Mardi Gras may be receding in our rear-view mirrors, but there is still lots to look forward to in 2014. Let’s start with St. Patrick’s Day — fast approaching on the horizon if you focus your eyes forward, where they belong.
Given up alcohol for Lent? Well, everybody makes mistakes. For those of us who have fallen off the wagon for good, let’s talk whiskey in advance of our Wearin’ o’ the Green.
I was lucky enough last year to visit the oldest licensed distillery in Ireland, at Kilbeggan. And before you start complaining that you can’t jet off to Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day, don’t panic: you can buy the whiskey here. Apart from a brief hiatus between 1957 and 2007, Kilbeggan has produced fine Irish whiskey for more than 250 years and exports it to our shores.
If you do visit Ireland, though, I highly recommend a stop at Kilbeggan (it’s just off the east-west highway linking Dublin to Galway). The distillery has changed remarkably little since its founding in 1757, and today’s tours allow not only whiskey lovers but anyone who appreciates history (and really old machinery) to step back in time and see how it was all done back in the day.
Only four families have owned the distillery since its inception and you’ll see their names still inscribed in various places, but John Locke’s is most prominent — set into the bricks of the facility’s main smoke stack. Locke bought the distillery at Kilbeggan in the early 1840s and expanded both production and exports, only to be hit by the double whammy of the Irish War of Independence at home and Prohibition in the United States. His granddaughters did their best to keep the distillery running, but it finally shut down in 1957.
Roughly 30 years later, an Irishman named John Teeling established the first new distillery in Ireland for more than 100 years — the Cooley Distillery on the Cooley Peninsula, north of Dublin on Ireland’s east coast. He bought Ireland’s state-owned potato schnapps distillery (Russians might call it “vodka,” but whatever) and converted it to distill Irish whiskey. By 1998, he had won a trophy for outstanding quality at the International Wine and Spirit Competition.
Teeling initially bought the licenses to produce Kilbeggan and Locke’s whiskies. He distilled them at the Cooley facility because the original Kilbeggan distillery had been saved from literal collapse; restored and converted to a museum by Kilbeggan’s residents. Later, he bought the Kilbeggan distillery and returned it to production, resuming distillation in 2007 to mark the distillery’s 250th anniversary.
Several Kilbeggan family whiskies are still distilled at the Cooley facility, but more and more are being brought back to Kilbeggan, since the facility was returned to full operation (with mash tuns and fermentation vats) in 2010. (Cooley and Kilbeggan were bought by Beam Inc., in 2011, for full disclosure — but Kilbeggan’s small-Irish-village charm remains intact.)
While at the distillery, you can tour its historic buildings and taste whiskies made both there and at Cooley. There’s a functioning 19th-century waterwheel to be seen, as well as the oldest working copper “pot still” in the world. A self-guided tour for eight euros lets you wander around at your own pace, with an explanatory brochure and one free sample at the end.
The Gold Medal Tour (25 euros) includes a guided tour of the distillery, a visit to the old warehouses and meeting with Kilbeggan’s on-site distillers, and a “Masterclass” tasting of four whiskeys: Greenore Single Grain, Kilbeggan Irish whiskey, Tyrconnell Single Malt and Connemara Peated Single Malt. And get this: If you’re the designated driver they’ll give you “taster sizes” to try at home. These are nice people; they let me have two samples and I’d only bought the self-guided tour.
So what does this whiskey taste like? Well, I tried the Connemara (Cask Strength) Peated Single Malt, which tastes — as you’d expect — peaty, but not like a heavily peated Scotch whisky. It smells of dark honey and cloves, but the taste isn’t “sweet,” don’t worry. It’s silky smooth with a good bit of heat, hints of wood and smoke, and earthy undertones of peat. Brilliant to drink by itself, or with a splash of water, this classy liquid is not a “mixer.” (57.9 percent ABV)
At the milder end of the spectrum, I also tried the mainline Kilbeggan blended whiskey — which is widely available in Mobile area package stores and at Lucky Irish Pub and Grill. I thought it was every bit as good as Jameson or Bushmill, with noticeable malt flavors and very tolerable heat (no peat). The batch I tried was actually distilled at the Cooley facility but aged at Kilbeggan. Whiskey distilled at Kilbeggan will be offered for sale in 2014 (following three years of aging), and I’m predicting a high-quality product, suitable for drinking neat or mixing. (40 percent ABV.)
So if folks tell you St. Patrick’s Day means green beer, remember: whiskey is distilled beer, and you’ll look sharper wearing green than drinking it.