DUBLIN — Forget green beer — the true Irish spirit is golden. Some scholars claim that the Irish saved civilization, while others might say they invented it when they created whiskey. Since the 12th century, Irish history and Irish distilling have gone hand in hand.
Inaugurated in January, the Irish Whiskey Museum proposes that whiskey (uisce beatha in Gaelic) is the “water of life” that flows through the economic and social history of the Emerald Isle. That’s a grand claim, but the museum does a pretty good job making its case through old-fashioned storytelling. The beguiling tales of how whiskey was invented and how its fortunes ebbed and flowed provide precisely the right back story before tracing some of that history through the city.
Guide Dave Hartley, a tall bearded man with a garrulous manner and the wingspan of a power forward, led us through a series of rooms set up to depict the history of whiskey. In a medieval apothecary, he explained how monks used alembic pot stills to produce medicine. “Somebody wondered, ‘What would happen if I put beer or ale into a still?’ ” he explained. “And so begins the story of whiskey in Ireland.”
We moved on to a “shebeen,” or illegal pub, where Hartley contended that Irish whiskey’s unique characteristics can be traced to the Irish aversion to taxes. The British crown taxed barley for alcohol production higher than barley seed — so early distillers began to mix sprouted barley, or malt, with the plain grain. To hide raw spirit from the tax man, distillers began storing it in used wine barrels — only to discover that aging in wood mellowed the drink and added color and depth.
“It’s fantastic,” Hartley said. “Whiskey was invented by Irish people not paying taxes to the English king. Irish people hate paying taxes, even today.”
A beautiful Victorian bar represents the 19th-century heyday of Irish whiskey around the globe. Then came the inevitable downfall with World War I, the bombing of distilleries during the Easter Rising of 1916, and finally US Prohibition in 1920. Irish whiskey lost its cachet in North America, according to Hartley, due to “bad whiskey made by the Mafia.” Strangely enough, the industry was saved by the invention of Irish coffee, which became popular in the United States in the 1950s.
No longer seen as “the drink of grandpa by the fire with a pipe,” Hartley said, “Irish whiskey has become chic. Rihanna and Lady Gaga drink Irish whiskey.”
And then it was our turn to do the same. At a long bar, master taster Kevin Butler set three sample whiskeys before us and admonished us “not to lash it back like in a pub,” but to pay attention to the nose, the taste, and the finish. “I want you to appreciate the effort that goes into making these masterful drinks.”
To fully appreciate that effort, it’s worth a pilgrimage to the Old Jameson Distillery on the north side of the River Liffey for the touch and feel of historic whiskey-making in Dublin. The facility opened in 1780 and made whiskey until 1971, and while it’s no longer possible to see distillation in progress, there’s no substitute for the imposing physical presence of the world’s largest copper pot still or the 3½ acres of grain storage on five levels. It clearly took a lot of barley to slake the thirst of the globe. Historic wooden mash tuns, massive cog-driven grist wheels, and copper alembics provide touchstones for the process of making whiskey.
Our Jameson tour concluded with a taste comparison of a single-distilled Scotch whiskey (Johnnie Walker), a double-distilled Tennessee sour mash whiskey (Jack Daniel’s), and triple-distilled Irish whiskey (Jameson original). Interestingly, no one asked which we preferred, assuming no doubt that the Jameson spoke for itself.
The single pot-still Jameson “Green Spot” happens to be the best-selling whiskey at the Palace Bar, widely acknowledged among aficionados as one of the best whiskey bars in Dublin, if not all of Ireland. When we wandered in on a cold, damp morning, Liam Aherne stood behind the bar leafing through the Irish Daily Mail. The Palace opened in 1823, and Aherne’s father bought it in 1945. Aherne was born in an apartment upstairs, and his son Willy now runs the place. “He’s putting me out to pasture,” Aherne joked as he set aside his paper and warmed to the idea of conversation. “So he makes me work the morning shift.”
It is one thing to walk in the footsteps of whiskey-makers at the Jameson distillery. It is another to lean on the bar where Patrick Kavanaugh, Brendan Behan, and Flann O’Brien rested their elbows after work at the Irish Times nearby. Not all the writers were newspapermen, nor did they all drink at the bar. “Sam Beckett mostly drank in the back room,” Aherne said. Sure enough, his portrait hangs there on the wall.
While the Palace Bar has beer and ale on tap, it’s known for its selection of great Irish whiskeys, including two special Palace Bar bottlings that are distilled and aged by Teeling. In honor of the writers, the seven-year-old single malt is called the Fourth Estate Batch. The 14-year-old single malt stands entirely on its own merits as an elegant sip with the sophisticated hint of sherry casks in its finish.
The Palace is more a civilized sipping bar than a rowdy drinking pub. Aherne calls it a “conversation pub.” No hen or stag parties are allowed, and management discourages walking tours from coming in to gawk and disturb the quiet discourse. A sign at the bar speaks to the character of the place and its denizens: “A bird is known by its song, a man by his conversation.”
And Ireland is known by its whiskey.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.