Whiskey tourism is one of the fastest-growing segments of the modern Irish tourist industry, and Dublin has no shortage of whiskey experiences for the curious and experienced alike.
Irish whiskey has been around for centuries, since monks first began to practice distillation techniques—learned by observing Middle-East perfumers distilling flower and fruit essences—on beer. Before long, demand for uisce beatha, or “water of life,” grew around Ireland and Europe. For a few centuries, Ireland had the market cornered until distillers in Scotland and England began applying advancing technology and blending to produce their product more quickly and cheaply.
For most of the twentieth century, Irish whiskey was in the doldrums, hurt by waning international interest and American prohibition, but things have been picking up in the last few decades. Enthusiasm, and shipping orders, are up worldwide, and the big international exporters like Jameson and Bushmills are cranking out more than ever before. Even more exciting, small brands, once closed or sold to the big boys, are buying back their labels and re-opening their small distilleries in towns and villages around the country. In the next few years, Ireland may have as many as twenty working distilleries making the good stuff and opening their doors for whiskey enthusiasts.
In Dublin, the three big choices for whiskey tourism are the Teeling Whiskey Distillery, Old Jameson Distillery, and the Irish Whiskey Museum. Each of these three has something different to offer. Jameson is the industry standard; the beginner-friendly tour of what used to be a massive distilling complex, now closed and moved out of town. At Jameson, whiskey newbies get a look and an explanation of the whiskey process with replicas of the grain room, the mills (with the chance to touch one of their old working millstones for luck), and the rest of the equipment used to produce their large volume. The end tasting pits Jameson against two contrasting styles—usually Scotch and Bourbon—to highlight the smooth, light character of an Irish whiskey. When I visited, I noticed many of my fellow tasters couldn’t finish their smoky Scotch and corny Bourbon after trying the smooth Jameson Irish blend.
Teeling is a newly-reopened distillery in Dublin’s Liberties neighborhood—formerly home to many small brewers and distillers. Most of the alcohol production in the Liberties halted after a massive whiskey fire in 1875. High-test whiskey aging in barrels can be highly flammable, and the nearby streets ran with rivers of fire as more and more barrels burst in their storehouses. A number of neighborhood residents died, not from fire, but from disease after scooping up and drinking the free whiskey running through the sewage-filled Victorian streets.
Teeling offers visitors a look at a modern, high-tech whiskey facility—a perfect contrast to the pastoral museum that is Jameson. The malting, mashing, fermenting, and distilling process is again explained in a beginner-friendly way, with visitors getting a chance to smell and taste the product at each stage of production. The only replica at Teeling is the barrel room, as whiskey is now aged in special warehouses outside of town for safety reasons that should be obvious. The standard Teeling tasting lets visitors sample three different Teeling products to discern their different characters. This much more subtle tasting comparison is still approachable for beginners, but won’t be as face-punchingly obvious as that in Jameson. The different tasting options at different price points is also very appealing to those who might not be ready for 60 mL of whiskey neat.
The Irish Whiskey Museum, another new attraction, isn’t so much a look-at-exhibits-yourself museum as it is a guided, narrated tour through a sequence of audio/visual exhibits. More emphasis is put on the history of Irish whiskey in general: its monastic origins; its outlaw past; its surge, decline, and recent revival. The tour finishes, predictably, with a guided sampling of different Irish whiskies, depending on the tour package purchased. The price of the IWM tour is competitive with the other attractions in Dublin, and its handy location in College Green makes it popular for day-trippers.
Beyond Dublin, the largest and most popular whiskey destinations are Bushmills in Northern Ireland and the large, multi-label complex in Midleton, Co. Cork. These large distilleries stayed in business during the twentieth-century decline, and are surging again thanks to renewed interest. Midleton now produces Jameson, Paddy, and several other big and small labels, and the Jameson experience there is more expansive than that in the Old Distillery in Dublin. If you are traveling on a longer Irish itinerary, a visit to these large operations is worthwhile.