Holy waters

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As monks go, St Columba was pretty rock ‘n’ roll. A great-great-grandson of High King Niall of the Nine Hostages, he once started a war over a copyright issue and ended up narrowly avoiding excommunication by exiling himself to Scotland. He sailed past Islay, where Irish monks introduced distilling to the Scots, and set up a Christian outpost on Iona, from where he set out to spread his faith.

But he is also remembered for being the first person recorded to have an encounter with the Loch Ness monster. He came across some Picts burying a companion who had been killed by a ‘water beast’ in the loch. Columba ordered one of his followers to swim across the loch and bring back a boat on the other side – but the man was only halfway when a fearsome creature appeared.

Invoking the name of God, Columba formed the sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.”

The monster fled, but despite the fact that 1,500 years have passed since that account, and although Columba has largely been forgotten, Nessie’s legend shows no signs of diminishing. Loch Ness still seems a magical place, where the walls between our world and some fantasy kingdom are crumbling, where anything can happen. No wonder then that a family who have lived on the banks of the loch for 500 years have decided to try and capture some of the magic of its waters.

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Lorien and Kevin Cameron-Ross, above, the founders and directors of Loch Ness Spirits, hand pick their own ‘black gold’ juniper and local botanicals from their land on the shores of Loch Ness.  They then combine it with the water of the glen to create the limited edition ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin. Just 500 bottles of the first batch of ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin have been distilled.   

Already an award winner, achieving a gold medal in ‘ultra-premium’ category and silver medal in the ‘London dry’ category of The Global Gin Masters Competition in June, ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin was described by the judges as “A sparkle of juniper mixed with earthy angelica and aromatic pine blossom.”

Co-creator Lorien: ‘Inspired by a local gin tour and noting how rare and precious juniper was, we got to thinking about the juniper around us when we walked the dog at home.

‘It has been a steep learning curve and we have worked extremely hard to hand pick the juniper and other botanicals, but we have made it, and are desperately proud of the result.

‘The family has been working the rugged shores of this loch for 500 years and this is just the next stage in that tradition of working the land. I probably shouldn’t say this, but it could be the most delicious thing we have produced in half a millennium!’

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So what of the gin – it has a freshness on the nose that I wasn’t expecting, a real light air of lemongrass, with hints of fresh-cut fennel bulb. There is a definite menthol element that really lines it up as a palate cleanser – citrus notes, but with a hint of brine. The mouth is definitely a big departure  – lots of cotton candy, a slight medicinal sweetness, leaving more of that initial citrus in its wake. A refreshing gin, served with too much tonic water and you might drown out some of the more hidden depths. I took this neat, then with ice, then tonic, and favoured a weightier measure of gin and less of everything else; like the beastie in the loch, it is an elusive sip that definitely needs more exploration.

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As for Nessie, her enduring myth was revived recently by Ian Bremner, a distillery worker who took this photo:

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Speaking after, Bremner said: “I suppose it could be seals – but I’m not so sure. The more I think about it, the more I think it could be Nessie” – proving that from St Columba to the Cameron-Rosses, all you need to make the waters of Loch Ness magical is a little faith.

A good death

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Working in an emergency department changes the way you see the world. My nine months working in CUH ED taught me compassion and gratitude in equal measure, but it mainly taught me that my dad’s old adage of ‘your health is your wealth’ is tragically accurate.

After the first few months working there I realised my dad was an incredibly healthy man for his age – but I also realised that that could change in the blink of an eye. I saw older people full of life, suddenly laid low by a fall or a broken bone – there are no simple injuries at that stage in life. It meant decreasing independence and less freedom to do things like go on holidays. So I started badgering my dad to go on a holiday, telling him he needed to seize the day while his health was good.

In May he went to Lanzarote, and spent a week eating steak, swimming in the sea every day and walking a few miles to and from the beach. When he came home, he told me he had bought a tablet in one of those electronics shops the tour reps warn you about. I could tell he didn’t quite know what he had bought, or even why he had bought it. But the worst part was what he had paid – 1,000 euro for something worth about 50. He had been all over the world, and was a streetwise traveller, but had been ripped off in spectacular fashion on a sun holiday to an island he had been to dozens of times. That was the first sign that something was wrong. Soon his speech was affected, and he became quiet as he realised he was struggling to form coherent sentences. A trip to the doctor turned into a trip to hospital, where scans revealed lesions on his brain and tumours migrating from his lung to his ribs. It was the beginning of the end.

As your parents get older, you think about their passing more. I had always assumed dad would go in the blink of an eye, via a stroke, cardiac episode or falling into a lawnmower (he has a big sloped lawn). He had always claimed his family went quickly down through the generations. But his older sister died last year after a prolonged and cruel battle with cancer – so not everyone got such a clean exit. Her battle haunted him after his own diagnosis, how she wasted away to almost nothing, how her love of life disappeared as chemo ravaged her. But he knew that chemo meant more time on earth, so he opted to go for it. But by the time it came to deciding on whether to press ahead with treatment, he was too sick, weak and confused. They decided against it. As we left CUH the cancer care nurse told us he could stop taking the vitamin B injections. There was no need to be healthy anymore. We were in our last days as a family.

I had dropped everything – my wife, my kids, my job – to move in with dad. My family were due to move in, but we soon realised that he was too sick to be around us – with four children our family makes slightly more noise than a thermonuclear detonation – so we decided to wait. We knew it wouldn’t be long. The medics and carers all thought I was pessimistic when I said I would be surprised if he made September and that there was no way he would make October. But they hadn’t seen him in full health – they didn’t know the transformation, the toll it was taking on him, the shock of sudden illness after a life of almost perfect health. He was crumbling.

My time with him settled into a simple routine – I’d cook and clean, he would potter about from room to room, often becoming confused by simple things, or agitated by others. The steroids used to control the inflammation on his brain caused sleeplessness, restlessness and made a difficult situation even harder for him to process. They also exacerbated the shake in his hand, meaning he couldn’t write a letter, or even drink a cup of tea properly. Technology, never his strong point, became a complete vexation. One day the phone was ringing; I could hear him answering it, but it kept ringing. When I went downstairs to investigate, there he was, shouting ‘hello? hello?’ into the Sky remote. He became completely confused by mobile phones, portable landlines, TV remotes and even the electric shaver I got him for Father’s Day, a gift inspired by his inability to use a razor with the shakes in his hand.

He used to joke about being sent off to Dignitas if he started to go ‘gaga’, and here he was, struggling with the basics. He hated it – hated the dulling of his mind, the confusion. But he carried on and even tried to be optimistic about the cancer, telling me that he really thought he was going to beat it. I told him it was good to have a positive outlook. He also claimed his GP told him he had a year to live, and started telling people this fact, usually while I stood behind him shaking my head at them. Because they needed to know that he didn’t have long left – don’t put off calling up, we won’t be there long; don’t talk loosely about meeting up at Christmas, because he won’t see Halloween.

Living with him wasn’t all sweetness and light and Wonder Years-style dewey-eyed anecdotes about love and life; a lot of the time he simply wrecked my head. But that is one of the defining features of family – do they wreck your head? Yes they do. Are you still going to stay in touch with them? Of course, yeah. The inescapable irritation of the people who know you better than anyone. But for the most part dad and I got on fine, especially given that we hadn’t lived together for 20 years or more.

Having this time together meant we were able to talk about what he wanted when he was gone – specifically his funeral. He told me he wanted the cheapest coffin money could buy, one of those wicker ones if possible, or maybe a cardboard one. He also said there wasn’t to be any meal after, sandwiches at best. His reasoning for this was to save me money, but I joked that I was going to have a viking funeral on Garryvoe beach, complete with roasted venison and fireworks display. He was unfailingly generous to me throughout my life, but was frugal when it came to himself. All he had he gave to me – the least I could do was bury him in something that resembled wood. We laughed about all this stuff – what else could we do? As Voltaire said, life is a shipwreck – but we must not forget to sing in the liferafts. So we laughed when we could, and waited for the end.

Soon the cancer ate deeper into his ribs, and the pain got worse. At this stage we were in the care of the Marymount Hospice palliative homecare team, who decided that ten days respite in the hospice might help with pain management. Or at least, that was how it was pitched to dad. But I felt he wasn’t going to be coming home. He hated the idea – he wanted to stay at home, and – if possible – die here. But his medical needs were growing steadily, and my terrible lasagne and nightly pints were not going to ease the pain of a rib being ruined by disease.

At this stage, I was burned out. I had spent three months trying to be the strong one, ditching my wife and kids to care for my dad, feeling more and more like a stranger to them. It was like going through a separation, except without the Ukrainian girlfriend and Ed Hardy pyjamas. But this was my cross to bear alone – there was no one else who could or should have to do it. When my sister was sick, my parents cared for her; when my mother was dying from brain cancer, my dad cared for her to the bitter end; now it was just me left to be there for him. I’m lucky I was able to – if my career had been more stellar, if I lived farther away, if I had stayed the angry young man I used to be, I possibly wouldn’t have been able to do any of it. But I did, and I am proud to have done it.

Once he went into Marymount, he started to quietly accept that he wasn’t going to beat the cancer, or live a year, or see Christmas. In the space of three days he went downhill fast. His mobility decreased, mental functions slowed, and – perhaps most tellingly – his appetite decreased. This was remarkable because he always had a huge appetite, and also because the food in the hospice was great; in fact, most things in the hospice are great, including the Wi-Fi.

Cork people have this intense feeling for Marymount, because almost everyone has been touched by their work at some stage. When I worked in the Evening Echo we used to run a Christmas charity appeal, setting a target of about 70,000. One year we chose the Simon Community and we raised about 50,000. The year we chose Marymount we brought in 260,000, and people were still coming into the office in June the next year with bags of coins they wanted to donate. Marymount is how the whole health system should be – a place of peace, dignity, and incredible care. My dad’s time there was short, but memorable – one day I was there when the drinks trolley came round. He had a G&T as we sat in the corridor outside his room. You could hear the mood change along the halls as patients had a drink – the murmur of voices grew louder, there was more laughter, and for a while the future was forgotten.

Towards the end of his ten days of respite, he really began to wane. He asked for his friends to visit, and I called family and told them to bring forward their trips down. He had a gang of pals who used to meet in Midleton every morning after Mass and share a big pot of tea and all the gossip they could muster. They came to see him on the final Saturday; five of them  – all with various ailments – shuffled into the room. He opened his eyes, shook their hands, closed his eyes, and never woke again. They said their goodbyes, and a prayer, and left.

Dad’s breathing in those final 24 hours was ragged with mucous and secretions from the tumours. The nursing staff checked on him every 40 minutes or so, adjusting his medication and moving him in the bed so he would be comfortable. They made up a cot bed for me on the floor next to him, and I stayed the night. Convinced I would wake to find him gone, I was surprised to sleep soundly and then awake to the same ragged breathing. But in the morning as I lay there wondering what to do for breakfast, something changed – the ragged, rattling gurgles changed to quiet little gasps. Nine years ago I held my mum’s hand as she died, and listened to the same change in her breathing. I got out of the bed and sat on the chair next to his bed. The gasps got quieter. I sat on the bed and held him. More and more space opened between the gasps, as though he had stopped taking in air altogether and his body was just going through the motions. This was it – 85 years of life was about end. I put my head on his chest and let the grief devour me. He stopped breathing and that was it, he was gone. My safety net, my panic room – my one phonecall from a police cell, the person who would always catch me when I fall. This was the end of everything; all his years of life on earth, the incredible things seen and done, all now lost, like Roy Batty’s tears in rain.

I spent a good five minutes sobbing, drooling, snuffling and croaking incoherently. I knew that once I pressed the call button, the nurse would come and the great gears of mourning would clank into action – suddenly it would be death notices and coffin catalogues, prayers of the faithful and funeral suits. So he and I had those last few minutes, and no more. The nurse came and called it at 8:11.

Clonakilty in west Cork used to be home to a notoriously awful workhouse. When travellers would meet along the road and ask where they were headed, if the destination was Clonakilty, the reply would be ‘Clonakilty? God Help Us’. To my dad’s age-group, it is still known as Clonakilty-God-Help-Us. I used to say it to older patients in the emergency department when they were checking in, as it was a handy way of saying you had family links to the place. I’d meet people who went to school with my dad or one of his siblings, as Clon was a small place and everyone knew everyone else. But there weren’t many of that generation left, and those who were often ended up in emergency departments talking to me.

Clon always seemed like another world. I spent my holidays down there, nearly drowning in Inchydoney, getting nipped by lobsters in Ring, listening to my dad’s zany stories about the place: The WWII warplane coming down in the marsh outside the town, and the monkey mascot being buried behind the hotel, the airmen’s Lucky Strikes being passed around by the altar boys after one of them nicked a carton from his father, the local garda. Dad used to talk about the glory days of Clon GAA, usually cursing Nemo Rangers in the same breath, as he saw them as some sort of GAA Boko Haram, stealing away west Cork’s sporting talent with the promise of the (relatively) bright lights of Cork city.

After school he joined the bank and worked all over Ireland and had stories that ranged from the terrifying (from the North usually) to the ridiculous (everywhere else). He told me a while back that he thought money was a grubby commodity to be dealing in. I asked what he would do if he could have his time over again. He said ‘I’d like to own a pub’, before cheerfully adding, ‘but I’d probably be dead and broke’.

He was assistant manager of the BOI in Midleton, and I’ve met a few people over the years who told me they would wait until the manager was on holidays before they would go to my dad and get their loans and mortgages. It wasn’t that he was some feckless Anglo Irish style banker – he did the math, but he always wanted to give people a chance. He saw the best in people. He saw the best in me: He was ridiculously proud of everything I did. He kept a collection of cuttings from articles I had published, photocopying them and sending them on to relatives – even the one about getting a vasectomy. He believed in me to a level that was almost frightening – his faith in me was unshakeable.

A while back I wrote a piece about him and whiskey, and it ended up in this month’s Irish Tatler Man. I had hoped to show it to him, as the first piece I had published by the Irish Examiner was also about him and about whiskey. By the time I got a copy, he was gone.

He had 85 years of good health. He had his losses, and endured the tragedy of losing a child, and then losing his wife, but generally he had a good life. He loved us, and we loved him in return. He was a big part of our lives, a fact acknowledged by us naming our youngest child Daniel (although with four kids we had basically just run out of names). I joked with him in the days before he died that I was glad we had finally got around to naming one of our kids after him, but felt bad that it was the worst behaved one. Dad assured me he wouldn’t always be like that. Maybe he was thinking of me – a mess for half my life, and a slow recovery thereafter. Here’s hoping.

I feel sad, but I know that this is as good as it gets – someday I will face the same fate, and I hope my kids are as happy as I am in life, or that they love me like I loved him. Loss is the high price of love just as death is the high price of life. I’ve seen sad deaths in my work, the bodies unclaimed for a week. To be able to stand on the altar at a funeral and say ‘I love you and I miss you’ is a wonderful thing. Why would I want him to hang around? He hated being sick, and he had to go at some point – what sort of son would I be if I had tried to keep him here, to watch him wither and die just so I could put off the inevitable?

I’m still at the stage where the phone rings and I think ‘oh that’ll be dad’ or ‘is that him at the door’. Eventually I will accept he is gone. Life will go on. I return to work in a couple of weeks, not to the emergency department sadly, as I had to be replaced once I took leave. In the meantime I’m sifting through his life, reading his love letters to mum, finding photos of him with women whose names I will never know, trying to pull together all the loose strands of his time on earth so I have something to tell my kids about who he was. The best I can do to honour his memory is try to be a good dad and a good husband, because I only became a good son at the very end.

Dad loved the beach – all those childhood summers on Inchydoney left their mark on him. Even after mum died he still went south for sun holidays on his own, coming back with a camera full of images like the one above – blurry landscapes with nobody in them, save the odd thumb. Any time we would go to the Canaries together, he would invariably head off to the beach for the day, and lie there like an iguana. When I think of him now, it is like that – on a beach somewhere, with poorly applied suncream, ill fitting trunks and a faded Munster Rugby towel, dozing in the heat.

Dad left this world as he lived – gently, peacefully and with dignity. It was a good death. I miss him, I love him, and I am happy. 

Weapon of choice

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What is a baseball bat? Is it a piece of sports equipment, used by athletes the world over, a symbol of the unifying power of team sports? Or is it a weapon, used by thugs the world over, a symbol of gang violence? Is it the embodiment of America’s national pastime – or is it something you use to smash a lackey’s head in, a la Al Capone in The Untouchables?

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And speaking of being beaten over the head with a blunt instrument, this metaphor is pretty weak – but there is a better one.

The 21st amendment to the American constitution, passed in 1933, repealed Prohibition – the nationwide outlawing of alcohol – but some states still had the power to restrict or simply ban the sale of booze in all its forms. The last state to give up total Prohibition was Mississippi, which stayed dry until 1966. As a result, for those 33 years, alcohol was a hot topic for all Mississippi politicians. However, only one of them is remembered for a speech he gave on the subject.

Noah S. ‘Soggy’ Sweat Jr got his nickname from his mop of hair and its resemblance to the sorghum top, or sugar cane tassel, rather than his physical reaction to the oppressive heat of the deep south.  In his life he was a judge, a law professor, and, briefly, as a young man, a state representative in Mississippi. In 1952, towards the end of his term, he gave a speech on the floor of the state legislature concerning alcohol sales, and specifically whiskey. At this stage he was used to being badgered by the Prohibitionists (the ‘drys’) and the repeal side (the ‘wets’) to give a solid opinion on the topic, and had spent long enough wrestling with the subject to come up with one definitive stance.

What he said became known as the ‘If By Whiskey’ speech and it came to symbolise how difficult a subject alcohol is for public representatives to discuss, as it also captures how we can hold two opposing views at the same time. Here it is in full:

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

The speech is witty, poetic and moving. It sums up the pleasures and sorrows of alcohol and asks big questions about how we think about the issue – how often do you hear politicians talking about about the scourge of alcohol, as though the liquid itself was to blame? We talk about the negatives it as though ‘the drink’ takes control of us, like some sort of demonic possession, and exonerates us from any wrongdoing, and erases all choice we might have had in the matter. Yes, it diminishes our ability to make sensible decisions – but we choose to drink it knowing that. In fact, its ability to release us from the pressures of life is one of the things that makes it so important; but, like anything else that gets abused – drugs, food, sex – it does damage. It is in the abusing that all harm is done.

In Ireland we still wring our hands about alcohol abuse, despite the fact that our consumption of it is falling. According to Ireland’s Revenue Commissioners alcohol consumption in Ireland is down 25% since 2001 with consumption of beer and spirits down 40%.

There is always that moment of surprise when you see a table of nations and their alcohol consumption – we are rarely even in the top ten (it’s okay though, we are still higher than the UK).

So we are not the nation of alcoholics we sometimes like to think we are; booze plays a large role in our society, but that is changing. Consumption of alcohol in pubs is down 35 percent in the last decade. Against those figures, wine consumption is up, as we move towards drinking at home, a choice guided as much by the crackdown on drink-driving as it is by changing tastes.

There are bleating voices on both sides of the debate around alcohol – from the industry there is the usual cry of ‘blessed are the job creators’, as they roll out all the economic contributions they make to the State.

On the other side is the health campaigners, who bemoan the costs to our health service and to our society.

Like the If-By-Whiskey speech, both arguments are right – alcohol contributes huge sums to the economy, not least in taxes. Ireland has the highest priced alcohol in the EU, with the the second highest taxes on alcohol in the EU, according to Eurostat and the EU Commission. In 2014, the exchequer received €1.42 from every pint costing €4.64, (or 30.6% of the price) consumed in bars; €16.41 or 68.4% of the price of a €24 off-licence bottle of whiskey; and €4.50 or 64% of the price of a €7 off-licence bottle of wine. So it is already quite expensive to drink here, without even considering the flawed model of minimum unit pricing, itself a blunt tool that is effectively a class-based prohibition.

So taxes are high here, but the argument that ‘you can buy whiskey cheap in America so why not here’ is a facile one – try losing your job in America, or getting sick, or testing the state supports in any capacity before you praise their taxation regime. Booze has always been the taxman’s whipping boy – the very first tax ever levied by the American government was on whiskey, and it lead to what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. But the tax stood, and it was used to build their then fledgling nation. Taxes on alcohol are high in Ireland, but we have a high standard of living here – as someone who spent eight months on the dole last year, I was startled at just how generous the state was to my family and I.

Also, for the consumer to assume tax cuts would equate to price cuts is naive – particularly where whiskey is concerned, as like Stella Artois (before it went for sales volume over value), the average bottle of triple-distilled liquid silk is deliberately ‘reassuringly expensive’. And to those who say that the whiskey taxes are killing the industry here, the distillery boom we are seeing in the past four years show that high taxes on whiskey are no barrier to business.

So taxes are high, prices are relatively high, yet some people still drink too much – so how do you stop them? This is where the real issues surrounding alcohol come into play, and where Soggy Sweat’s words really ring true, because alcohol, like the Cenobites in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, is an angel to some and a demon to others: It all comes down to choice.

National drug and alcohol policy is often based around the broad premise that substance abuse is about pleasure, rather than pain, or rather the escape from pain – subsequently, legislation often deals in broad strokes, such as minimum unit pricing or curfews on sales. These laws are a simplistic way of dealing with an incredibly complex issue, because – as pointed out in Ken Burns’s masterful documentary Prohibition – you cannot legislate for morals. You cannot outlaw dysfunction, you cannot go into every home and ensure that everyone has sufficient coping mechanisms to not fall into some sort of addiction.

A republic has to allow its citizens to make poor choices, even if those choices affect those around them and society as a whole. Walk the main street of any small town in Ireland and you will see just how good we are at making bad choices – chippers, pubs, offies and bookies; all offering products or services that are fine in small doses, but which can ruin lives.

My parent never drank much, my dad did a bit, my mum not at all. Like many Irish kids I was given a drop of whiskey for a sore tooth now and again, but generally I grew up in a pretty dry, intensely religious household. I started secretly drinking when I was 13, and was a frequent binge drinker by the time I was 15. I would steal money, go to Cork and buy flagons of cider and sit in Bishop Lucey Park drinking with a rotating cast of crusties, new age travellers, the destitute and the deranged. When I left school I worked in a kitchen, as cheffing was an industry where you can drink yourself into oblivion and nobody would take much notice. It is a period of my life I don’t look back on with any pleasure – it was a relentlessly grim cycle of broken relationships and self destruction. There was no joy, and if it had continued I have no doubt I would be dead now.

But things changed. I went back to college and although I still drank, it was in a fun, social way. As I got older my outings got rarer and rarer, and nowadays I just love a whiskey of two at the weekends.

Since I’ve been living with my dad and looking after him, I’ve been drinking more – in fact, almost every night. I spend my days looking after him, making his food and helping him about the house, managing hospital visits and dispensing his medication. It’s all straightforward stuff, and I am happy to do it; I’ve been looking after him for three months, he looked after me for about 40 years. My wife and kids had planned to move in, but we soon realised that the cacophony of our family would be too much for him, so I am here alone, watching him slowly die. His mind is starting to go, and I can feel him slipping away from me. Most days I just spend staring at him, missing him even though he is still here.

At night I go upstairs and open another one of the bottles I had been saving for a special occasion and have a good cut off it. And after the first few sips, I can feel the weight of sadness lift slightly, and I relax, even for an hour or two, and I drift from where I am. I watch a few Norm Macdonald videos or goof off on Twitter, and it takes me away. As Judge Sweat pointed out, whiskey enables me to magnify my joy, and my happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, one of my life’s great tragedies.

There are many who would point out that I am committing that terrible act – using alcohol as a crutch. But I need a crutch. If I don’t have something to quell my mind before bed, I would spend hours lying there, mentally drafting eulogies, occasionally sobbing. Whiskey is a salve on my emotional wounds. If I didn’t have that, I would be doing a lot worse than I am.

In my youth I used alcohol to harm myself – now I am using it to heal. But it is often used in this manner – in many hospitals alcohol is prescribed. I spoke to a doctor recently who told me that as a junior doc with the NHS in the early Nineties he used to regularly prescribe sherry, whiskey and Guinness to patients.

A physio told me that when she trained in a London hospital there was a patient in intensive care for a long period of time. His mood dipped and so he was prescribed a whiskey each evening. It worked, and his mood lifted. It didn’t stop him dying, but it made his demise that little bit more bearable.

In fact, Marymount Hospice – where my dad is headed soon – has a drinks trolley for patients, where you can have a pint or a whiskey of an evening.

Alcohol is a bridge from our own profane humanity to a divine plane where our troubles are diminished. For some, their troubles are such that they never want to return. For the rest of us, it’s simply a welcome few hours of escape.

Like a baseball bat, alcohol is a weapon if you choose to use it that way. Used right, it is one of life’s great joys, a thought reflected by the American baseball star Tug McGraw. After signing a lucrative contract, he was asked how he would spend his money. His reply was: “Ninety percent I’ll spend on good times, women and Irish whiskey. The other ten percent I’ll probably waste.”

Chaos Theory

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Kurt Ballou in his studio.

Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.

ALDOUS HUXLEY, Do What You Will

When Kurt Ballou was in his early teens, his parents brought him across America in a camper van for the summer holidays. With no siblings to keep him company, music became his friend. He sat in the back of the van with his headphones on, listening to his favourite bands over and over, picking apart the sounds and how they worked – as music, and on him as a listener.  He played saxophone in the school band but soon moved on to other instruments, and travelled down this path until he and his friends formed a band named Converge in the 1990s. Their early albums showed promise, but it was with 2001’s Jane Doe that they really hit their stride – one that has shown no signs of slowing, 15 years and five albums later. They have been consistently excellent for the past decade and a half, with each album hitting a remarkably high standard, despite the fact that the music they make sounds like someone driving a schoolbus off a cliff. Converge play a blitzkrieg fusion of punk, grindcore, metal and D-beat, and the cacophony of their output should theoretically be a wall of white noise permeated by occasional screams. Thankfully, that summer of forensically dissecting music has worked wonders for Ballou, as he has produced their best albums (a fact he disputes, claiming he is an engineer, not the more showbiz role of producer).

There are numerous YouTube videos of Ballou talking about how he controls the hydra-headed beast that is Converge’s sound, breaking the components down, refining, stripping, and reconnecting them as one perfectly clean aural assault. But while Converge have maintained their incredible consistency, but have never let it stop them from evolving.

Their ability to change comes from an absence of record label pressure. Big businesses don’t like change, because consumers don’t like change. As a species we tend to romanticise the knowns of the past, and fear the unknown future. We prefer the reassurances of the familiar, the road more travelled, as we march along it under the banner of ‘consistency’. It is pandering to this mindset that has lead to an artificial colourant known as E150a being added to most whiskeys in the world. Apparently the public wants all of their bottles to look the same colour, in the same way we don’t want bendy carrots or any other evidence of the wonderful chaotic individuality of nature. Look at non-chill filtering – effectively a dystopian purging of natural oils to spare the blushes of drinkers in cold climates who might not like a slight clouding of their whiskey in temperatures.  That, combined with the addition of caramel, is effectively whiskey fascism – a demand that everything look the same. But, as Jeff Goldblum’s character points out in Jurassic Park, you cannot impose order on nature; chaos theory tells us that while the present dictates the future, there is still absolutely no way of predicting it. Whiskeys change – talk to anyone who drank a certain dram 20 years ago and they will tell you exactly what has happened in the intervening decades.

Change is inevitable in life, just as it is in the whiskey industry – consider all the variables; soil, climate, grain, yeast, spirit, cask, and all of the potentially ever-changing cast of human beings involved in the whole process – so maybe they should embrace it. This is one of the reasons I love the Aberlour A’Bunadh. Released in batches, it celebrates change. Like Converge, it has a controlled ferocity – there is that white noise, white heat of a cask-strength beast, but those years in the sherry butt has tamed any feral overtones; it is a beautiful, creamy malt, rich and sweet but with that white pepper kick on the finish. Bottled at around the 60% mark and aged between five and 25 years (more youth than age, though it isn’t too apparent), a drink of an A’Bunadh is like being grasped around the throat by a mechanised fist in a velvet glove. Even the bottle looks like it was designed for war; short and squat like an artillery shell, with a wide, roaring mouth.

There is, of course, a completely ridiculous back story to go with the A’bunadh, one that is told on the distillery tours; it involves time capsules, drunk workmen and a newspaper from 1898. It brings nothing to the drink itself, which has more than enough qualities to stand apart from any marketing narrative. However, if you do happen to visit Aberlour Distillery, in one of the main halls of the visitors centre is a large camera obscura photo of two hands holding a bottle of A’bunadh – the photo having been taken by Ted Dwane of Mumford and Sons.

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Neil Ridley in Aberlour Distillery VC during Spirit Of Speyside 2015.

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It was in this room that I first tasted this whisky, at an event hosted by Neil Ridley and Joel Harrison. They were pairing whisky with the music of Bowie and Cash, drawing parallels between the two, beneath this ethereal photo of a whisky, taken by a musician. 

While I loved the Aberlour whiskies, the music was not to my taste, because I like life a little bit louder. I always thought I would grow out of metal, a genre that is generally perceived to be pretty immature. However, I also never thought I’d grow into whiskey. For me they are two sides of the same coin – a desire to crank the senses up to 11. Most people recoil when they hear Converge, just as they recoil when taking that first sip of whiskey – the intensity of both is something to be reckoned with. But Kurt Ballou and Aberlour Distillery have the ability to take disparate, intense elements – high strength/loud noise, big flavours/massive riffs – and blend them to create a constantly evolving product without sacrificing standards. Because the only consistency we should seek is that of quality.

 

A bottle of Batch 55 A’bunadh is an exceptionally good value €55 on MasterOfMalt – and you can watch Ballou talking about the creation of Jane Doe here. And, if you want to challenge your hearing (and definition of what constitutes music), this is what Converge sound like:

You probably need a drink now.

The final frontier

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In June 1940, a man walked from the surf onto a beach on the Dingle peninsula. He stopped to bury a radio transmitter in the sand, walked inland until he stumbled across an old railway line and then headed towards the town of Dingle. With an hour to kill until the bus to Tralee, he accepted an invitation into a local pub – even though it was 7am. There, he had three whiskeys and, in the grand Irish tradition of drinking on public transport, he bought a bottle of whiskey for the journey. In Tralee he got on the Dublin train, and spent much of the journey talking about how ‘that great man Hitler would set Ireland free’. Unsurprisingly, he was arrested in Dublin, and identified as Walter Simon – a German spy. In fact, he was one of two spies who tried to enter England via the wild western frontiers of the Kerry coast, although he was the only one undone by a lethal combination of Kerry hospitality and Irish whiskey.

If you saw the Dingle peninsula, you could see its appeal to a U-boat captain looking to land a covert operative – miles and miles of jagged coastline and sparse population give parts of it the feel of an abandoned outpost on some deserted, beautiful planet. When you go to Dingle from almost anywhere outside Kerry, it feels like you have crossed a timezone or two. You can’t just got to Dingle for the night – you have to commit to a trip down there, clear your schedule for a few days.

The last time I spoke to Oliver Hughes, he asked me to come down for a festive celebration in Dingle Distillery to mark the release of their first whiskey. I could have made it, albeit for just a few hours, but then I wouldn’t be able to relax, as I had work the next morning. So with a heavy heart I declined. I felt terrible about it – when I was took part in the Dingle Whiskey School I had been talking to Oliver and the rest of the staff about how hard it was to get journalists to cover events outside The Pale, especially at the far end of the country. He made the point that he could have built the distillery somewhere in the hinterland of Dublin, but he loved Dingle, and knew it was a special place, so for him there was nowhere else.

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One evening during the whiskey school he drove myself and fellow journalist Eleanor Cosgrove along Slea Head, pointing out various landmarks such as the Sleeping Giant, the site of the village in Ryan’s Daughter (sadly levelled after filming finished because the council couldn’t sort out the insurance) and the iconic Dunquin Pier. At the top of the long zig-zag down to the pier is a shed, held to the ground with ropes and rocks, because when a storm hits here, everything is fair game – the terrifying storm scenes of Ryan’s Daughter weren’t shot on a soundstage; in fact, due to the temperamental Irish weather, some of the beach scenes where sun was required were shot in South Africa. The trip around the peninsula was a memorable one, as Oliver told us some great stories about his time in Kerry, as well as a few insane tales from his days as a barrister.

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That night Oliver brought us and some of the Founding Fathers (the title for investors in the distillery) out for dinner to Ashe’s. It was there we got to see the actual bar tab run up by Bob Mitchum during the filming of David Lean’s beautiful epic. Much like Walter Simon, Mitchum indulged in a dram or two when in the area.

Over dinner we all chatted and got to know each other, Oliver cracking jokes and keeping the chat and wine flowing. He was a great host, despite the fact that he was a busy man – when I met him for a dram before dinner in Dick Mack’s, he was tucked away in the back talking over some new ideas he had with business associates. He was an ‘idea guy’ – someone who was almost plagued with creative visions. How else could he have had the foresight to start a craft beer business in Ireland? I remember walking into the Porterhouse on Parliament Street in the late Nineties and ordering a pint of Heineken, only to be told they didn’t have it on tap. I thought ‘haha this place is doomed’ and ordered a bottle of the heinous swill instead, refusing to try anything new. Thankfully, there are people out there who weren’t as obnoxiously close-minded as I, and his business thrived. But I don’t believe he was trying to create an empire, or even build a legacy, he just wanted people to try something new. What he did for Ireland was to change the way people thought about beer – no longer was it a few different types of nondescript swill to get shamefacedly blotto on. With the craft beer movement it was now something to be enjoyed, explored, celebrated.

The last time I saw Oliver in person was at Whiskey Live Dublin. I was at the Tamdhu/Glengoyne stand trying a few drams when suddenly he appeared and started talking to the assembled group about his distillery, his whiskey, his vision. I’m not sure the Scottish reps quite knew what to do as he completely took over their pitch by sheer force of will. He had a gloriously punk DIY attitude, despite the pinstripes. He was a pioneer, a man on the wild frontiers of food and drink. Little wonder then that he chose to build his distillery on Ireland’s western front.

In a world of bland corporate personalities, he was a breath of fresh air – electric, acerbic, outspoken – and, at 57, far too young to die.

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Footnote: You can read some of Oliver’s posts on the original Dingle Distillery blog here.

Smithfield of dreams

The Jameson Global Broadcast 2013 which took place at the Jameson Distillery in Smithfield Dublin. Photo Chris Bellew /  Copyright 2013 Fennell Photography.

The Jameson Global Broadcast 2013 which took place at the Jameson Distillery in Smithfield Dublin. Photo Chris Bellew / Copyright 2013 Fennell Photography.

If you redevelop it, they will come. ‘They’ being tourists.

Irish Distillers, Ireland’s leading supplier of spirits and wines and producer of the world’s most well-known and successful Irish whiskeys, has today announced plans for a major redevelopment of the Old Jameson Distillery in Smithfield, representing a total investment of €11 million. This new look Jameson brand home will strengthen Ireland’s growing whiskey tourism industry which currently attracts 600,000 tourists a year.

To facilitate the refurbishment, the Old Jameson Distillery will close on August 31st and will officially reopen in March 2017.

Jean-Christophe Coutures, Chairman and CEO of Irish Distillers said: “This investment marks an important moment in the history of Jameson in Ireland. We’ve grown up on Bow Street, in the heart of Smithfield, and we’ve always felt privileged to share our home with the world. Since we opened the Old Jameson Distillery visitor experience in 1997, we’ve welcomed over 4 million whiskey lovers through our doors.

“Now, as the renaissance of Irish whiskey continues at pace following incredible global growth over 25 years, we want to build on our efforts to share the story of Irish whiskey and Jameson around the world. We’ve enlisted the world’s best ‘experience designers’ and complimented that with a 100 percent Irish contracting team who will work together to deliver on our vision.”

Ray Dempsey, who has been the General Manager at the Old Jameson Distillery since its opening, added: “From John Jameson’s brave first steps into this building in 1780, we’ve been focused on his ambition to create unforgettable experiences. When we next open our doors you’re going to see what makes our whiskey loved the world over, with live immersive experiences delivered with the personal touch, helping to bring this story to life. We look forward to welcoming many more whiskey lovers to our Smithfield home when we reopen in March.”

Construction work will begin in September and will be led by BRC Imagination Arts; Dublin based firm TOTP Architects and Flynn Management & Contractors, with approximately 100 people employed as part of the redevelopment work. BRC Imagination Arts is one of the world’s leading experience design and production agencies specializing in the creation of next generation brand experiences. Founded in 1981, past clients of BRC include the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta; the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam and the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.

The last venue mentioned in that list is an important one, given this recent stat:

Guinness Storehouse named Ireland’s number one tourist attraction

The Storehouse draws over a million a year, while the Jameson centre draws about a quarter of that. It’s not hard to see why – Guinness is ubiquitous, Jameson less so. Considering that whiskey is still pretty much a niche drink (in comparison to beer etc), it’s doing well – but they can always do better. RTÉ have the details on the staff:

The distillery currently has 75 employees.

General Manager at the Old Jameson Distillery Ray Dempsey said these staff members will be relocated across a number of areas during the closure, with a core team supporting the redevelopment work.

Other employees will be involved in the setting up of a ‘welcome kiosk’ on Bow St, which will act as a starting point for visitors to the Smithfield area and inform them about the Jameson brand and other attractions in the vicinity.

Meanwhile, distillery staff members will also provide Jameson tasting experiences in the Generator Hostel and Jameson food pairings at Christophe’s Restaurant in Smithfield.

Free whiskey in a hostel – what’s the worst that could happen?

Anyhoo, I have no way to finish this hastily scribbled post, so here are some old photos of Ray Dempsey and others at the launch of Midleton VR in 2001.

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare Billy Lee Master Copper Corks up a Cask of the new Whisley Picture: Gerard McCarthy  (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare
Billy Lee Master Copper Corks up a Cask of the new Whisley
Picture: Gerard McCarthy (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare Billy Lee Master Copper Uncorks  a Cask of the new Whisley Picture: Gerard McCarthy  (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare
Billy Lee Master Copper Uncorks a Cask of the new Whisley
Picture: Gerard McCarthy (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare Ray Dempsey General Manager Irish Distillers trys out the new Batch with Billy Lee Master Copper Picture: Gerard McCarthy  (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare
Ray Dempsey General Manager Irish Distillers trys out the new Batch with Billy Lee Master Copper
Picture: Gerard McCarthy (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare Ray Dempsey General Manager Irish Distillers trys out the new Batch Picture: Gerard McCarthy  (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare
Ray Dempsey General Manager Irish Distillers trys out the new Batch
Picture: Gerard McCarthy (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare Lisa Walsh and Pauline Supplison of Irish Distillers trys out the new Batch Picture: Gerard McCarthy  (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare
Lisa Walsh and Pauline Supplison of Irish Distillers trys out the new Batch
Picture: Gerard McCarthy (digi)

Please note I did not write those captions. Although I think ‘whisley’ sounds alright.