A visit to Ireland means many things – glorious scenery, historic attractions, friendly people, and great food and drink. Mention to friends that you are heading to Ireland and they will tell you not to miss the beer or the whiskey.
Of course, you can sample these drinks at any pub along your route, but you can also learn a lot about these beverages by going to the distilleries and breweries – and tasting the drinks at their source. Learn how the drink started, what ingredients are used, and how it is made.
After arriving in Dublin, the first place that most people head for is the Guinness Storehouse at the St. James Gate Brewery, a visitor center dedicated to telling the tale of the Guinness Stout, a drink that is synonymous with Ireland. First made by Arthur Guinness in 1759, today this dark brew is enjoyed in over 150 countries around the world.
Sitting on the south bank of the River Liffey, this Guinness enterprise claims to be the #1 tourist attraction of Dublin – and it certainly seems to be, judging by the crowds who line up to admission each day. Step inside and enter a giant pint-shaped glass atrium, and then follow a walk-through “Guinness Experience” tour, explaining how the famous black brew is made (of barley, hops, water and yeast). It is not an actual brewery tour, although many visitors expect it to be.
Nevertheless, the experience is still wildly popular, possibly because the tour culminates with a complimentary pint of Guinness for every adult guest in the “Gravity Bar,” a rooftop pub with 360-degree views of Dublin. Book online and save 10% off the admission price.
The Storehouse also stocks a mind-boggling array of Guinness–themed glasses, clothing, and souvenirs. More information: Guinness Storehouse, St. James’s Gate, Dublin 8, tel. 01-408-4800; web: www.guinness-storehouse.com
A beverage even older than Guinness in Ireland is whiskey, believed to have been concocted first in the 6th century by Irish monks who called it "uisce beatha" - the water of life. Eventually, it evolved into a popular drink produced by many distilleries including one founded by John Jameson (circa. 1780).
John Jameson’s original building in Dublin is now known as Old Jameson Distillery. Although it is no longer an active production site, it has been converted into a heritage center that tells the story of Irish whiskey using an audio-visual on the tradition of distilling, with a walk-around tour of the whiskey-making process – from malting and storing barley, and mashing and fermentation, to distilling and maturation.
The tour culminates in the "Tasting Room" with an opportunity to sample the finished product and to compare it with other whiskies. More information: Old Jameson Distillery, Bow St., Smithfield, Dublin 7, tel. 01-807-2355; web: www.tours.jamesonwhiskey.com
Today John Jameson Whiskey, along with other Irish whiskies such as Powers, Paddy, Midleton, Redbreast, and Tullamore Dew, are actually produced at one central mega-distillery at Midleton, Co. Cork. The modern plant sits next to the Old Midleton Distillery which was established in the early 17th century. A tour of the latter provides close-up views of the mill building, maltings, corn stores, still houses, warehouses, kilns, water wheel, and copper stills, including the largest pot still in the world, with a capacity of 31,648 gallons.
To illustrate the step-by-step whiskey-making process, there is an audio-visual presentation, as well as demonstrations and working models. Afterward, visitors are invited to taste the various products. More information: Old Midleton Distillery, Midleton, C. Cork, tel. 021-461-3594; web: www.tours.jamesonwhiskey.com/Home/The-Jameson-Experience-Midleton.aspx
While in Co. Cork, also head to the Franciscan Well Brew Pub – a micro-brewery that produces its own beer, with names such as Blarney Blonde, Rebel Red and Shandon Stout. There is a large beer garden in the back. More information: Franciscan Well Brew Pub (14 North Mall, Cork City, tel. 021-439-3434); web: www.franciscanwellbrewery.com
Moving on to Co. Clare, the Biddy Early Brewery west of Ennis claims to be Ireland’s first pub-brewery, producing local brews Black Biddy, a fruity Irish stout; Blonde Biddy, a European pilsner-style lager; Red Biddy, a sweet Irish ale; and Real Biddy, a cask-conditioned ale. Visitors can learn more about the beers by taking a tour of the brewery culminating in a tasting session, or watching an A/V. More information: Biddy Early Brewery, Inagh, Ennis, Co. Clare, tel. 065-683-6742); web: www.beb.ie
In nearby Co. Offaly, the town of Tullamore gave its name in the 19th century to a popular whiskey known as Tullamore Dew. Learn more about it at the Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre, housed in the original Tullamore Dew Distillery on the Grand Canal. During the 45-minute guided tour, you’ll also learn how Tullamore Dew got its name, using the initials of one of the early whiskey-makers (Daniel E. Williams). At the end of the tour, a sample of Tullamore Dew awaits all adult visitors. More information: Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore, Co. Offaly, tel. 057-932-5015; web: www.tullamoredew.com/heritage-centre
Locke's Distillery at Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath, is a handy stop on the old Dublin-Galway road (N 6). Established in 1757, the original distillery on this site operated for almost 200 years until it closed in 1953. It has since "re-invented" itself and re-opened as a museum of whiskey-making. A 25-minute tour, which must be reserved in advance, traces the step-by-step process, ending in a "tasting room" for a sample of Kilbeggan Whiskey. Today the Kilbeggan brand is still produced, but not on this premises. It is one of the brands offered by Cooley Distillery (below). More information: Locke's Distillery, Lr. Main St., Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath, tel. 057-933-2134); web: www.lockesdistillerymuseum.ie
The Cooley Distillery is probably the least known of Ireland’s distillery tours, located in the Cooley Mountains on the Carlingford Peninsula, just outside of Dundalk, and midway between Dublin and Belfast. This distillery is fairly new, established in 1987, with a goal of reviving old distilling techniques and restoring some vintage brands, such as Kilbeggan and Tyrconnell, as well as developing new brands such as Connemara Single Peat Malt and Greenore Single Grain Irish Whiskey. Visitors are welcome to tour the facilities in a hard-hat-style behind-the-scenes tour guided by distillery staff members. Because tours are done on a small and personalized style, advance reservations are required. More information: Cooley Distillery, Riverstown, Cooley, Co. Louth, tel. 042-937-6102; web: www.cooleywhiskey.com
Last, but certainly not least, is the grand-daddy of the whiskey-making enterprises, Old Bushmills in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. It is the oldest distillery of its kind in the world, officially licensed in 1608. Visitors are welcome to take a walk-through tour of the plant to view the whole process, essentially unchanged over the centuries. Escorted by well-versed guides with informative and amusing commentaries, the 40-minute tours end in the Potstill Bar, a pub-style "tasting room" where guests are invited to sample the product. More information: Old Bushmills Distillery & Visitor Centre, Main St., Bushmills, Co. Antrim, tel. 028-2073-3272; web: www.bushmills.com
Patricia (Pat) Preston has written 23 travel books (15 about Ireland). Her latest book, Ireland Travel 101 (http://www.IrelandTravel101.com) won 1st Place in the Travel Guide category of the North American Travel Journalists Association annual competition this year. Visit Pat’s web site (http://www.IrelandExpert.com).