Whisky returns to the Emerald Island — Part III — Walsh Whiskey Distillery

by Elizabeth Willoughby

In the 1800s, Dublin was the world capital of whisky production. In the 1900s there were only a couple of distilleries left on the island. This century, Irish whisky is making a comeback. Join me in finding out who's left and who are the new kids on the block, where they came from and where they're going. This stop: An interview with Bernard Walsh, Managing Director of Walsh Whiskey Distillery in County Carlow, Ireland's newest distillery, first opened to the public in July 2016.

Writers Tears Cask 2013 Bottle and Box c Colon Dempsey

From the continent back home to Ireland

Based in London, IT specialist Bernard Walsh used to spend his weekdays solving programming problems in countries around the world for a software firm, and commuting to France on weekends to join his wife, Rosemary, where she ran a chalet. Catering up to 24 people there, it was customary to finish off each evening with Irish coffees for all. Not to be a bump on a log, Bernard tried to make himself useful, but was never able to master the Irish Coffee to her standards. Rosemary, therefore, prearranged the drinks so that all Bernard had to do was add hot water and cream. It worked like an Irish charm and it got them thinking. The perfect Irish Coffee recipe in a bottle was about to be born.

Bernard says, "Ireland is a great place to raise a family, and just as salmon return home to spawn, so do many Irish," Bernard and Rosemary included. In 1999, the couple returned to Ireland, set up house in County Carlow, and the Hot Irishman production of Irish Coffee, as well as four daughters, came into being.

County Carlow is referred to as "barley land" — it's the driest part of Ireland with warm earth and sandy soil that drains well, all things that barley seems to like. Barley, as Irish whisky aficionados know, is a main ingredient in Irish whisky. It's here that the Walshes established the headquarters of the Hot Irishman company.

The following years brought new products and a long-term agreement with a distillery in Cork (a key factor in enabling a whisky stock), whose whisky they brought home to blend. This stock resulted in the launch of The Irishman 70 (called The Irishman Original Clan in the US) and The Irishman Single Malt, as well as a 1,200-bottle limited edition of the first triple distilled cask strength Irish whisky in over half a century. Next came Writers Tears, a boutique blend named to honour "the land of saints and scholars'" who sought comfort and inspiration from the "water of life".

RO Bernard & Founder's Reserve & Barrels B 210316 c Colon Dempsey

An Irish phoenix rising

The thing about whisky is that the payback is long term due to the lengthy maturation, and the longer a distiller matures the whisky, the bigger the angels' share (the amount of evaporation), which means the smaller the quantity of return in each barrel. However, for Bernard, his investment into whisky production was not a five or ten-year vision. He was securing a family legacy, and he was planning it in a grand fashion.

In 2013, Bernard and Rosemary purchased a 200-year-old, 40-acre estate along the banks of River Barrow in Royal Oak that was owned by the Vigor family, landed gentry from England. Its manor, built in 1755 and included in the abandoned mansions of Ireland listings, by then had trees growing out of it. This property is where Bernard and Rosemary planned to build Ireland's first distillery where all three styles of Irish whisky would be made in one still room: columns to distil grain whisky and pots to distil malt whisky (100 percent barley) and pot still whisky (malt and unmalted barley).

Walshes c Colon Dempsey

But first, they needed to save the existing, 'protected' structures, which meant re-roofing the building in old blue Bangor slate, taking down the bricks to clean and reassemble the stack, and the application of seven layers of breathable lime plaster inside, as in the olden days. Despite the intriguing discoveries they continued to encounter on the property, such as the old ice house, a boating pond and a cave entrance to it, the two-year renovation to turn the home and out buildings (with interesting histories of their own) into a visitor centre and outdoor cafe would have to wait. Once structurally secure, Walsh turned his attention from the manor to the building of his new distillery. On Easter Sunday 2016, the same date that Ireland was commemorating the centenary of the nation's 1916 Easter Rising, the Walshes oversaw the first production of their "new make spirit", first distilled.

Walsh Estate c Colon Dempsey

A tradition held

The first distillery in County Carlow in 200 years, Walsh Whiskey Distillery employed workers and builders from a 25-kilometre radius to build it. The distillery uses water from their spring that is sourced from the Barrow Valley aquifer 100 metres down, and the barley it uses can be traced to the neighbouring farms from which it came, bringing "terroir" from wine-making into whisky-making vocabulary. The distillery's 20 workers, trained from scratch in whisky making, hand craft the whisky as it was done centuries ago.

"With no computers, just nose and taste, every batch could taste differently," says Bernard, and he's ok with that. Besides the craftsmanship of the spirits, Walsh's still room itself is a feast for the eyes — the three shining copper pots are the prettiest swan necks you will ever come across. No doubt Yeats and Joyce would have found inspiration in this room.

Swan necks L c Elizabeth Willoughby

Opened to the public on July 1, 2016, Walsh Whiskey Distillery, with its park land and pleasantly-designed facilities, is conveniently accessible for a tour and whisky tasting. From the Dublin airport, ten public buses per day have a scheduled stop at Royal Oak's old stagecoach post that happens to be located at the distillery's driveway entrance; and by rail the distillery is a stroll from the Royal Oak train station. The best way to visit, however, might be by the River Barrow. Plan a weekend stay at The Lord Bagenal Inn in historical Leighlinbridge and take a barge from the Inn's dock to Royal Oak. The distillery is a short walk around the corner.

This article was published at © 2016

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