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Desert Island Drams – Bill Linnane

The Amateur Drammer

“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.” – Mr Bernstein speaking in Citizen Kane (1941)

Being Irish, I have a romantic sense of tragedy. It’s part of the reason I love whiskey – the thought of all those lost Irish distilleries, of how we went from being world leaders in distilling to being an also ran – it all lends itself to my deeply…

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Wish you were here

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Places do not die as people do, but they often changed so fundamentally that little is left of what once they were.  

 – William Trevor, in the introduction to his memoir, Excursions in the Real World.

Although born in Mitchelstown in north Cork, William Trevor had a nomadic childhood. The son of a bank manager, his family went where the job took them, from Tipperary, to Skibbereen and to Youghal. It is this last setting that inspired Trevor’s short story, Memories Of Youghal, in which two spinsters on holidays on the Côte d’Azur meet an Irish private investigator named Quillan. The man is dishevelled, drinking whisky in the hot sun, as he opens up to them about his tragic childhood in the east Cork seaside town, orphaned by the sea at five months old. Despite the character’s bitter childhood, his recollections of Youghal are of a bustling port town. But that changed, and not for the better.  

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Growing up in the nearest large town to Youghal, my visits there as a child were surprisingly sparse. The old Midleton-Youghal rail line ran along the valley below my family home, but the trains that used to bring generations of city folk to the sea on a sunny day stopped when I was seven, in 1982. Then there were only two trains left using it once or twice a year – beet transporters and Youghal parishioners on their annual pilgrimage to Knock. I can remember picking blackberries along the tracks and having to stand aside to let the train pass, something that only happened twice in my life. Soon those trains stopped too, and the line was shut. It marked the start of an age of decline for the seaside town they forgot to close down.

Built along a steep coastal road, Youghal is a long, narrow place, with the main centre on the seafront and the residential area on the hillside above. Back in the Eighties and Nineties it had large employers in the form of Kodak, Seafield, and Youghal Carpets, but one by one they closed, leaving the empty factory units to decay. They are what greets you when you enter the town from the east, with an amusement arcade now based in one of the units.

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Perks was located farther up the town, but the space was sold for one of several oversized, ugly apartment blocks built using tax incentives during the boom years pre-2008. The front of the former factory is adorned with the Perks logo and several figures taken from one of the old carousels. They stand there, in their least natural state – fixed to the spot, paint chipped along their rictus grins, staring out to sea. An old man passing tells how the little old lady in charge of the carousel used to give kids a go on it for free. ‘You wouldn’t see that in this economy’ he adds.

Inside, there are many old video games from the mid-1990s, still in perfect working order, as though time had simply stopped. They have ten-pin bowling, a large play area, a casino of sorts, bumper boats, a fast food restaurant – it is a one-stop shop for weary parents looking to tire kids out on a rainy day at any cost. No matter how I try to romanticise it in my mind into some sort of indoor Coney Island, Perks is still just a collection of amusements inside an old factory. But at least something has been done with the building. Time was not so kind to the unit next door.

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William Trevor studied history in Trinity, but afterwards he became a sculptor – meaning he would be doubly saddened by the sight of a work by the great Cork sculptor Seamus Murphy over the door of a beautiful old building that is falling apart. The units behind here non-spontaneously combust from time to time, sparking fears that the asbestos roofs are going to go up in smoke and poison the townsfolk. But still they stand, a monument to the town’s loss – the first of many you pass.

All along the serpentine main street – broken into north and south – there are buildings for sale, many of them beautiful listed structures, historic properties that just need a little TLC (and, sadly, a substantial amount of investment) to bring them back to life. Some of the more ordinary buildings have already featured at auctions for distressed properties – many failed to make their asking price. Three years ago a three-storey building in the heart of the town went to auction. It had a restaurant on the ground floor, and apartments above. Its asking price was €45k. It failed to make even that. The old cinema, the Devonshire Arms, an old church, all empty, all with for sale signs – even the lighthouse keeper’s house. So why will no-one invest in Youghal? This is a town crying out to be gentrified – if you look beneath the garish ‘for sale’ signs, there is incredible potential; this town should be the Clonakilty of the east – a destination for international and domestic tourists. So what the hell happened?

As with any disaster, there is no single event to blame – the factors are outlined in an excellent documentary on YouTube, which combines local opinion with the two cents of  planning and economics experts. The problems began when people stopped holidaying in Ireland, and started getting cheaper breaks overseas. The rail line closed. Then the factories closed. Then the town became what is known in urban planning as ‘a donut’ – the town centre became hollow as the Tesco opened closer to the bypass, drawing townsfolk there. The epic main street doesn’t help the hollowing effect  – there are so many units along its two kilometre length, it would take a booming local economy to fill them all. But there is no boom here: Youghal has become a dormitory town – people live there, but work elsewhere; if they were lucky enough to get work.

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However, it is precisely because it has been in a depressed cryosleep for decades that gives it such an air of antiquated charm. In fact, as far back as the 1950s, John Huston shot the exterior scenes of Moby Dick here because New Bedford had changed too much. Even today, the town has the feel of a landlocked Marie Celeste

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One great example of Youghal’s living relics is Tynan’s, which must be one of the most oldschool pubs in Ireland. Flagstone floors (which help give it a better pint, apparently), ornate ceilings, remnants of its time as a grocers, saloon doors, pictures of the Virgin Mary, bags of potatoes on kegs, and the sneaking suspicion that there could be some very old whiskey lurking in a storeroom somewhere out the back – Tynan’s is like a Dick Mack’s waiting to happen. What American tourist wouldn’t love to have a pint in a little piece of the old country like this?

The whole town is alive with tourism potential. But like any seaside town, the ocean is both friend and foe – just as it drew city folk looking to cool off on sunny days, it also pummels the town from time to time. Their beachfront boardwalk was open a mere three years when a particularly vengeful storm made landfall and made matchwood of it. A harsh lesson for boardwalk designers, it was since rebuilt using steel foundations.

But in the summers the beaches have been quieter than they should be: After ongoing issues with their water cleanliness (not the best PR for a seaside resort) the State is trying to build a water treatment plant, ensuring that the large sandy beaches will get retain their Blue Flag status. But as with Youghal’s usual poor fortune, delays in foreshore licences have stalled the project. 

The old rail line that used to being tourists from Midleton is being reopened, albeit as a greenway; and the town has also been pushed as a likely capital for Ireland’s Ancient East, a slightly watered down variation on the breathtaking Wild Atlantic Way. With all the incredible history in the town – Tynte’s Castle, Walter Raleigh’s home Myrtle Grove, the clock tower in the heart of the town, St Mary’s Collegiate Church, the town walls, and the arch under which Cromwell departed Ireland still stands down a little side street – it should be an obvious choice. The town also hold festivals, like the Queen Of The Sea, surely one of the few beauty pageants in Ireland to also boast a crab catching competition, and hold a fundraiser in the form of a donkey derby earlier in the year. Last year I met John Harvey McDonagh of Spey whisky, who told me he had been to the (now sadly defunct) Youghal Potato Festival many years before, marvelling at how a festival celebrating Youghal (allegedly) being the site of the first crop of spuds planted in Ireland could be turned into a display of Bacchanalian pageantry akin to The Wicker Man. “It’s a hell of a place,” was his summary of the town he called ‘Yockal’. 

After years of struggle, it finally looks like Youghal might be bouncing back, which is the least the townsfolk deserve. Perched on the edge of the county bounds, with its back to the yawning maw of the mighty Blackwater and face stoically turned to the sea, they must sometimes feel like the orphans of local government. There are people out there who are willing to invest in the town – a Dublin family bought the run-down Walter Raleigh Hotel and transformed it into a bright, luxurious space, and have enjoyed four years of prosperity.After decades of hardship and simple dumb luck, Youghal deserves a break. I hope that, in the coming years, Youghal’s recollections of the last few decades will be like those of the detective Quillan – unhappy memories of a nice little place. 

Today in ‘Things I Wasn’t Invited To’

A quick post about The Irish Whiskey Awards: All of my internet friends were there, and yet somehow my e-vite failed to make it through the firewall on my dial-up Windows 95 PC. Ah well, I couldn’t have gone anyway as I had a previous engagement – sitting watching it unfold on Twitter whilst crying.

Here are the details:

Gold Medals for Jameson at this year’s Irish Whiskey Awards

Jameson scooped a number of gold medal accolades at last nights Irish Whiskey Awards. Jameson Black Barrel and Jameson Crested won 2 gold medals in the Irish Blended Whiskey (RRP of less than €60) category and Jameson The Distillers Safe and Jameson The Blender’s Dog won 2 more gold medals in the Irish Blended Whiskey (RRP of €60 or more) category. Teeling Small Batch and Midleton Very Rare won the overall awards in each category respectively.

The Irish Whiskey Awards, which are in their fourth year, recognises the excellence and innovation from indigenous producers and distillers. The awards spanned a total of 20 categories, including recognition of the best in Irish gin, Irish vodka, Irish liqueur, craft beer and Whiskey Bar of the Year.

Ally Alpine, Managing Director of Celtic Whiskey Shop and the Irish Whiskey Awards, said: “Each year the Irish Whiskey Awards have gone from strength to strength and with over 100 entries to this year’s awards, it made the competition tougher than ever. We are proud to have this platform to showcase the very best in the industry.”

The winners of the Irish Whiskey Awards will be celebrated at Ireland’s premier whiskey tasting event, Whiskey Live Dublin in The Printworks, Dublin Castle, Dublin 2, on Saturday the 5th of November. The showcase will be divided into two sessions (13:30-17:00 and 18:00- 21:30), tickets are priced at €42 plus booking fee with the Celtic Whiskey Shop donating €10 per ticket to Down Syndrome Dublin. Masterclass tickets are an additional €5, with all money donated to Down Syndrome Dublin. Visit http://www.whiskeylivedublin.com for more details.

And the full list of winners:

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And in related local news:

Gif reaction:

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Seasonal affective disorder

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The Dungourney river on its slow approach to Midleton.

As part of the Midleton food festival each September, there is a tasting in the Jameson Heritage Centre in the town. It’s usually a ridiculously cheap five or ten euro for four premium whiskeys – but the event used to be completely free. However, one year at the end of the tasting, a little old lady went around and poured all the leftover drams into a little plastic bottle. When confronted and asked why, she said ‘it’s for the Christmas cake’. After that, they started to charge. But it’s hard to argue with the lady’s common sense approach to all that leftover whiskey. To many, it is the Christmas drink – we use it to flavour the cake, torch the pudding, liven up our coffee or just warm the blood during the darkest season in Northern Europe. But what do whiskey drinkers in warmer climes drink? Well, one option is to have something from the ready-to-drink (or RTD) category; Jameson comes in a variety of pre-mixed variations in Australia, including Cloudy Apple, Raw Cola and this:

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Because when you’re drinking in a desert, you need a little more than 35cl of hard liquor to quench your thirst. Which makes it all the more puzzling that Jameson would launch a whiskey in South Africa before anywhere else; but that’s exactly what they did with what we call Black Barrel, then known as Jameson Select Reserve.

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Still known by that name in one of the big emerging markets for whiskey, Kenya, the spirit itself is a bit of an oddity, being a blend of pot still and mixed-mash barley spirit from a column still. You can read the full breakdown here on Liquid Irish. The Black Barrel tag came from the fact the barrels are double charred. The result is a sweet vanilla dram reminiscent, to my mind, of the more American styles. When I try to badger my wife into drinking whiskey, it is this I opt for – ‘it’s kinda like Jack Daniels’ I pitch. ‘Except it isn’t and it’s is a lot nicer’, I think to myself.

While the African market is a growing one for IDL, so too are almost all others – the distillery in Midleton may be capable of creating a vast array and amount of whiskey, but they need more space to grow. To this end, they recently bought a farm that lay adjacent to the site. It went to public auction, the previous owner having passed away. There is a full write-up on the Independent, which makes for interesting reading. Initially being sold in lots, IDL and one other bidder wanted the lot – and IDL, being a very large firm )with a substantial parent firm in the form of Pernod Ricard) won the day.

Some of the land purchased by IDL.

Some of the land purchased by IDL.

What is interesting is how community focused IDL they are; beyond being the best employer in the area in terms of salaries, conditions and general vibe, they also have engaged with some of the bidders to make deals on the smaller lots they don’t need – one of those being the GAA club, which is currently located at the other end of the town. Access there is a nightmare, whereas the land IDL have just bought has planning for a new access road – which would also take their deliveries out of the town itself.

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When I heard the distillery bought a farm, I immediately assumed they were going to use it for grain for the microdistillery, or just as a lovely prop for the whiskey academy, but it seems more likely they will use it to expand their operations – and possibly also to create flood defences, as earlier this year there was extensive flooding upriver from their site. I’ve written about this before, and made the point that some people locally laid the blame on the distillery, despite it being there for four decades with no flooding. You can see from this video that some of the warehouses were affected, but also that the floods spread miles back along the river.

In fact, the area that flooded is the part of the site that is zoned for industry, so I’d imagine IDL have plans for serious flood defences before they start any new building work.

All of this tells you two things – first, IDL are important to the community here. For a small town like Midleton, this kind of employment forms its economic backbone. Without the distillery, we could have gone the way of Youghal – stripped of large businesses over the past 30 years, currently Youghal’s largest employer is the State-run St Raphael’s care home. 

IDL also support various community projects here, including the recently developed youth centre, something worth considering next time you hear someone droning on about the demon drink and how it is ruining society. 

The second piece of information to be gleaned from the farm purchase is that IDL know that they are going to have a lot of competition in the next ten years, so now is the time to flex those sizeable muscles and expand lines as well as the plant itself. I was in Scotland when I first heard about the new Green Spot expression, earwigging on a conversation between Sir Colin Hampden White of the ultra-lux, invite-only Whisky Quarterly magazine and Mark Gillespie of the ever-popular WhiskyCast, who were both off to the launch event the following week. The single pot still whiskey is finished in wine casks from Château Léoville-Barton, a merging of Irish and French cultures that appealed to me, as it was French monks from the Burgundy region who built the monastic settlement that later became the town of Midleton (update – this is massively incorrect; thanks again, Wikipedia. See comment from local historian Tony Harpur below). 

Green Spot Whiskey 2015

Green Spot Whiskey 2015

But there is another Irish connection here: Thomas Barton, of Barton & Guestier, left Ireland to find his fortune in Bordeaux in 1724, starting a shipping company there before becoming a very successful wine merchant. Barton kept his Irish heritage, buying Grove House, a stately home and estate near Fethard. Known as ‘French Tom’ to the locals – despite being from Fermanagh – the family are central to the history of the town:

Thomas Barton was succeeded in Grove by his son William. William Barton also played an integral part in the life of the local community, he was sovereign in the years 1816,18,19,21,23 and 29.He gave the site for the present Parish Church and also had greeted the public pump on the Square. The pump was being used up to the mid thirties. It became part of Fethard folklore when the rallying cry of old time Fethard football supporters was “Come on the two streets and a pump”.

So what of the whiskey itself – on the nose there is a little menthol, cut with green fruits, but with a real deep rich plummy note from the wine finish. On the palette there is a lot more of the traditional Green Spot tongue-smacking astringency and less of those velvety wine elements. The front is where it’s at, with a rich caramel flavour that passes all too quickly. I feel like I do about Green Spot generally – I like it, but I’m not going to sell my soul to get a bottle. At €69, this is a good whiskey – but not one I would be shouting from the rooftops about.

Redbreast Lustau

Redbreast Lustau

One whiskey I do shout from all surfaces about is Redbreast. When people ask me to recommend an Irish whiskey, it is the one I always fall back on – it was my first foray into the upper echelons of whiskey, and is one I will always have a special place in my heart for. So expectations are even higher for their latest release in this line, the Lustau Edition. Here is some press release:

Redbreast has introduced a new, permanent expression to its decorated Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey family; Redbreast Lustau Edition. Finished in hand selected, first-fill sherry butts that are seasoned with Oloroso sherry from the prestigious Bodegas Lustau in Jerez, Spain, this release celebrates the iconic sherry influence found throughout the Redbreast range.

Matured initially in a combination of exceptional ex-Bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry casks, Redbreast Lustau Edition has been wholly finished for one year in prized sherry butts from Bodegas Lustau in Jerez, the sherry capital of the world.

So what of this one: This has a real, rich fruit element to it that is fantastic – on the nose it has fruit and nut dark chocolate, sherry trifle, a hint of incense. Like they always say, Christmas cake in a glass – on the palette, beyond the stewed fruits, marzipan and lots of salted caramel brittle, but like all the Redbreasts this is just liquid silk. Incredible mouth-coating, oily gush with a snap, crackle and pop as the flavours go to work. I would still favour the 12, but that is simply that I am an ageist. One of the things I love about whiskey is the idea that you are buying time – this drink in your hand lay sleeping in a cask for a decade or more, and when you drink it you are consuming all those years, all that time. As I get older and ever closer to the inevitable maw of the wolf of oblivion, this is important to me; if I drink the waters of life, I want to know how many years I am consuming. Make it NAS and I just spend my time wondering how old it actually is (in this case, 10-13 years). That’s not to take from this whiskey – age statement or not, it is excellent. I’m not saying that the Green Spot is a child of a lesser god – I just prefer the profile of the Redbreast. Green Spot is lighter, to me, it’s a summer whiskey; great with ice or even a mixer. Redbreast is winter, rich food and warm fires, short days and long nights of sitting about like an especially lazy emperor, darkness and comfort. If I had to recommend one over the other, it would obviously be the Redbreast Lustau sherry edition, but bear in mind that this is the recommendation of someone who got drunk for the first time at age 12 on an especially potent sherry trifle, so my opinion may be skewed (and my brain damaged).

Thank you to the good people at Burrell PR for the bottle of Black Barrel, and the samples of the Green Spot and the Lustau.