From Edinburgh to Belfast – and beyond – a whiskey soujourn.
Paul McLean takes his own personal tour, a travel log; After dropping our guests off in Edinburgh at their hotel – almost on the Royal Mile – the coach was to head back to Belfast. The previous night I had made plans and bookings to accompany the coach, for a few well -earned days away. “Having booked the coach from McCombs in Belfast, with a friend driving, Mark Burgess (he does our Irish tours also) I thought it a grand idea to have a few days away” says Paul. So, from Edinburgh, Mark and myself headed west to CairnRyan near Stranraer via Kilmarnock, Ayr and Girvan. Just over 3 hours later we were at the ferry, as Mark parked up at the coach lines, I headed into the office, me met up on the ferry – another two hours! Arriving in Belfast docks, we then headed into the city, as Mark dropped me off at my hotel, he still had a couple of hours work cleaning the coach before home.
Flopping on ma bed, time to consider plans; a quick drink at the Crown pub; with period gas lighting and cosy snugs. The exterior is decorated in polychromatic tiles. This includes a mosaic of a Crown on the floor of the entrance. A Republican pub, you need walk over the crown as you enter! The snugs feature original gun metal plates for striking matches and an antique bell system for calling staff. Extra privacy was then afforded by the pub’s etched and stained glass windows, fairies, pineapples, fleurs-de-lis and clowns. A good place for a dram – Jamesons Gold Reserve, wood and pot still with a touch of sherry, honey combines in the mush to create a spicy character. The long finish really caps it off with a pleasantly peppery conclusion. A good start. I dondered next door to Robinsons; Fibber Magees to be sure, here I partook in a Kilbeggan. Fibber Magees is a traditional Irish Bar in the corner of Blackstaff Square, is the city’s hidden gem; the genuine article; a good old spit and sawdust bar, packed to the rafters with little bits of history and steeped in Irish tradition. My dram, Kilbeggan is named after St Bécán, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland who founded a monastery in the area in the 6th century. This dram is smooth and malty. The nose is smooth and gentle with nut oils and barley, cereals and a little peat. I do like these drams, here presented on the bar in its new bottle. A couple more wee Irish gems, then – time for bed.
Tuesday arrived, bright and cheerful, sun from 05.30 through my window (on the 8th floor). All the usual morning stuff, some breakfast, then picked up by a McCombs driver (Stephen) for a day trip, courtesy of Rodney (owner), was looking forward to this – having done it before with the tourist board. Watching the coach fill up with tourists – I was still working y’know, we then headed north to Carrickfergus castle; a stop here at this old castle before north again to Larne and Carnlough and my favourite, Cushendall. Cushendall village is the meeting point of three glens: Glenann, Glenballylemon and Glencorp, a perfect place to walk along the beach, donder around the glens, sit by the river or explore stone-aged monuments and its more recent historical, sword-producing, past. Views of Scotland add the final touch why I love this place. Och well, onwards north – ah, the stop I have been waiting for, it’s been hot sitting here on the crew seat with the strong sun hitting me like a plank through the window! Bushmills.
When Diageo took over Bushmills distillery from Pernod Ricard in 2005, sales volumes had been flat for over 10 years. The new owners set a goal to reach 1 million cases by the end of 2012 and set about investing (to the tune of around €45 million) in the distillery itself as well as the brand. Diageo increased the production rate to five days a week and since 2008, they have implemented a seven-day week. This tripled production in just 2.5 years. Bushmills uses two kinds of malt, one unpeated and one slightly peated. The distillery uses triple distillation, something they’ve done since the 1930s. The range of single malts consists of a 10 year old, a 16 year old with a finish in port pipes for 6-9 months and a 21 year old finished in Madeira casks for two years. There is also a 12 year old Distillery Reserve which is sold exclusively at the distillery (as you imagined, I have one). Black Bush (my dram of choice in my local pub – Christies) and Bushmills Original are the two main blended whiskeys in the range. To celebrate the 400th anniversary, a Bushmills 1608 Anniversary Edition was launched (yup, have one also, well – maybe two inches remain in the bottle). The malt whiskey part was distilled using a proportion of crystal malt (malted barley which has been dried at a high temperature whilst the grains are still moist, thus partly converting the grain’s starch into sugars and caramelising them). This special ingredient gives the blend distinct toffee/chocolatey notes. The grain whiskey used for Bushmills blended whiskeys is, in fact, bought from Midleton distillery in Cork which is owned by arch-rival Pernod Ricard. I found Niall, an old pal, chatted asked for freebies (didnee get any, Diageo), enjoyed steak and Guinness pie in the food hall, had 3 drams fae the bar, all courtesy of my minder for the day Stephen. It was nice to be back, last time here we had a VIP tasting of 8 drams, our Canadian friends and Mark know all about that wee episode, say nae more. Then up to the Giants Causeway. Baking hot, we were frying eggs on the coach roof! It was here we had a chat with other McCombs drivers; Derek and Pat, 3 coaches here today, also Sean of Irish railtours. All good things come to an end – a return by the fast route to Belfast, around 7pm, headed to the pub for a long beer, Harp ice cold lager was called for. At 8pm a couple of cousins arrived from the Republic – hugs, hell’s and drams followed! A return to Fibbers. Caught up with family matters and stayed away from trouble – no remarks please Mark, Liz, Sean, or anyone come to think of it. Hit ma bed 11pm knackered.
Wednesday; cousins in tow we hit what I think the best whiskey pub in the city; Bittles Bar is located close to Victoria Square. Red-bricked and ‘flat-iron’ in shape Bittles is a traditional Victorian Bar. Founded in 1868 the bar was originally called the Shakespeare reflecting is theatrical clientele. It offers one of Belfast’s widest selections of local and international draught and bottle beers and ciders and is famed for its extensive whiskey (and whisky) collection. I sampled a few, chatting to John about his collection of whiskey – some rare old drams here, he offered me a lovely dram, then said “£100 a dram” I reluctantly turned it doon. But did try a good few, met a few locals, had far to long sitting there, by the time we departed, Sean had disappeared, I was heavy with the Irish gold, Pat was slumpin, so we sat down outside Whites bar for a while – founded 1630, we all felt as if we were at the opening night, grim stuff. Sean turned up as we ordered a round, he does that. It was 3pm and bed called me loudly! We left Whites and had a doze in the park benches at City Hall, no a good sight, we did think the Guards would move us, we were fine. By 4.30 we were almost alive again and found some food, when I say food, dinnae mean Macdonalds by the way. Bellies full – mine is too big – we headed to The Duke of York; Traditional Belfast bar crammed with original mirrors and memorabilia. Cold beer, great Guinness and the largest selection of Irish whiskeys in Ireland. We know, we tried some! Ended up in ma bed! Family gone home.
Thursday. My final day here, knowing a few things, I grabbed a taxi to Crumlin Road, took a tour of the gaol, a grim place to be held in, but my reason for the visit; a new distillery will be opening here – possibly 2015. Plans to make whiskey in old Crumlin Road gaol is hoped whiskey-making will boost tourist in Belfast It is hoped whiskey-making will boost tourism in Belfast. Peter Lavery has announced plans to turn part of the former Crumlin Road Prison in north Belfast into a distillery. The £5m investment will see the A wing of the listed building turned into a boutique distillery that will use his existing brands of whiskey. There will also be a visitors’ centre, tasting room, bar, restaurant and shop. It is claimed the project could create 60 jobs. Up to five of those jobs will be in the distillery. Mr Lavery is the chief executive of the Belfast Distillery Company which is behind such brands as Titanic and Danny Boy whiskey.
Danny Boy Blend is a premium dark golden brown Irish whiskey blend of 20% malt and 80% finest grain, produced by the Cooley Distillery, double-distilled with a four-year minimum and matured in American oak casks that infuse a toasty and vanilla aroma for an exceptionally smooth finish. Danny Boy offers whiskey drinkers notes of soft raisins and Irish caramel with a peppery spice overtone. Six to eight year old malt and a high proportion of eight year old grain are used to produce the premium Irish whiskey. Double Distillation and matured in American Oak barrels. 15% 4 year Malt, 5% 8 year old Malt, 45% 8 year old Grain, 20% 5 year old grain, 15% 4 year old grain. A superb and complex blend that features the very best single malt and clean grain from the famous Cooley Distillery. The age profile explains the depth of character in the whiskey which enabled it to win a silver medal at the prestigious International Spirits Competition in 2010. Unusually aged the Danny boy Brand is a premium blend and has both a exceptional Smooth taste and luxury finish on the pallet. Vanilla and toasty wood flavours are very evident on the nose and these give way to soft sweet fruits and toffees as primary tastes. Smooth and lingering aftertaste has a hint of spice. Paul’s note; A shocking item here, Cooley when bought by Beam, decided to NOT sell any whiskey to anyone, leaving Danny Boy really in the lurch, along with many others including Slane Castle, however some of these are now (like to two mentioned) building their own distilleries. I have Danny Boy at home, sitting alongside Slane and Michael Collins drams.
Back in the city, having seen enough of the Union flags everywhere, dropped into Fibbers again, before heading to the airport. Ah … flybe, get your act together, never flying with them again, over charging, hidden charges, late flights, no thanks! Liz met me at Edinburgh airport for my ride home. Another wee whiskey trip done!
(Paul & Liz run MCLEANSCOTLAND Whisky Tours and can be contacted here www.mcleanscotland.com )