Several years ago, I lucked into attending Whisky Live Sydney when a vacation happened to correspond with the event. Focusing as it did on local spirits, it was a fantastic opportunity to taste a wide range of whiskies that I would otherwise never even know existed, let alone have a chance to sample. It seems my destiny is forever entwined with Whisky Live, because just last month, while vacationing in Ireland, I lucked into an invitation courtesy of Dublin’s own Teeling to attend Whisky Live Dublin, which, like the event in Sydney, focuses most of its energy on local whiskey, much of which isn’t and probably never will be available in the United States. Needless to say, I graciously accepted.
Held on October 24th in The Printworks, a modern conference center attached to the storied old Dublin Castle, Whisky Live Dublin was a chance to really dig into Irish whiskey in a way that isn’t possible even if you diligently follow the Irish Whiskey Trail. There are plenty of names familiar to American drinkers — Jamesons, Powers, Bushmills — but plenty more that aren’t. Quiet Man? Hyde? To say nothing of the many expressions from the big guns that might be well-known in Ireland but have not put in appearances stateside. Powers Three Swallows for example, or a 21-year-old single malt from Redbreast. It was a bit like being a kid in a candy store, or at least a Mr. Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe Store, and I had to take a breath, survey the situation, and make a plan lest this veteran of more than a few Whisky Lives and WhiskyFests end up looking like an overwhelmed, drunken first-timer.
The strategy then was simple: lots of water, of course, and a blind eye turned toward my fellow Americans and the few Scots who made the trip across the sea to showcase their wares. As was the case some years earlier in Sydney, a few booths were manned by local restaurants offering sustenance to go with the booze, though the requirement to tear a coupon out of the program and present it to the exhibitor while juggling your bag, your glass, your program, and your food is a dangerous flirtation with disaster. It also means that your food options are limited, unlike Whisky Live New York, which is a catered event offering a buffet. On the one hand, it’s nice trying food from local places (the star of the night was Thai restaurant Koh). On the other hand, given how much whisky is flowing, having a more substantial offering seems preferable (there was a counter peddling ham and cheese sandwiches, which part way through the night, they just started giving away for free).
Having thus resigned myself to only drinking Irish whisky not available in the United States, I immediately went to the Nikka table and drank a bunch of whisky I can get in the United States.
Recovering somewhat my senses after working my way through Nikka’s All Malt and new Coffey Malt, I hit the biggest exhibitor in the room: Midleton, home of Jameson, Powers, Midleton, Green and Yellow Spot, and Redbreast, among others. My goal was three versions of Powers previously not available in the US and the Redbreast 21. Powers Signature, Powers John’s Lane, and Powers Three Swallows (named for birds, not for how many gulps it takes to finish a pour). Previously, my only exposure to Powers was shots of Gold Label poured so often that I would almost classify their offering to me as “merciless.” There’s nothing wrong with Gold Label, but it hardly stands out. That changes dramatically with the other offerings in their line, which showcase the richer, spicier characteristics of pot still single malts. I was particularly fond of John’s Lane, which has about it the air of a richly wooded study lined with books detailing assorted expeditions. Redbreast 21 was exceptional as well, but as a fan already of the 12 and 15 year old expressions available in the US, that hardly came as a surprise.
The other heavyweight in the room was Northern Ireland’s Bushmills, which I skimped on in anticipation of actually being at their distillery a week later. But they did offer us up something special, something not only that you couldn’t get in the US, but that you couldn’t get anywhere. Experimental batches, not necessarily meant for market. Which is a shame, because the Bushmills single malt finished in rum casks is exquisite.
After that, it was a chance to explore the world of Irish independent bottlers. Other than Teeling (whose omission from the night’s drinking was only because I’d been at the distillery the day before), Ireland has no true craft or micro-distilleries. Most everything is made at the old Cooley Distillery (now owned by Beam-Suntory) or the Midleton facility in Cork where Jameson and Powers are made, as well as Tullamore DEW and others. So it’s a bit similar to the situation in the US, with so many craft whiskies actually just being independent bottlings of whiskey made at a large industrial distillery (usually MGP in Indiana, though Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace sell their share of whiskies to others too).
Still, it’s what you pick and what you do with it after you have it that really matters, so I was more than pleased to dig into brands like Quiet Man 8 year old single malt (named in honor of a 1952 movie starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, filmed largely in Galway on Ireland’s western coast), two ten-year old expressions of Hyde single malt (one aged in a sherry cask, the other in ex rum casks), and Dunville’s PX (named after a famous Belfast whisky brand but distilled elsewhere). Palace Bar was a lovely blend and Jack Ryan was a nice 12 year old single malt. The evening wrapped with an Irish apple brandy called Longueville and a quick revisit to the Midleton pavilion for a parting pour of the Jameson Caskmates stout barrel finish and maybe just one more Redbreast 21.
Whisky Live Dublin is a laid back event, very easy to enjoy with an enthusiastic but not overwhelming crowd. There’s space to move about and time enough to try a lot. A bit more liberal food program would be welcome, but beyond that, it was a fantastic evening. If you’re planning a vacation sometime in a far-away city that has a WhiskyLive and a bustling local whiskey industry, consider coordinating. Getting to taste so much Irish whiskey I can’t get back home was a blast, and it was eye-opening. In the end, there was still too much to responsibly sample in one go. Hell, there was too much to sample irresponsibly, which is where I found myself (which might have led to a rousing rendition of “The Wild Rover” a short time later whilst downing beef and Guinness stew at Darkey Kelly’s pub). Irish whiskey has a lot to offer beyond being the shot you have at a party.