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A few photos from the dark waters of Cappoquin, where I got to meet Peter Mulryan; author, raconteur and Heston Blumenthal of Irish distilling. He’s been pushing the boundaries with some of his work in Blackwater Distillery (and the boundaries pushed back on occasion), but his really is an inspirational story of someone switching over from writing to doing – a courageous move for any journalist. You can read the interview in the Canadian magazine Distilled, but there are really interesting things ahead for Peter and his team.

The Irish Craft Cocktail Awards……..2014. Found these on my hard drive and need to clear some space, so here they are…..two years later.

Red dawn

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I’ve long been a fan of Writers Tears – even on a purely aesthetic level, I would sing its praises. Fortunate then that, beneath the surface, it is also a cracking whiskey. Walsh have recently released another expression in the family, and because every Irish family has at least one ginge in it, this one is titled Red Head.

This is billed as ‘a triple distilled single malt’ – so this is the point where I tap my nose, wink at you and mouth the word ‘Bushmills’. You furrow your brow, mis-lipread and think I mouthed ‘punch me’ and we end up in a tremendous donnybrook that makes the Táin Bó Cúailnge look like an especially weak episode of WWE Raw.

The official line is thus:

This exquisite, triple-distilled single malt is matured only in select handpicked Spanish sherry butts which have previously been seasoned with the finest Oloroso sherry. It is the influence of these scarce butts that give this expression of Writers Tears its signature rich, ruby hue and hence the moniker – ‘Red Head’. The expression is distilled without chill filtering as nature intended and at a distinctive 46% ABV.

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So what of my slightly-pissed tasting notes:

A real sweetness on the nose, lots of rich caramel (the foodstuff, not the colouring) in there, a little bit of clove and cinnamon. Palate-wise – more spices than I expected, a lot of really nice heat from that extra bit of ABV, definitely feeling that orange peel note touted in the official tasting notes. The finish is not the 2001: A Space Odyssey-style epic the notes suggest, but it has more of the spice and less of the sweetness from the nose. For less than €50, and a NAS to boot, you cannot expect some multi-layered labyrinth of flavour. I prefer the standard Copper Pot expression, and would still recommend it over this, but this Red Head still has more soul than your average ginger

Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam

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Ah Whiskey Live Dublin: I find it hard to know who I feel more sorry for – me or the vendors. They have to stand there for hours, pouring dram after dram for tedious bore after tedious bore, smiling and nodding as people like me refuse to take ‘NAS’ for an answer. It must be a gruelling hell for them.

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And then there is my sympathy for myself – a middle aged man cheerfully going to a whiskey event in the middle of the day, droning on and on at salespeople about barrel types and trying to get them to tell you which distillery their product may or may not have come from, as I slowly come undone from all the whiskey they keep plying me with just to shut me up. We are locked together in our immortal struggle, nerds and reps wrapped in the tentacles of marketing, hacking away with question after question about what it is that actually makes the product different.

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To most sane people, the grilling of reps at these events must look like a scene from ComicCon, as two Worfs argue in Klingon about whose costume is canon. And yet, Irish Whiskey Live is like Christmas for the whiskey geek, a day to meet fellow enthusiasts and try some great whiskey.

Being a hardcore whiskey nerd can be a solitary affair – I imagine it’s not dissimilar to being really, really, really into SeaQuest DSV or Monk: It is a niche fandom. You’d think that being a delicious substance that also gets you hammered would be enough, but no. Not many people get the bug that turns them into some tweed-clad beast, a distillery-obsessed Silas Marner, filling rooms of their house with bottle after bottle of rare expressions. But I got the bug, and now I have turned into a full blown Patient Zero, skipping about the Printworks of Dublin Castle like the monkey from Outbreak, toxic with enthusiasm for whiskey, breathing boring sentences into the faces of all.

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I’ve gone the last three years – the first year on my Toblerone, the second year with my brother in law, and this time with my biological paternal half sister who I’ve only met a handful of times. Yes, that sentence asks more questions than it answers, but the explanation is as long and meandering as a particularly shitty piece of whiskey marketing narrative, so I will skip it. Suffice to say that like the best drams, I am a complex spirit. 

This year was the busiest I have seen. In fact, it was too busy.  The place was packed, leading one whiskey blogger I met to suggest that they should go back to having a session for trade (and hardcore geeks) and another for The Normals.

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My own feeling was that it could definitely go across two days – perhaps two longer days, rather than two sessions each day. It’d be great to see a 1pm – 6pm, two-day event, as in the last three years I have never managed to hit more than about 40% of the stalls. And this year there were more and more stalls, more and more whiskeys, more and more questions, and even more reps to bore.

Also: Allow the stands to sell bottlings. I have no idea about the logistics of this, not to mind the legality, but I’ve been to town-hall whisky fairs in Scotland where you can pick up bottles of the drams on offer – sometimes rare, sometimes cheap, sometimes just really good whisky that is a nice memento of a good day out. Obviously this might be a slight conflict of interest with the event organisers, the Celtic Whiskey Shop, but even if they set up a stand selling some of the bottlings, it would be an added bonus.

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So this year was my most inefficient, in terms of drams and chats. A few newcomers did stand out – Tipperary, Boann and the hedgerow gin from Blackwater. All three are brands I admire with an interesting story, so to see them pushing ahead and working towards whiskey production is great. Same goes for Spade and Bushel from Connaught – you’d easily forget they are there, as the media seems to forget that there are distilleries beyond Dublin, but they are quietly working away way out west. 

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And so to Teeling, who recently took the surprising stand of sort-of endorsing the Repeal The Eighth movement. Brands don’t usually get political – it’s too divisive and can drive customers away. But Teeling are bucking that trend and taking a stand. I was bemused to see some tweets about the move, as people who never drank whiskey declared they would now never drink one particular whiskey.

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Such a shame, as it might chill the fuckers out. Ah well, more for us.

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At the IDL stand I spoke to one rep about their recent purchase of a neighbouring farm. He called it a strategic investment with no firm plans for it. In fact, it is a massive slice of land adjacent to their own site, and it comes with zoning for industrial development and a planned access road. They cannot fulfil the demand there is for their whiskeys as it stands, so I would imagine they will be putting in some serious plans for those lands in the next 12 months. They have more than enough space (and options for more) in the Dungourney woods, and while they have another three stills coming in from Rothes next year, I would imagine there are already plans being drawn up for another production facility. 

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I failed to ask any of the UK vendors how they felt about Brexit, or ‘The Great British Fuck Off’ as it is also known. I’ve done well out of it so far; in the immediate aftermath of the vote my shopping with Master Of Malt was never such good value, as the pound took a dive. It’s also interesting to note that the head of the SWA, which backed Remain, has since left to work with Boris Johnson. As will be the case here in the next five to ten years, the export markets are key to survival – and maintaining the easiest, most cost effective route to them is vital. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

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I also spoke to Sean from Dingle Distillery about the sad passing of Oliver Hughes, and what a pity it is that he isn’t here to see them readying their product for market. I also tried a drop of their own whiskey for the first time (I had maturing spirit there two years ago and was very impressed) and really liked it. Young, obviously, but just really different to almost everything else I had that day. I look forward to getting my hands on a bottle so I can properly sample some of Oliver’s great legacy.

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This year’s Irish Whiskey Live was bigger and better than ever, and hopefully it will spread across two days at some point in the next few years. There were more stands, more people, and an incredible buzz – in all, it was what the Klingon people would describe as ‘Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam’ – a good day to die.

Bow legged

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It’s hard to know what makes a good pub. How does any publican connect with the sweet spot where good location, welcoming ambience and a decent pint intersect? If you were stuck for an answer here in Cork, Benny McCabe would be a good man to ask. Over the last two decades he has managed to turn around a selection of venues in various states of decline into booming businesses. You can see the full list of pubs here, and marvel at the sheer variety – but they all have one thing in common; absolutely no pretensions. There are no Celtic Tiger, glam ‘n’ glitz, minimalist fishtank bars; all are good, honest-to-god pubs.

A few years back one of the reporters for the Echo asked Benny the secret of his success, and he simply replied ‘I’m just a fat guy who likes beer’. Obviously, it goes a little deeper than that, but it is often the simple things that lead to success – Benny knows a good pint when he sees one, and he knows that this is the rock upon which the publican builds his church.

My first encounter with Benny was in one of his first pubs, McCabe’s on Parliament Street. It was small and atmospherically dingy, populated by what would become a trademark of his venues – a massively diverse clientele; punks, pinstripes, and Bernie Murphy. He would see me come in the door and pull me a pint, and it was that Cheers moment of walking into a place ‘where everybody knows your name’. Or at least, sort of knew my name – he called me Murf for some reason, and I never bothered to correct him, as he just seemed like a nice guy.

His wife would pop in from time to time, sometime pushing a buggy, with a cheerful little baby ensconced within. Fast forward two decades to a fortnight ago, when I had a Death In Venice moment as I realised that the person serving me a slice of pizza in the Crane Lane was that baby, in her 20s now. I felt a thousand years old already, having gone to the gig in my work clothes (a particularly tacky plaid three-piece suit that Conor McGregor would think twice about) and being surrounded by young hipsters. But then McCabe Jr – a Jameson ambassador, marketing graduate and model – rolls up and suddenly I feel death’s icy grip on my throat, his ghastly whisper in my ear; ‘why are you here old man? This is a place for the young. You are old, take your loose skin and old balls and fuck off home to wait for death’.

Except obviously I didn’t go home, as there free pizza and live music and, hey, I’m not quite dead yet. No, like the rock beast I am, I waited until 10pm, and then went home to my memory foam mattress, as sleep is now more important to me than loud music.

Still, it’s not like I was the only senior citizen at the event: There were others my age, like the barman Andy, who went to school with me and now runs his own mixology business, or Dave Quinn, head of science with IDL, or Shane Long of the Franciscan Well. Except, obviously they were there for work reasons. So why was I there? Well for one, I was invited. Two; I like free stuff. Three; I like music. I used to go to gigs all the time, but now I am part of the ‘too young to die, too old to rock’ demographic,  Whiskey Live has become my Monsters Of Rock. Still. Did I mention that this event had free pizza?

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There were three acts on the bill in the Crane Lane – beatboxers Amaron and Magic, Nordie indie kids Pleasure Beach, and Wyvern Lingo. The event was held under the banner of the Bow Street Sessions, in honour of the fact that Jameson still have Bow Street on the labels despite none of their whiskey being distilled there for decades. I’m kidding – but it is hard to know what qualifies as a celebration of heritage and what is simple false provenance. And that’s coming from a Corkman with a ludicrous Dublin accent.

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Beatboxing has to be seen live to appreciate it, much like up-close magic or a Tijuana donkey show. There is little point in listening to beatboxing on your phone as a machine can do it better. As an opening act, Amaron and Magic were excellent, a curious mix of mnemonic freakshow and hip-hop ventriloquism. Let’s call them the larynX-Men. Let’s not actually, as that is shit.

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Next up were Pleasure Beach, who sound like descendants of Pulp, Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, and possibly even The Waterboys, a sort of Pitchfork ‘who’s who’ circa 2002. They were excellent, and at this stage the whiskey cocktails were slowly eroding my awareness that I was dressed like a Jazz Age social diarist, so everything sounded great, everything was great, hey maybe I’m not the oldest person here, where’d I put my drink etc etc.

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Next up were the headliners Wyvern Lingo, and, as the crowds went wild, I went home on the 10.15pm bus, because I was pretty tired from raging against the dying of the light, and also from standing for more than 30 minutes.

My thanks to the good people at Burrell PR for inviting me and my long-suffering current wife along. Thanks also to the photographer who promised to make me look less like a human oil slick, and instead made me look like a human Werther’s Original, whilst also Tubridifying me by stretching the photo:

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We used to be young and wild. What the fuck happened? I mean, apart from falling in love and having four kids and growing old gracefully.

As a footnote, here is footage of one of the greatest gigs I’ve ever been at – the mighty Jesus Lizard in Fibber McGee’s many millennia ago.

If you’re watching that in work, you might want to know that the deranged frontman David Yow gets bollock naked about ten minutes in. Insane.