Whisky 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 rich culturally as wine.
This started me thinking. If wine has terroir that end up affecting its taste, what about alcohol that’s distilled from grain? Would it matter if it came from sacks of barley that 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 mapped out a trip to those distillery-dotted countries to try to find out. But since I am a whisky amateur, I wanted to get a full-fledged vacation out of my route. It wouldn’t be a string of cellar tastings. I didn’t want much: 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 whisky was made here 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 first things you see are mannequins, like in a museum: Replica workers stack up barrels. Realistic cats glare at tourists, guarding the grain.
I learn a little about the label’s master barrel-makers, or coopers. “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.
The tourist sitting next to me, another American, whiles away the ride by telling me about a job he once held at the Phantom Fireworks Company in Youngstown, Ohio. “I was the PR director,” he says. “Did that job there, and later at the ACLU.”
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.” One of these places is wrong, but who cares? 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, including an old steam engine which roars into action on special days.
I get to talking with a shy-looking person who is listening intently throughout my tour, 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.”
A tour and tasting at the last Irish distillery on my list, Bushmills, has a list of regulations for us lucky visitors: No mobile phones, no pictures and no food allowed. But, should we require them, enigmatically “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.
For my Scotch whisky 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 ricocheting off the tops of whitecaps. This may be the Irish Sea, but in the glinting sunlight, it says Scotland, Scotland, Scotland: It’s as blue as a loch.
Out on deck, I talk with first mate Jimmy MacLean of Campbelltown. “Ye see a lo’ of dolphins here,” he tells me. “Puffins as well.”
As if on cue, MacLean begins a jag of pointing out invisible animals and birds that are supposedly demanding attention on our port side.
Me: “What are we seeing?”
MacLean: “Gone now. Ye’re too slow.”
Me: “Are puffins black and white?”
MacLean: “No. White an’ black.”
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.
Tastings 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.
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.”
“It’s an experiment, you see,” explains Torrie. “A bit of whisky, a sliver of barrel-wood. Shot that off to the International Space Station.”
But why? inquires a visitor.
“Science!” says Torrie. “We wanted to see how Ardbeg ages in zero gravity.”
I’m down to my trip’s last innings. 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.
“Some salt and pepper.”
“Caramel or toffee.” “Biscuits!” “Biscuits and tea!”
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 not quite seeing the puffins.
“Ireland!” I might yell. Or “Islay!”
Everyone would turn.
And I would have to try, with my final sips, to explain.
JUST THE FACTS
The Ireland Whiskey Trail website is a good overall source of information on touring the country’s distilleries. Along with free maps that you can download, there’s historical info as well as listings of whiskey pubs, hotel bars and specialized whiskey shops. irelandwhiskeytrail.com
The Scotch Whisky Association has a similarly useful site focused on Scotland’s national drink that includes whisky history, an interactive map and a downloadable “Distilleries to Visit” brochure. scotch-whisky.org.uk