This is the first of what will be a regular series of interviews we do with interesting people in the Irish whiskey business. Our first virtual sit-down is with Gary Quinn, former pub and whiskey columnist for The Irish Times who is the author of "The Little Book of Irish Whiskey," published last year by Harper Collins and available now on Amazon.
1. Gary, thanks for being with us. You've been to a ton of pubs in Ireland, maybe more than anyone. Do you have a few favorites that you would recommend people visit once we can travel again, and what was the most unusual one you visited?
Unusual pubs aren’t hard to find in these parts so, from a cast of thousands, I’ve picked four great destination bars, each slightly off the beaten track.
First up is the Castle Inn in Cork city centre. I dashed in here one dark wet night to escape the rain and was surprised with one of the best nights in Cork ever. Michael and his parents Mary and Denis O’Donovan describe their pub on South Main Street as “the country pub in the heart of the city” and it’s kind of perfect. Holding court since the 1930s, it’s a pure slice of Cork and one of the most down-to-earth places you’ll find.
Further off the tourist trail is the one-night-a-week Jim of The Mills in Upperchurch in Tipperary. Only open Thursday nights, don’t hesitate to change your plans to divert to this family-run music and personality-driven heartland. Inside the home of the Ryan family you’ll meet five daughters and their parents Jim and Kae who put traditional music on the map in these parts. There’s nowhere else quite like it. Don’t expect a whiskey menu though. It’s a one tap, one bottle kind of place with black pudding on homemade bread served to punters at 11pm. Priceless.
If a good walk is your thing then head for Osbornes bar in Rathanna in Co Carlow. Nestled among the Blackstairs, the Barrow Valley and Mount Leinster, this Victorian beauty stops time in its tracks inside its dark wooden walls. It’s packed full of history and has watched over this village for more than one lifetime. Owners Katherine Tully and Eric Osborne also run a very attractive storehouse next door that’s been converted into tourist accommodation, so plan to stay a while.
If you’re more of a five-star traveller, head north and check into Castle Leslie Estate in Monaghan and then promptly walk back out of its gates to the village of Glaslough where you’ll find the cut-stone Coach House and Bar. This snugs-and-shadows architectural powerhouse is buzzing with life - despite the funeral home that’s housed on the premises. Locally known as Wrights, its women’s snug and back parlour will easily steal hours from your day while the weekend music and conversation offered by its owners, Ron and Diane, will ensure a return is guaranteed.
2. How are Irish pubs managing the lockdown and what kind of guidance has the government given on when they'll be able to re-open?
It’s hard to believe that pubs have been silent here for almost a year. There was a short period between hard lockdowns when pubs that sold food could open but all the traditional pubs have remained closed since March 2020. It’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen next and how many won’t ever reopen their doors when they’re given permission to.
Like many sectors hit by Covid, the bar trade is an industry on its knees. What’s often underestimated though is that, unlike other types of business, the local pub is a crucial link in how Irish culture has developed over hundreds of years. Ireland has a drink problem for sure, but pubs aren’t just about drink. They’re also a cure for loneliness, a source of excellence in music and song, a safe haven, an office, a match maker. It’s a romantic spin but so many life stories begin and end within their walls. It’s why countless have remained unchanged for hundreds of years. They provide a very specific function that’s almost impossible to substitute elsewhere. This break in transmission will change things, we’re just not yet sure how much.
The people who run them are lost too. Born hosts, with a natural talent for creating a welcome, giving counsel and doing business, they are left wondering what’s coming next. Will their business survive, will their customers return, how long will the lockdown last, how long will they last? It’s the indecision that appears to have hit hardest. The Government has a payment scheme in place for anyone who has lost their job as a result of lockdown, with payments from between €203-€350 per week, but it’s the reluctance to give bar owners information and to involve them in planning that has been criticised most.
3. You're the author of "The Little Book of Irish Whiskey," published last year by Harper Collins. What was your goal in writing this book and what was the most interesting thing you learned in researching it?
This is a book aimed squarely at people who want to start their Irish whiskey journey. I wanted to get past the history and tell up-to-date stories from each of the working distilleries, bringing readers inside their still rooms and face-to-face with the passion and personality driving Irish whiskey today. To do that I was obliged to drink all the whiskey in Ireland, so it wasn’t all bad.
I also want to encourage people to simply try Irish whiskey. That’s where the big growth opportunity is - this huge body of people around the world who have never tried whiskey. Irish is such a welcoming entry point for people. It’s that bit smoother and sweeter and comes packed with identity - a hunger for that is what I tried to tap into.
The most interesting thing I learned was how, despite competing on the brand level, distillers across the country are united in their belief in the future of Irish whiskey. They are incredibly driven to succeed and know that the category will only win on a united footing. They’re in this together and are hugely positive. Covid will take its cut but with so much original whiskey maturing across the country with tons of new flavour profiles, the sector is getting ready for its next bend in the road - and that’s going to be an evolution worth waiting for.
4. Irish whiskey is experiencing phenomenal growth, particularly here in the U.S. Some estimates have it overtaking Scotch in American sales in the next 8-10 years. As a result there are dozens of new Irish distilleries that have opened in the last 5 years or are getting ready to open soon. Do you have a theory on why this massive growth is happening now after decades of very little growth in the industry?
The business lead-in time on a whiskey distillery would terrify most seasoned business owners. It is such an expensive startup, with nothing but massive outgoings for at least three years, that it was simply impossible to achieve for many people over the decades. The recent success of the Irish economy overall helped for sure. But while there are some very wealthy names in the sector here, many aren’t backed with cash. A very real key was the rise of the fearless entrepreneur. The people who heard a business plan scream “don’t do it” and who just did it anyway.
The people behind the Dingle Distillery, for example, opened their artisan distillery in a town that was as far from the economic centre as it was possible to get - just because they loved the place so much. They couldn’t have made it harder for themselves but their success changed the whiskey landscape. Witness the micro operations behind Killowen Distillery in Co Antrim or Lough Measc Distillery in Co Mayo. The passion driving their companies is incredible, their ambition boundless, despite the much bigger budgets they compete with. And then of course there’s the story of John Teeling, the teetotaler who created a whiskey dynasty on the east coast that has conquered the world. In each of these cases the secret ingredient was the people, the risk takers and vision.
5. If you could only drink two or three Irish whiskeys for the rest of your life, which would you pick?
This is a hard one. I’m going to compromise and suggest three new whiskies that stopped me in my tracks. (The first is actually two whiskies).
Method and Madness is the experimental micro-distillery by the makers of Jameson, Irish Distillers. While Jameson is a non-stop 24-hour distilling operation, this smaller brand within the company is all about experimentation and passing on knowledge to apprentices. Method and Madness produce a core range of single malt, single pot still and single grain whiskies but the one I want to highlight is a limited release, special experiment in the use of wood. They took the same single pot still spirit and matured it in two different woods - one in wild cherry and the other in acacia wood. The result was outstanding - different whiskies, different flavours, different colours and aromas, but all from the same spirit and a fantastic illustration of the alchemy of maturation. You need to try both side-by-side to truly appreciate it, but that’s part of the pleasure.
I’m a huge fan of this limited-edition release from the Echlinville Distillery on Northern Ireland’s Co Down coast. They matured a single malt in a Port Mourant Estate vintage rum cask from Guyana and released it at a cask strength of 57.1 per cent. It’s packed with flavour and you’ll discover dark sugar, molasses and rich caramel underpinned with vanilla and black pepper at its heart. It really is a triumph and adds yet another decadent layer to the revival of the long-silent Dunville brand from Belfast. Echlinville started distilling in 2013, laying down single malt and single pot still spirit to mature, using sourced spirit in the interim as it built its brand. Bringing the “Spirit of Belfast” back to a global stage has been a labour of love for the owners who have carved out a true field-to-glass operation on their farmland.
Collaborations between bars and distilleries are one of the most fruitful partnerships there are. The creation of a drink to be best consumed in a particular location is a superb idea and finding a seat at the bar of the historic Palace Bar in Dublin and ordering a glass of their Redbreast 17 is top of my list for when bars reopen. Redbreast itself is a singular mark of character and forging an alliance with the Palace Bar doubled the demand for excellence. What emerged is an incredibly rich and complex taste experience, a thick syrup texture and deep dark flavours of fruit, chocolate and coffee. Bottled at 57.9 per cent, there are only 540 bottles in total and with a certain number held back to be served across the bar by the glass, a bottle of this single pot still is a very rare treat indeed.
Gary, thanks for joining us and for sharing your insights on the pubs and whiskeys of Ireland. Hopefully we'll be able to join you at the Palace Bar in Dublin to try that Redbreast 17 collaboration in the not-too-distant future!
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