Whiskey

Bushmills, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In June, 2019, we made our second trip (and certainly not our last) to Ireland. “The Emerald Isle,” as it is oft called, certainly lives up to its reputation. Everywhere outside the city, you are treated to beautiful, bucolic views of land, rock, water, and old buildings. And green. Lots of green.

Before our visit in 2014, I though eating and drinking in Ireland would perhaps be the low point of our trip. I had heard and read things that led me to believe that cuisine was not something you visited Ireland for. I expected beer, potatoes, and maybe stew, would be plentiful. Times have changed. The food is really good and there is plenty of variety.

It is hard not to identify Ireland with beer – expecially Guinness. I have not been a Guinness (indeed any porter, stout, or even IPA) fan. But I have to say that – out of the tap – in an Irish pub, the Guinness drinks very smoothly. I also have developed a limited taste for Murphy’s (Northern Ireland) and Smythwick’s. But only in Ireland.

It is hard not to identify Ireland with beer – especially Guinness

What I hadn’t considered, was the prevalence of Irish Whiskey. Sure, I had heard of Jameson’s and Bushmill’s. But I have always been a bourbon fan, and other whiskeys (including Irish and Canadian) seemed thin, and relatively tasteless to me. And Scotch was just too peaty. All of the above, of course, stems largely from the voice of ignorance. In 2014, we toured the Kilbeggan Distillery in Westmeath, Ireland. We did do some tasting, and while the tour was fascinating, I thought the Irish whiskey was again, “just o.k.” But “when in Rome ….,” right? So in various pubs, I sampled Paddy’s, Powers, Greenspot, and Redbreast. They are fun to “taste,” but I am still not “there” with a regular diet. Give me my bourbon.

Kilbeggan Distillery
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

In 2019, we arrived in a very different Ireland as far as spirits are concerned. Whiskey, of course, in the past 10 years, has enjoyed a huge re-birth of popularity, particularly among the younger folks. Tasting, and craft whiskeys have become all the rage, not just in the U.S., but throughout the world, as has “mixology,” and specialty cocktails. Ireland was no exception and we found more variety and abundance of – of all things – gin (my personal favorite and “go-to”), than anywhere else during our visit to Europe (which this time, included, England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands). To my disappointment, many really “yummy” (a technical term, of course) gins we tried are simply not available in the U.S.

The word whiskey comes from the Gaelic uisge (or uisge beatha meaning “water of life”)

I had always thought “whiskey” (or “whisky” as it is known in Scotland) had its “real” roots in Scotland. The Irish would disagree. Indeed, there was a form of alcohol distilling being done in ancient civilization, but it probably really did develop in Ireland and Scotland, right around the same time period. And it may have developed as much from necessity as any other reason. Like wine, it was in some cases, the only safe way to consume water (of course, we probably use that as an excuse, since if it can be distilled – a heating process – it probably could be boiled, also). Apparently, wine was not to be found in abundance in the early years in Ireland and Scotland, and whiskey took its place. Distilling techniques were brought to Ireland and Scotland sometime between 1100 and 1300 by monks, and was generally limited to apothecaries and monasteries until the late 15th century. Prior to that time, the process of distilling was used in ancient civilization not for consumption, but for perfumes and aromatics.

Pearse Lyons Irish Whiskey
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The word “whiskey” comes from the Gaelic uisge (or uisge beatha meaning “water of life”). also known as aqua vitae in Latin. Whiskey was originally used as a medicine for both internal anesthetic use and as an external antibiotic. The early distillation process yielded whisky wholly unlike what we have today. It was not allowed to age (essentially, by definition, “vodka”). We all have heard of “moonshine.” Contrary to some folks’ “everything important happened first in America” mentality, the term probably did not originate in our own deep south. In 1725, The English imposed the “Malt Tax of 1725,” the economic result of which was to shut down most of Scotland’s distillation. Scottish distillers, distilling whisky at night when the darkness hid the smoke from the stills, in their home made stills, were responsible for “moonshine.”

“Beer” prior to distilling
Pearse Lyons Distillery
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

During our trip in 2019, we visited, and tasted, in two Irish distilleries: Bushmills in Northern Ireland, and Pearse Lyons, in Dublin. In addition to tasting some very interesting – and fine whiskeys, we learned a bit about the process of whiskey-making. All distilled spirits start with a “beer,” made from some type of plant-based material. Whiskey is generally based on corn, wheat, barley or rye, or some blend. These grains may be “malted,” or not (malting is a kind of “pre-soak” process that allows the grain to sprout, releasing enzymes which aid in the sugar-production phase of the product).

Kilbeggan Distillery
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The second (and important, because it distinguishes the beverage from wine and beer) is the distilling process. This is done with a still. The stills for making whiskey are usually made of copper, which removes sulfur-based compounds from the alcohol that would make it unpleasant to drink. This process can be complex. For example, most Irish whiskey is distilled 3 before the aging process (in contrast, most Scotch whisky is distilled 2 times). Pearse Lyons is a very small operation. The distillery is housed in an old church. The interior was pristine – and beautiful (as can be seen by the stained-glass window behind the still).

Copper Pot Stills
Pearse Lyons Distillery
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Aging, though, is what makes whiskey “whiskey.” Vodka is distilled until clear and reaches an alcoholic content of 95% by volume (generally diluted before bottling). It may also be charcoal filtered to remove color. Gin is basically vodka, which undergoes the addition step of infusion of “botanicals” (primarily juniper berries and often citrus or flowers of various plants) to impose its unique flavor. But whiskey is “whiskey,” primarily because it is aged.

Aging, is what makes whiskey “whiskey

In Ireland, whiskey must be aged not less than 3 years (usually it is more like 5 – 7 years). Most often it is aged in charred oak casks. However, in recent times, distillers have begun to experiment with casks previously used to age bourbon, or wines (often imported from the U.S.). This – in my mind – is where the proverbial “rubber meets the road.” I thought again, for the most part, that the “straight” Irish whiskeys were about the same as my observations back in 2014. But some of them aged in previously used casks picked up the syrupy, sweetness I appreciate so much in a good bourbon. I could drink some of them on a regular basis.

Bushmills Distillery
Bushmills, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We visited the Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland. Bushmills has the distinction of  being the oldest licensed (1608) whiskey distillery in the world. Bushmills, is named for a town located on the Bush River, in Northern Ireland. A couple weeks back, there was a photo with me on Facebook standing next to a $100 bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey at the distillery. It was very popular among my Facebook friends.

Unlike wines, whiskey does not mature in the bottle

Interestingly, though, the age of the bottle has nothing to do with the taste/quality of the whisky. Unlike wine, whiskey does not mature in the bottle. The “age” of a whiskey is determined only while it resided in the cask (though it still might have a value due to its rarity – I know they wouldn’t let me touch it J ).

100 – year-old Bushmills Bottle
Old Bushmills Distillery
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We also learned that single malt whisky is whisky from a single distillery made from a mash that uses only one particular malted grain. It may contain blends of whisky from many casks, and even from different different years. Blended malt whisky is a mixture of single malt whiskies from different distilleries.

Cask strength (also known as barrel proof) whiskies are rare, and usually only the very best whiskies are bottled in this way. They are bottled from the cask undiluted or only lightly diluted. Single cask (also known as single barrel) whiskies are bottled from an individual cask, and often the bottles are labelled with specific barrel and bottle numbers. The taste of these whiskies may vary substantially from cask to cask within a brand. Finally, that distinctive, smoky taste of Scotch whiskey comes from the way they roast the barley, using peat.

Ha’Penny Rhubarb Gin
Pearse Lyons Distillery
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Whiskey and demand, has begotten another “rage” in Europe now: Gin. Not only did we find whiskey distilleries throughout Ireland, but we found that many of them have begun distilling gin. And in other parts of Europe we were in, Gin was a huge part of the scene.

Traipsing around Dublin, one of the gins I really liked was called Ha’Penny Gin (taken from the pictured historic Ha’Penny pedestrian Bridge over the River Liffey). To my delight, we learned during our visit to the Pearse Lyons distillery, that this was their product. I tasted their Rhubarb infused pink gin and fell in love. Alas, it does not appear to be available in the U.S. If anyone finds it, I would love to have some in my bar.

Northern Ireland; Belfast, Bushmills and the Northern Ireland Seacoast

Coast of Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

During our “Brian Boru pilgrimage” in 2014, we only made our way up to Northern Ireland briefly, to see the church where the high king was buried following his death at Clontarf. So, we looked forward to seeing this reputedly beautiful part of the island. It did not disappoint. And, though I already put in a good review for him on Tripadvisor, I want to put in a plug for our guide and driver, Mark and the Black Taxi Tours. In the space of a fairly long day, Mark got us to some of the highlights of Northern Ireland, with a fairly in-depth history lesson about the conflict over the past years. I highly recommend this tour, company and Mark!

Game of Thrones Studio
Belfast Port; Belfast, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Belfast became a substantial settlement in the 17th century after being established as a town by British administrator, Sir Arthur Chichester. It was initially settled by Protestant English and Scottish migrants. By the early 19th century, Belfast was a major port, paying a major part in the “Industrial Revolution.” Granted city “status” in 1888, Belfast was at one time, the biggest linen-producer in the world, as well as a major ship yard and rope-making center. The Harland and Wolff shipyard, which built the RMS Titanic, was the world’s biggest shipyard. This all made Belfast Ireland’s biggest city for a brief time. Belfast was heavily bombarded during WWII. This growth and prosperity was not, however, without strife. Throughout Ireland’s history, there has been significant discord, much of it over the issues of home rule, and independence. In 1886 Belfast was rocked by rioting over the issue of home rule, which had divided much of Ireland and particularly, Belfast. The problems would continue through to present day.

Game of Thrones Set
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

While Belfast’s run as a global industrial power ended after WWI, in 1945, it remains a major port today, with commercial and industrial docks, including the Harland and Wolff shipyard, dominating the Belfast shoreline. In 1920–22, Belfast became the capital of the new entity of Northern Ireland as the island of Ireland was partitioned, as a result of the Irish War of Independence in which the Republic of Ireland gained its freedom from Britain. Northern Ireland remained a constituent country of the United Kingdom, along with Great Britain, Scottland and Wales.

Game of Thrones Set
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The next 30 years were filled with – often violent – conflict (perhaps euphemistically referred to in Ireland as “The Troubles.” Any attempt here to explain this conflict would be feeble. I commend you to do some research and reading on your own if you are not already familiar with this period of Northern Ireland’s history. We heard a fair amount about it, and it really puts some of what we saw and heard into context.

Dry Dock
RMS Titanic
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We started our tour with a brief drive through the Harland and Wolff Shipyard, and in particular, a visit to the dry dock where the RMS Titanic was build and originally floated. That part of the port has also become currently famous as the set for some of the scenes in the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

Dry Dock Pump Station
RMS Titanic
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Because Belfast was one of our shortest stops, and because of the nature or our tour, which focused on the Northern Coastline, we spent very little time in Belfast City. This was unfortunate, and I hope to return there one day and get a better feel for the city. Mark showed us a small area which he compared with Dublin’s Temple Bar area. It was early in the morning and nothing was moving, but it looks like a place to visit during the evening hours.

Belfast, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

During “The Troubles,” at some point, the British were called upon to intervene and British Troops were brought in. Each of the two factions lived in separate parts of the city. Among other things, walls were constructed to separate them and a curfew was imposed. There are doors and gates in the walls which were locked at night. They are still closed at night to this very day. Although the violence has pretty much subsided, it is still discomfiting to drive along those walls.

Signing the Wall
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Our first stop out of town was an area of very old and majestic Beech Trees lining a short road between two farm fields. Known as “The Dark Hedges,” it is said to be the most photographed scene in Northern Ireland. I added to the tally 🙂 . This scene is apparently attractive enough that the Game of Throne producers filmed a scene (The Kings Road; Season 2, Episode 1) there, perhaps adding to its already popular cache’.

The Dark Hedges
Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019
The Dark Hedges
Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We then headed up to another famous and popular scene at the northern tip of the island of Ireland; “The Giant’s Causeway.”

Mill/shop on the Bush River
Bushmills, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The Dark Hedges were en route to our next destination, Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway. I may need to clarify a bit here. “Bushmills,” contrary to some peoples’ first thought, is not Irish Whiskey (well, not entirely anyway 🙂 ). Situated on the Bush River, Bushmills is one of the prettiest little country villages I have ever seen. We stopped near the bridge into town, over the Bush River, to shoot this pretty little mill (today, I believe it is a gift shop/restaurant). Of course, we would be back later in the day, to visit the Bushmills Distillery.

The Giant’s Causeway
Northern Ireland Coast
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

My image of the Giant’s Causeway is not the typical shot seen on a Google Search. There were hundreds of people climbing around on the rocks, and I just didn’t get anything I liked up close. This shot is more distant, as you begin the walk down to the causeway. This has become a major tourist attraction and park, complete with museum, gift shop, and pay-trolleys. For all the hype, Mark promised us more spectacular views than the causeway, and I agree with him 100%. I think you will, too.

We had an “appointment” with the good folks at the Bushmills Distillery, so we headed back there to do a little tasting. I am pretty sure I had never had even a sip of Bushmills prior to this day.

Bushmills Distillery
Bushmills, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The history and science of making “whiskey” (“whisky” in Scotland), is fascinating. Enough so, that I will devote a post specifically to our tasting experiences (coming soon). For now, suffice it to say that although I found the “standard” Irish whiskey a bit difficult to drink, all of the distilleries have begun to make more “craft” style whiskey – generally meaning it is aged in prior-used barrels (bourbon, sherry, cognac, etc.,) and that imbues the drink with more (subjectively “better”) flavors and generally a sweetness and more full body, which I enjoyed.

Northern Ireland Coastline
seen from Dunluce Castle
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

 

On the way to our tasting, we followed the northeastern coast along the Atlantic and the Irish Sea, back to Belfast. In 2014, we visited the famed “Cliffs of Mohr” and I made many photos of that dramatic seacoast. I don’t think I believed Ireland could have anything more impressive to offer. I may have been wrong. The opening image here, just south of Royal Portrush golf course – where “The” (British) Open is being played as I write, is a scenic view that is a dramatic and beautiful as I have seen anywhere in the world. Slightly further south, Dunluce Castle stands as a medieval monument to early settlement of the region. It can be seen from the golf course and has been shown numerous times during the telecast. It is mostly ruins, but is one of the most dramatic castles we have seen – largely because of its setting.

Dunluce Castle
Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019
Dunluce Castle
Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019
Dunluce Castle
Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Meandering further down the coastline, we stopped at a vantage point where we could see and photograph the famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, now owned by the Irish National Trust. Our guide indicated that not only was there a fee to cross it, but generally a fairly long wait. We were content to photograph it from afar.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

All in, this was perhaps one of the best excursion days we have had in all the years of cruising, with a nice mix of sightseeing, whiskey tasting, and some Northern Ireland history. I hope to be back there one day soon.

 

 

Cruising “The British Isles” – 2019

Eiffel Tower
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Our recent Celebrity Cruise was entitled “The British Isles.” So why did I lead with the Eiffel Tower? The cruise “title” is mostly accurate. One would generally think of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and perhaps a couple smaller islands as the British Isles. Our cruise included ports of call in LaHavre, France, Bruges, Belgium, and Amsterdam, Netherlands. But who is complaining? 🙂 . As I often do, I made several hundred images over a 2 1/2 week period. In coming weeks, I will give a more detailed accounting of each of the many new places we visited. Today, I wanted to give just an overview of what a huge territory, and vast subjects we covered.

Dublin Port
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I have mentioned a few times here, that my wife and I like to cruise. When we can find like minded companions, that just makes it all the more fun. There were 4 of us this time, and I am pretty sure I can vouch that we all enjoyed our time in Europe. When we go to a new destination, we like to arrive in the departing port city a few days ahead, to explore, enjoy, and get to know the city. Though my wife and I had been to Dublin before, we found many new things to see and do during  our 4 days there.

Bushmills, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

When we were in Ireland back in 2014, we made a very brief trip into Northern Ireland, to see the Church where King Brian Boru was buried. This time we had a full (very full) day from our port of call in Belfast. Our driver and guide, Mark, was as good as we have ever had, and he had some surprises in store for us. As an “outdoor” photographer, I love a pretty scenic image. Northern Ireland did not disappoint. Indeed, as I have been processing images, it is “sneaking up on me,” that Northern Ireland may have been my favorite stop of this trip. I would definitely return and explore further, if given the opportunity.

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The following day, we arrived in Liverpool, England, across the Irish Sea. We were scheduled for a Beatles Tour (what else would one do in Liverpool? – well; stay tuned, it turns out: a lot). For my Michigan friends, my quick research lead me to (wrongfully) conclude that Liverpool would be like Flint (maybe we need to organize a Grand Funk Railroad tour in Flint?) :-). Look for my upcoming post on Liverpool. It was eye-opening for me.

Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Next, we were back across the Irish Sea, and in the south of Ireland, at the tiny, but beautiful little port of Cobh. Cobh possibly rivals Northern Ireland in my view, for photographic potential. I made some nice images there, though at least one of them was one of those (perhaps hackneyed) “must do” shots that has already been done thousands of times. Known locally as “The Deck of Cards,” maybe I was able to make a unique “take” on the famous row of houses with the cathedral in the background. I will let you be the judge: again, in the weeks ahead. We overnighted in Cobh, and spent a day there, and a day touring Blarney Castle (site of the famed, “Blarney Stone”), and Cork City.

St. Pancras Train Station
London, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

By then, we had spent most of 8 days on our feet. Blessedly, the following day was an “at sea” day. It allowed for some much needed “R&R.” After our day of rest, we arrived in the British port of Dover. For reasons I will expound on when I get to Dover and London, a few weeks out, I might have planned this stop a little differently. But we took the train to London and had a day-long “Black Taxi” tour of London.

Champs – E’lysees
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Our next port of call was LeHavre, France. We again overnighted there (this was unprecedented for my wife and me – two full overnight stops). We took advantage of an early arrival and a late departure 2 days later, and again rode the train to Paris, where we stayed overnight. A huge city, we spent 2 very full days there. That barely scratches the surface, but we saw a lot during our time there and I thought it was not only very worthwhile, but one of the highlights of the cruise. I will note in upcoming blogs, that both London and Paris really need multiple-day visits to do them justice. Unless a cruise ends or originates there, it probably they don’t really lend themselves to cruising.

Bruges, Belgium
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Again, not really the “British Isles,” we ended our cruise with stops in Bruges, and Amsterdam. Known for its beer and chocolate, I sampled a little of both in Bruges. It is an impressive, historical, and very small city, which was well worth the visit. In Amsterdam, we rode the canals, did the obligatory walk through the “red light” and “cannabis” districts, and generally saw some impressive sites. Amsterdam is, again, a massive city. We only got a little taste of the more touristic (as they say in Europe) parts of the city.

Amsterdam, Netherlands
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In the end, we were exhausted, but the trip served up many new places, and added to our list of places to explore in more detail in the years to come. The only “gear” I carried was the Sony small camera (RX100iv) and my small tripod (which did not see any use). On cruises, it is rare to be on location in early morning, late afternoon, or at night. The only possible “night” shot might have been the Eiffel Tower, but the timing and place were just wrong. If I were to make a longer stay, land based trip, I might rethink the gear. I love the lightness and portability of the small camera. But I find myself missing the versatility of the DSLR on some occasions. The coming weeks will cover each of the above – with images – in more detail.