If Oliver Hughes has a crystal ball, he isn’t telling — and as a former criminal barrister, his poker face is probably more resilient than most — but the evidence suggests that he might.
Exhibit A: Back in 1996, before microbreweries were becoming such an industry that they were getting tax breaks in the budget, Oliver and his cousin Liam LaHart decided to set up the Porterhouse. Oliver had seen the success of microbreweries in the UK and decided the stagnant beer market here could do with some revitalising.
Many thought he was mad — the notion that a pub could survive without serving big-brand beers on draught was completely alien. Some publicans began betting among themselves on how long it would last— six months, maybe a year. But last he did –— in fact, the Porterhouse thrived, and expanded.
Exhibit B: Oliver had another idea — open a distillery. The current liquid gold rush in Ireland has seen big hitters investing here in the past 12 months, with up to 25 distilleries in various stages of development. But Oliver’s vision of an independent Irish distillery came long before the current boom. In fact, it was more than a decade ago that he first envisioned it — and as for the reasoning behind his startling act of foresight? “Well distilling is actually a lot easier than brewing, so it just made sense.”
‘Easy’ it may be, but he still brought in some expert help. John McDougall is one of the few people alive who has worked across all the whisky regions of Scotland and across multiple styles, and he helped design and set up the distillery. And as for its location, in beautiful Dingle, Oliver’s explanation is just as deceptively straightforward: “I came to Dingle with my then-girlfriend-now-wife 30 years ago and fell in love with the place, so it was perfect.”
But it isn’t just the romance of Dingle that makes a difference. The distillery sits next to the estuary of Dingle harbour, warmed by the briney, balmy airs of the Gulf Stream and the temperate microclimate it creates in west Kerry. Whiskey ages faster in the warmth here and the barrels will absorb sea air, brushed by the occasional cool breeze drifting down from the mountains. Whiskey from Dingle will never be the same as whiskey from Dublin, or Belfast, or any of the other traditional centres of distilling in Ireland. At least that’s what you would expect, as their spirit has not yet reached the three-year minimum spent in a cask, a period which imparts almost 80% of the flavour.
All this detail may seem confusing to the average consumer, but Oliver’s distillery is hoping to educate the public on the who, what, why, and when of Irish whiskey. The Dingle Distillery Whiskey Academy is two days of hands-on training in this most ancient — and Irish — of arts. What marks this academy out is the fact that it is entirely conducted within the distillery itself: As you are learning the theory, you are also seeing it happen in front of you. As you absorb the lore of distilling you are inhaling the evaporated spirit (known as the angel’s share), with lessons occasionally interrupted by the sound of clanking pipes.
The tutor for the academy is Michael Walsh, who at just 25 must be one of the youngest in the world to assume the role of master distiller. Most of the distillery staff are young men who would have emigrated if it hadn’t been for Oliver’s vision, a fact that distillery manager Mary Ferriter is quick to point out. Mary was our host for the two days of the academy — serving Dingle Gin and tonics during lunch on the lawn, next to the old waterwheel that powered the sawmill which once occupied the building.
Mary is as warm and enthusiastic as you would expect from someone who once ran a year-round Christmas shop named Dingle Elf. Like all the distillery staff, Mary is a multi-tasker — she also delivers the award-winning Dingle Gin and Dingle Vodka to outlets along the peninsula, like a legitimate Duke Of Hazard. On one run to Castlegregory we travelled over the Conor Pass, far above valleys littered with remnants of Famine villages, places so isolated they are almost cut off from the rest of the world. Even in this day and age, access to broadband is a problem down here. But the community understands the importance of banding together. They are all behind the distillery, and proud to support it.
Within Dingle itself there is a growing whiskey scene. Dick Mack’s recently won Munster Whiskey Pub of the Year and then went on to win the national title. Manager Finn MacDonnell is the latest Mac to run the pub, founded by his family more than a century ago. It boasts an incredible array of Irish and international whiskeys, including a bottle of 1973 Midleton, a measure of which costs €200. Many recession-scorched Irish people may balk at that price, but while I was there, one American tourist paid the asking price and more in dollars for a single dram. Finn’s selection of whiskeys was co-ordinated with help from Peter White, a Dublin firefighter by day and whiskey guru by night. Peter, president of the Irish Whiskey Society, frequents Dingle a lot, as his mother hailed from the village, and is just one of the whiskeyvangelists promoting our national drink out of sheer love.
Another enthusiast is John Moriarty of The Park Hotel Kenmare and Dublin Bar Academy, who is also one of the tutors at Dingle Distillery. John and Michael work like a tag team, talking us through the history of distilling — from Irish monks adapting Mooirsh alchemists’ equipment; to the revolution of the column still; the rise of blends; the decline of Irish whiskey in the late 1800s/early 1900s, and on to the present day, which is seeing Irish whiskey become the fastest growing spirit in the world. They also talked us through the lexicon: Single malt, pure pot still, wort, mashtun, draff, feints, low wines, cuts, non-age statements — and on to the different types of cask used.
We also got to fill a cask each, but not to take home, sadly. Putting a hose in a barrel and pulling a lever might seem like a straightforward task, but this writer still managed to spray the exterior of the barrel, himself, and the master distiller in one fell swoop. As the last module of my two-day experience at the academy, I think I still graduated.
As for the Dingle whiskey, we will just have to wait — it reaches legal age at the end of this year, with a release expected early next year. But you don’t need a crystal ball to know that as the first independent Irish whiskey in a long time, this is going to be one special release.
The Dingle Distillery Whiskey Academy runs on August 12 & 13; October 27 & 28; November 18 & 19; December 16 & 17. The two days cost €450, while the distillery tour is €10 per person. For more info, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 086 7775551 or 86 299944