Story and photos by Ellen Clark
To most Americans St. Patrick’s Day is Ireland’s most famous holiday. Though I was once told that the Irish aren’t nearly as over the moon about the holiday as we Yanks, I was in Westport, Ireland on March 17th and, believe me, the town was in a holiday mood. There was a full-fledged parade going on, complete with bands, dancers and crazy costumes. Locals were dressed in greens and orange, and the pubs resounded with live music and general frivolity.
Needless to say, St. Patty’s day is a big day for Irish pubs, which are overflowing with revelers of all ages. Cliché though it may be, I envisioned all the pub-goers settling into glasses of Guinness. While Guinness may be Ireland’s most famous national adult beverage, this is only part of the picture. Ireland is renowned for producing some of the finest spirits and brews in the world. And there are distilleries and breweries both large and small where you can learn all about the process of producing a superior product.
To me the logical place to start was a tour of Dublin’s Guinness Factory, which has been named “Europe’s leading tourist attraction” by the prestigious World Travel Awards. After a tour that takes you from the growing of the hops to the final product, you can learn to “pull a proper pint” and then enjoy an actual pint in the rooftop Gravity Bar with its 360-degree views of downtown Dublin.
If beer isn’t your thing, there’s always whiskey. Jameson’s may be the country’s best-known Irish whiskey, but small companies have also gotten into the act. Bernard and Rosemary Walsh started Walsh Whiskey Distillery in 1999 on the grounds of their beautiful lushly green 18th century Royal Oak estate in County Carlow. Today visitors can take a tour of the distillery and then sample the award-winning results at the dark paneled bar in the visitor’s center.
Whiskey a bit too strong for your taste ? Consider liquors and ciders made from organic apples. Rod and Julie Calder-Potts are clearly the king and queen of Ireland’s organic apple business. Owners of Highbank Orchards, they produce delicious ciders, both alcoholic and not, matured on their wild yeast with no added sulphites. In 2014, Dondonus—the smallest Distillery in Ireland—began producing Highbank Organic Apple Spirits. Some of their products include the first Irish and Kilkenny Organic Apple gin and Highbank Organic Apple Vodka.
To experience Ireland’s spirits production up close and personal, consider spending a night at Listoke Gin School.
After being greeted with a G&T (gin and tonic to the uninitiated) and led on a short tour of the tiny distillery, owner Patrick Listoke gave us a basic description of what it takes to make gin. On a long wooden table there were dozens of jars containing all sort of botanicals that can go into gin. For starters, the four essentials are juniper, angelica, orris root and coriander; from there on it’s completely up to you.The basic flavors of gin are floral, citrus and spice, or a combination of same.
I went for essentially citrus, but with a bit of floral and a pinch of hot chili thrown in at the end. Then it was on to my distilling station where I placed my botanicals in a copper kettle containing the neutral grain alcohol, turned on the burner and waited. The distilling process over, Patrick added water until the specific gravity was perfect, and voila! While Listoke 1777 Irish Gin was awarded a “Master of Gin” by the International Spirit’s Business, they have no worries about competition from me, but the experience was award-winning.