Following on from his round-up of whiskey tasting events close to home, Oisin Davis ventures further afield and discovers whisky clubs around the world.
A couple of weeks ago, I found myself working abroad and dining alone like a classic booze travelling 'Billy No Mates'. My waiter seemingly took some pity on me and started chatting, but could not pinpoint my accent. When I told him I was from Ireland, he sheepishly admitted that he had no idea where that was. I then said, "Well, do you know the band U2?" "Nope", came the reply. I gazed round the bar behind him to see if there were anything there that might trigger his awareness of the Emerald Isle, when I clocked a green bottle of whiskey. "Jameson!", says I pointing to the top shelf. "Ah okay, you're Irish! Now I understand your accent!" He then proceeded to tell me all about the differences between our whiskey and the brands he tasted that were distilled by our Scottish cousins. These nuggets of spirits knowledge were shared with him at a college whiskey club he attended when studying in Moscow. I was both amused and impressed, amused that his only point of reference for our glorious nation was Jameson and impressed that he knew his Scottish peated malts from his Irish single pot stills. It also gave me the idea to write about these sacred institutions where drams of golden goodness are poured, whiskey wisdom is brought forth and tonnes of turbo-craic is had.
In my last FOOD AND WINE column, I featured this very topic in a piece that covered Irish whiskey clubs and events that are happening in Ireland. This time round, I'm doing the same but looking further afield to see what whiskey clubs over in foreign lands delve into our native spirit.
Stories and Sips, Ohio, USA
Proud Irishman and Cork native, Barry Chandler has been residing in Ohio for quite a few years now, where alas, he has encountered a lack of Irish whiskey knowledge even though there is no shortage of Irish bars in that state. Not shy of words or hard work, he decided to confront this issue head-on and in 2016, established Stories & Sips, an online and experiential platform to conduct Irish whiskey education. It's a simple but effective premise, as the man himself explains,
"Through an online video series (the stories) and in-person Irish whiskey experiences (the sips) I bring people closer to the real stories of the people, the processes, the places behind Irish whiskey. It’s all about making that emotional connection."
He now has 29 videos on the site that cover releases from the big whiskey brands to the history of some of the lesser-known distilleries. And when it comes to the tastings, he operates a totally à la carte system that seems to be rather effective on category growth:
"Tastings are a mixture of private events for companies, fundraisers, associations or at Irish festivals. Ohio experienced the biggest growth in sales in the US (by percentage) for Irish whiskey in 2018, I’d like to think I contributed!
As a result of the tastings, more than 24 people have booked trips to Ireland and I’ve personally taken 11. A girl born beside a distillery in Kentucky swore she'd never go back to bourbon after sampling Jameson Caskmates Stout edition and hearing the story of its origin!"
This is all very cool to hear about. A totally independent, but deeply passionate ambassador for Ireland and its spirits. Not only has Stories and Sips brought Barry financial success, but it has enriched other areas of his life too,
"Oh, and maybe most importantly of all…I met my wife at my second ever whiskey tasting. She’s a huge fan too!"
Oscar Wilde's, Irish Pub & Cafe, Humboldtstraße 2-4 79098 Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
When you're an Achill Islander living in Freiburg and have been running the city's busiest Irish bar for close to two decades, what do you do next? Well, you'd have to open up another boozer, sure what else would you do for Jaysus' sake?
That's precisely what Sarah Lambe did. After 19 years of successful trade with O'Kelly's she established Oscar Wilde's Irish Pub & Cafe and both bars are now, thankfully, thriving. Taking pride of place in Oscar Wilde's, is the Irish whiskey collection, with over 90 bottles currently in situ. Over the years, Sarah recognised that some education was needed to help her customers better understand the category. She enlisted the help of local spirits writer and consultant Daniela Brack. She set up their Irish whiskey tastings and filled me in:
“We have three regular tasting offers now that take place every 2 -3 months: ‘Intro/Welcome to Irish Whiskey’, ‘Advanced Irish Whiskey’ and ‘Irish Single Pot Still Whiskeys’. At the ‘Intro’ offer we set rather well-known standards like Bushmills, Jameson, Redbreast or Connemara, because this tasting is more about telling the history of Irish whiskey, up to the exciting developments today. This goes to indicate the difference between Scottish whisky, to explain the peculiarities of the whiskey types and explain the distillation process. The "Advanced Irish Whiskey' class explores the lesser-known brands like something unusual from the West Cork Distillers and something from the ‘laboratory’ of Method and Madness."
Perhaps most interesting of all though, is how she's been able to introduce Germans to something that is uniquely Irish and geographically protected. "The ‘Irish Single Pot Still Whiskeys’ is of course about THE unique Irish whiskey - from the historical roots to the special issues of the production, up to the new offers of today. Many people don't even know that the Irish have their own kind of whiskey! My list always includes Redbreast 12Y, Green Spot, Powers John's Lane Release, Powers Signature Release and the single Pot Still from Teeling."
Such has been the popularity of these events both in O'Kelly's and Oscar Wilde's, that it gave Daniela the confidence to go even further, "Back in 2016, one guest asked me why there wasn't a current and German-speaking book about Irish Whiskey. That didn't exist back then - so I wrote one! And it is to this day the only German-language monograph on Irish whiskey."
Her book, "Irish Whiskey: Phönix von der grünen Insel" is available now.
Tir na nÓg, Frederiksgade 40, 8000 Aarhus, Denmark
Even if you've only got a rudimentary knowledge of Irish mythology, you'll know that the character Oisín has a certain connection to the mysterious land ofTir na nÓg. So when the call came in for me to do some Denmark based whiskey work in a bar called, wait for it....,Tir na nÓg, how could I (Oisin) say no? That's how I ended up in the city of Aarhus a couple of years ago and met the bar's owner Andreas Ruigrok.
Carved up into three separate spaces, it collectively offers up a very thorough Irish pub experience. First, you've got The Tap Room, an old school hang out where pints and sports flow freely. Then there's The Merchant Room, which is more modern and salubrious with classic cocktails. And, my personal favourite, The Whiskey Room which you enter with a swipe key in a very James Bond-esque manner with a sliding door. Here you'll find a multitude of whiskeys half of which are Irish and get rocked out regularly for whiskey club events as Andreas explains:
"Now that we have over 200 Irish whiskies to buy by the dram, as well as a large selection of international brands, we had to come up with ways to celebrate them. We have a whiskey club that holds 45 members who either come from companies or individually. They have their own private cabinet with name tag, own key and private bottles stored in the bar. As members, they are invited to free or discounted tastings and tours. I have also tried to convert them into Irish whiskey drinkers and have made all 45 members “ambassadors” who will bring friends, colleagues and employees in and pour a dram from their cabinet."
This all works especially well; Andreas' very busy bar is now also globally awarded as a leading whiskey destination. As The Taproom fills with people drinking beers and whiskey flights, The Merchant Room could be packed with a tasting and The Whiskey Room gets heavily booked for private parties. Uisce beatha rules inTir na nÓg.
When I asked him what one of his whiskey highlights was, he knew exactly what to say to make me smile,
"Well, we've been very lucky to have many very good ambassadors here and they have all inspired me and my customers and staff. But when you were here hosting a quiz, that was pretty cool because it was a draw between me and one of Denmark's leading whiskey writers Carsten Hering Nielsen, so we had to arm wrestle for the win!"
Totally forgot how much craic that was! I reckon Oisin needs to go back to Tir na nÓg.
Author: Oisin Davis
Oisin Davis works on a global level as an Irish drinks evangelist and producer. He is the founder of nationwide drinks festivals that celebrate Irish spirits in the best bars and restaurant in the 32 counties and to top it off he is co-owner of Poacher's Premium Beverages, Ireland's only all-natural mixer company. F&W is delighted that Oisin has joined our contributing team with his column "Great Irish Drinks."