The drinks industry has built itself on a desperate search for authenticity – every plywood flatpack bar claims to be the authentic Irish pub, every pub aspires to be the real home of Guinness, everyone wants to be the spirit of Dublin, everyone is on the quest for real ale, then there is the craft beer movement, the hipsters who were into every beverage before you, before it got big, before it became corporate.
So many brands try to root themselves in some pre-industrial Never Never Land, as opposed to proudly embracing modernity and the glistening chrome of computer operated production. But authenticity is something that really cannot be faked – contrast some of the Paddywhackery of Dublin tourist pubs with a place like Dick Mack’s in Dingle. The simple charms of The Pub That Time (Almost) Forgot has made Dick Mack’s the country’s greatest whiskey bar, and just a great pub in general. But places like that can be hard to come by.
In my hometown, there aren’t many that come close. But if you want an authentic Irish pub with a better-than-most whiskey selection, Canty’s is a fairly good place to start. It’s been on the Irish Whiskey Trail for a number of years, a tourist initiative started by Heidi Donelan, which saw her travel the country finding proper Irish pubs with a decent whiskey culture.
Heidi ran tours of the pubs, bringing them to Midleton year after year, including some well-known whisky personalities, such as Martine Nouet, a famous whisky-pairing chef and author who forsake her native France for the elemental dramatics of Islay.
The Irish Whiskey Trail website has a little bit of history about Canty’s and its links to the distillery in Midleton, but as a local I have to admit I have probably been in Canty’s twice in my life. It was seen as an auld fellas’ pub when I was a young jackaknapes, so maybe my recent appreciation for it is a sign that I have finally achieved auld fella status.
Canty’s is what an old friend of mine used to call a ‘great drinking pub’ – you could go in there at 10am and have a pint without being judged. When I popped in there recently at about 11am there were a dozen or more patrons, supping pints with the odd half one to follow. The place hadn’t changed since I was in there 20 years before. The current owner, Catherine, told me they mostly do a day trade, and the fact that their smoking area opens onto a lane connecting them directly to the bookies down the street meant that they had the best of both worlds – or a perfect storm of human vices, if you want to look at it that way. But Canty’s is a slice of the old world – a lot of the people in there were the old school drinkers; men in their 70s and up, supping pints and shorts, because that was what men did. There was no meeting the lads for a frappucino or going for a spinning class and sauna together, this was Irish Male V1.0: You drink to socialise, you go to the pub to get out and meet your pals, because they didn’t have brunch during the Civil War lads.
But the patrons in there were good craic, all bemused at me taking photos of their local, wondering what was so special about it. Here are a few of my photos:
The pub was really too busy to have a proper rummage through the dusty old bottles, but I did spot this number:
Catherine told me she wouldn’t feel right selling it to people as she was worried it had been there so long they might get poisoned from it. I told her to charge them so much they wouldn’t be able to afford a lawyer. Anyway, here are some details via this excellent site:
Sadly, this Whiskey is now a rarity as Irish Distillers decided in 2004 not to produce this fine blend any longer. It was first launched in 1960 by Cork Distilleries Co., the name being a hint at one of its founding distilleries: Watercourse Distillery in Watercourse Road, Cork, owned by the Hewitt Family. Strangely enough, the address on the label – North Mall, Cork – points to another distillery located there, which was owned by the Wise Family. However, the blend consists of two Malt Whiskeys – one from Midleton, one from Bushmills – and a Grain Whiskey from Midleton. It is bottled at 40 per cent abv. As Jim Murray notes, “if you ever see this on the shelf of a bar or store, get it.”
It also gets a mention in Brian Townsend’s excellent The Lost Distilleries Of Ireland:
Again, Hewitts was another whiskey yearning to achieve authenticity, pointing to a past it had little connection to, rather than standing on its own two feet and embracing its own oddness – apparently it is the only Irish Distillers blend that does not contain any pot still whiskey, it comes in 1.125 litre bottles, and then there is the fact it contains malt from Midleton – a comparative rarity. Although they did make a single malt many years ago, one that is best forgotten, if the awful title and label design is anything to go by:
At the other end of the main street from Canty’s lies the town’s newest pub in one of its oldest buildings. The former barracks in the town was designed by AW Pugin, known as God’s Architect because of all the churches he designed across the UK.
It is a stunning old building, previously run into the ground as McDaid’s, a pub that started so well as an excellent, atmospheric late bar and gradually turned into a teenybopper kip. Shut by the banks, the building was sold for a bargain 600k to the Lynch family of the award-winning Cotton Ball micro-brewery, and is leased to the two gents behind the incredibly successful Castle bar in Glanmire and Elm Tree gastropub in Glounthaune. It had its first night last night (the official opening is tomorrow), so naturally I sauntered along to see what sort of whiskey selection they had. I was very pleasantly surprised by the range – and the venue as a whole.
As always, drinking nice whiskey on a night out is a costly affair; a Yellow Spot was 8.90. So sip it slow. The plans for the venue sound great – it will be over-23s, with a strict dress code, a function room upstairs, and a possibility of food down the road, once they get the upper floors ship-shape.
They also used some of the spaces to celebrate the heritage of the building and the man after whom it was named – JJ Coppinger. You can read about his incredible life here, but here are some more details about the building, past and present, thanks to historian Tony Harpur of the excellent Midleton With One D blog, who corrected a few errors I had in this post originally:
There is a copy of the most famous portrait of Pugin in the smoking area of the bar, surrounded by copies of some of his architectural sketches. These particular sketches belonged to George Coppinger Ashlin. Ashlin was born in Little Island of a Midleton mother (Dorinda Coppinger) and and English father (John Ashlin)! Having studied architecture and partnered Pugin’s son Edward and designed St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh, Ashlin married Mary Pugin, and became Pugin’s son-in-law. Ashlin’s older brother, John, lived at Castleredmond House, hence the presence of Ashlin Road in Midleton.
The building was never the RIC barracks – that was the old part of the Garda Station behind the Courthouse. Instead the Midleton Arms Hotel was requisitioned in 1920 as a barracks to house the Auxiliaries (ex-British army men hired to beef up the RIC during the War of Independence). The facade still ears the traces of bullet marks from an IRA attack in late 1920, although the holes have been filled in.
The Coppingers of Midleton ran a brewery on the site next to the building from the mid-1790s until about 1840. That building is still there – along Distillery Walk and Main Street. It really is nice to see the Coppinger name return to Main Street in Midleton.
Hopefully this new venture will do justice to the Pugin/Coppinger name, the legacy of the building, and the simple needs of an authentic middle-aged git who likes to have a decent whiskey in a nice pub – be it an oldschool auld-fella watering hole, or a collision of exposed brick, historic stone and slick design.