Drinking in Dublin used to be a one-trick, if very pretty, pony – quality draft beer and Irish whiskey. The locations were what set the city off from most of the world – venerable pubs operating since the early 18th century and before, with massive bars, dark wood and etched glass dividers strung along them giving customers a sense of intimacy, private rooms called snugs in which couples or small groups would jam, charming strangers who would make a thirsty wanderer feel instantly welcome – these are the images travelers often bring home from the Dublin pub experience.
And for those who like that, the experience is still available. Venerable saloons, called “spit on the floor pubs” by locals, like McDaid’s, the Long Hall and Stag’s Leap and others, may change owners and add minor modern tweaks – the Long Hall added tiled mirrors in the 1970s, says owner Marcus Houlihan, a little ruefully – but they’ve never strayed far from their basic publican roots.
Things have changed in the past ten years or so with the Irish whiskey they serve. The business had become a monopoly, mostly, only shaken in the late 1980s with the advent of the upstart Cooley Distillery and then the split of Northern Irish distiller Bushmills from Irish Distillers, now owned by Pernod-Ricard.
Pernod-Ricard’s Jameson rules the roost in Ireland just as everywhere else in the world, mostly, but things are suddenly in flux - major international supplier Beam Global, which has big plans for the blended whiskey brand Kilbeggan, now owns Cooley’s two distilleries.
Beam’s effort with Kilbeggan is multi-faceted: they’ve fired up the stills in the oldest licensed Irish distillery (once known as the Locke’s Distillery) and will produce a portion of Kilbeggan there while using its warehouses to age whiskey and continue to greet thousands of visitors each year touring the countryside. They’ve appointed as distiller a young and personable woman named Adrina Fitzgerald, once a waitress in the visitor’s restaurant who persistently pushed her way into the working distillery and now is finishing her certificate work. They have also engaged and trained a dozen or so young Irish men and women to spend time in major American Irish whiskey markets, replacing John Cashman, long time brand ambassador for the Cooley whiskies who now will oversee other Beam whiskies as well.
Beam clearly intends to push Kilbeggan forward not only as the logical alternative to Jameson in the blended Irish whiskey sweepstakes but also to keep their single malts Tyrconnell and Connemora (single but also peated whiskey) on the radar as well as Greenore, a pure grain spirit that shows light, crisp and fresh, fine not only as an introductory Irish as well as a curiosity for those looking to understand the category a little better.
Key to understanding what’s going on in Ireland as companies like William Grant, now owner of Tullamore Dew, and the Teeling family, once owners of Cooley but now selling their own brand, Teeling’s, plan their own distilleries, is the elimination of the myths that have helped keep Irish whiskey in its quaint corner of the business. Most important, that Irish whiskey is always triple distilled and never peated. According to Cashman, these myths developed as the business was imploding in the 20th century, and the brands and distillers left standing stuck to house styles that happened to include triple distillation. They similarly had better access to coal and other non-peat sources of heat.
But just as the Irish whiskey business is on fire, with Russia thirsty for new brands and the US boom continuing, slowly consumers here are embracing new variants of Irish. The Dublin bar business is evolving as well, with cocktail bars opening and some older bars taking on a few at a time. Among the places a real quality cocktail can be had: Koh, a Thai restaurant where bartender Josko Babic crafts top level drinks including Old-Fashioneds with orange peel-infused Kilbeggan. Over at the speakeasy-ish, multi-level Victorian era Vintage Cocktail Club, award-winning bartender Pat Thomas, serves subtle punches flecked with black pepper, vintage cocktails like the Hanky Panky.
Still, cocktails in Dublin seem only a moment’s interlude, what with pubs like the Palace and Kehoe’s calling out for visitation. The Palace is dedicated to Flann O’Brien, newspaper writer, civil servant and modernist novelist, and painted on its front window a few of his less challenging lines:
“When money's tight and is hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt
A pint of plain is you only man.”
And while most Dublin publicans at day’s end seem to think of a cocktail as a silly diversion, there are those who try; while the results are as mixed, a barreled version of David Wondrich’s Weeski Cocktail (Irish whiskey, Lilet Blanc, Cointreau, orange bitters) appeared on the menu one warm night at the old pub Bowe’s, along with three other barreled drinks. If even that questionable practice has made it to such a fine old pub, then the cocktail revolution is starting to reach even places it doesn’t belong. Still, the bar was mostly littered with dark pints and pale glasses of Irish, a sign that at home as well as abroad, the Irish way of drinking is holding on to old friends while it develops many, many new ones.