRITS
Rathdrum resident’s book on whiskey
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.
EVERYONE SHOULD FIND THEIR OWN FAVOURITE. WHISKEY IS ABOUT NATURE AND IRISH NATURE IS WONDERFUL
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.