Dublin to Slane Distillery

FINALLY, I can say that I have finished writing my first ever book. It’s about Ireland and all my crazy adventures. It will take some time before it gets out into the world, but I feel accomplished, now I can say it’s all done. Although when writing the book, I quite often had to keep in mind this book was about travel, adventure, history and I couldn’t blabber on about whiskey as much as I wanted to. So I feel now is the perfect opportunity! Last summer I went on a series of cycles from Dublin to a distillery to discover new parts of Ireland and learn more about whiskey! So this is the first of a series of blog posts about my adventures for whiskey.

It was a surprisingly hot April morning, and Bruno my work colleague and I were cycling through the bustling streets of Dublin. It was the start of our adventure, and we planned to cycle from Dublin to Slane Distillery with the purpose to get away from the city, change of scenery and new perspectives. Our first challenge was getting out of the city. Cycling through the city is always daunting and tiresome. Continually stopping and starting at traffic lights, having to stay fully aware of what is around you because being run over and dying would be a bad start to the day. Cars were getting far too close to us, and you could almost hear the driver’s thoughts yelling out “fecking cyclists”. I hate cycling through cities, I always feel vulnerable but yet I have done it so many times you would have thought that I would start avoiding it, but no, apparently I don’t think like that.

As we got close to the airport, Bruno seemed to be very impressed with all the planes overhead. It was evident by the videos he had filmed that I didn’t share his enthusiasm, he was taking videos of planes above, and I was looking grumpy. I was wondering why waking up early in the morning to start cycling was such a good idea. I was grumpy about the morning, I was grumpy about cycling through the city, I was grumpy about getting filmed while Ryanair planes flew above my head, I was grumpy about a sore on my back that had started to ache from where the bag I was wearing was rubbing against it, I was grumpy because I thought these random aches and pains appeared because I was getting older and it was my body telling me to slow down. The only things I wasn’t grumpy about was that I would soon be out of the hustle and bustle of the city and that I would soon be drinking whiskey. 

Finally, we were out of the hectic life of the city and cycling into the country. When we planned the cycle, I described the beginning of the route to Bruno as ‘one main road to Drogheda’ so Bruno was taken aback by the beautiful green hills and countryside. Bruno said that ‘the road had a bit more of a charm to it than just a main road.’ I take sights like these for granted, I used to live on the English and Welsh border, and the countryside seemed familiar to me. But now it’s pointed out, I could see an attraction, it was a nice change of scenery cycling past vast green fields and farmland compared to expansive piles of concrete in the city.  We pushed on, now and again we stopped for Bruno to take photos of sheep and farmland until we reached a town called Balbriggan.

During the night on September 21st 1920, the Black and Tans sacked the town of Balbriggan. The sacking was revenge for the killing of District Inspector Burke and his brother Sergeant Burke who were shot dead by the IRA in a Balbriggan pub earlier in the day. It was more tit for tat fighting that benefited no one and just left destruction. In Balbriggan, houses were burned out or demolished and residents were evacuated [1]. We stopped in the town for a break on benches outside a Papa John’s restaurant relaxing with the sun glaring down on us. We were living the high life with our sausage rolls and Lucozade Sport drinks from the spar nearby, the journey was going well, we had made good progress so much so that I could almost smell the whiskey from where we sat.

Irish whiskey has a rich history to it and is pretty interesting. There has been an enormous increase in popularity for Irish whiskey and there are currently at the time of writing 31 distilleries in Ireland which seems to be increasing this is impressive as in 2014 there were only 8 working distilleries. The rules of making Irish whiskey are quite relaxed which allows distilleries to experiment with different kinds of casks and grains (barley, wheat, rye or corn) which provides an exciting variation of whiskeys that you don’t find in other countries. There is an ongoing argument between Ireland and Scotland which is who invented whiskey. The first record of whiskey was in Ireland in 1405 Richard Magrannell Chieftain of Moyntyreolas died at Christmas by taking a “surfeit of aqua vitae” [2]. Aqua Vitae is Latin for the water of life, but we now simplify the name as whiskey. Irish whiskey is renowned for its smooth tasting whiskey which comes from it being traditionally triple distilled and traditionally is not peated which separates it from Scotch whiskey. In Scotland, the popular Single Malt whisky means it is distilled in a single distillery and made up of 100% malted barley, Ireland also has Single Malts. But Irish whiskey is renowned for its Single Pot Still Whiskey, exclusively made in Ireland. Single Pot Still Whiskey emerged when a tax was introduced in 1682 on malted barley, so they distilled unmalted barley in a pot still which created a unique kind of whiskey. Single Pot Still Whiskey means it is distilled in a single distillery and made up of malted and unmalted barley [3].

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We continued cycling, leaving Balbriggan and getting a glimpse of the coastline, leaving the County of Dublin and continuing our adventure through Meath. Meath is also known as the Royal Country because many centuries ago the High Kings of Ireland came to the Hill of Tara in the centre of Meath to be crowned [4]. The further we cycled the further the pain intensified in our very unprepared legs, but that wasn’t going to stop us. We entered a town named Julianstown, it was just a strange and amusing coincidence that only a couple of hours beforehand we had found out that Julian Assange (founder of WikiLeaks who had published leaked documents from US army and found refuge in the Ecuador embassy for almost 7 years) had been arrested. During the 1641 Rebellion the Irish Catholic gentry tried to seize control of Ireland to force concessions for the Catholics. In Julianstown a battle broke out between rebels and royalists where the Rebels won a decisive victory. This victory made the rebels seem more formidable and it helped spread the rebellion throughout Ireland. The Royalists eventually crushed the rebellion, but it began a conflict known as the Irish Confederate Wars that lasted for 12 years [5].

We eventually reached Drogheda a milestone in our journey as we felt we hadn’t got far to go and thought it would be a smooth ride from here. We soon learnt that we were so wrong. Drogheda has had quite a history, there are a few historical monuments in the city like St Laurence’s Gate which sits in the middle of the town and was a barbican, an outer defence gate built in the 13th century. The Magdalene Tower, a Belfry tower is all that’s left of an important Dominican Friary founded in 1224. St Peter’s Church’s spires soar above the city which makes it stand out above everything, inside it has an unusual treasure, Oliver Plunkett’s head. Oliver Plunkett was the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and he became a victim of the Popish Plot which was an invented conspiracy theory in 1678 that there was a Catholic plot to assassinate Charles II. Oliver Plunkett was hung, drawn and quartered along with 22 others. His remains were exhumed, and in 1921 his head was taken to St Peter’s Church, where it has remained [6].

Following Google Maps, we travelled through the Boyne Valley following the River Boyne through green fields that have seen centuries of history, mostly renowned for the Battle of Boyne. In 1688 James II was ousted out of power by William of Orange. Richard Talbot Lord Deputy of Ireland wanted to see every stronghold in Ireland loyal to James II. After James fled and William of Orange was pronounced King, James arrived in Ireland with 6000 French soldiers, he took Dublin and marched North with the Jacobite army made up of French and Irish Catholic soldiers. On July 1st 1690 the Jacobites established defensive positions on the south bank of the Boyne at Oldbridge. William sent his elite guards who forced their way across the river and drove back the Jacobite infantry, a Jacobite cavalry counterattack pinned them down for a while until the Williamite cavalry crossed the river and forced the Jacobites to retreat. The victory in Boyne for William marked the beginning of the end of James’s hope of regaining his throne. The battle caused the Jacobites to abandon the city of Dublin and James II fled to France [7]. The war ended a year later after the Siege of Limerick, resulting in the treaty of Limerick being signed ending the war. The treaty allowed troops fighting for the Jacobites to emigrate if they wished. These men that emigrated were renowned as the Wild Geese, some went and served other nations armies. There were many famous names amongst them, one of which was Richard Hennessy who later created the Cognac Hennessy. 

We felt it was strange cycling through tight backroads and broken, uneven tarmac to get to such a famous landmark, there didn’t seem to be any signs, but google maps told us we were going the right way to get to Newgrange. Once we arrived, we were told there was no back access and that we would have to cycle through Slane and around for about 8 miles for access to Newgrange. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for that, disappointed we turned back around and made our way to Slane distillery. Newgrange dates back to 3,200 BCE, which makes it older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza. In this area known as Brú na Bóinne, there is an additional ninety Neolithic or Late Stone Age monuments in the area including Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange. Newgrange a huge circular mound is a Stone Age passage tomb used as a place of spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance. It is now a world heritage site one of Ireland’s historical wonders. [8]

Turning back without seeing Newgrange was a massive blow to two already overly tired cyclists and we were both shattered, we just couldn’t be bothered anymore, we both felt quitting, but with plenty of stops and starts we eventually got into the flow of things again and pushed on to Slane Castle. Built-in the late 18th century the castle is most renowned for its music festival held in its grounds. The rock festival has hosted acts like Metalica, Guns ‘N Roses, U2, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, REM and Queen. But our purpose of visiting the castle was to try out its whiskey that’s distilled in the grounds.

The distillery is located right next to the stunning Slane Castle in the 250-year-old stables which opened in 2017. The famous owner is Alex Conyngham, who’s dad sets up all the massive well-renowned gigs at Slane, his whiskey “Slane Whiskey” is branded as a Rock music whiskey. At first, they sourced liquid from the Cooley distillery. Eventually, the supply was stopped and then they decide to build their own distillery in the grounds of Slane Castle. Slane whiskey partnered with Brown and Forman (owns big brands like Jack Daniels, Woodward reserve) to help get their project off the ground. With plans for a single grain whiskey and a pot still whiskey to come in the future, I look forward to seeing what great whiskeys come out of this fantastic distillery.

We left the distillery and I lay on the grass with the view of Slane castle and had a quick power nap, I was shattered. Once I woke, we locked our bikes up and headed to a local bar where we had a few pints and a few more whiskeys and reminisced about our day of adventure.

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Slane Whiskey Tasting Notes:

Colour: A warm, golden topaz: hues of rich toffee.

Nose: Complex fruit with drizzles of caramel, butterscotch and vanilla; brown spice and toasted oak.

Taste: Spicy at first but then quickly sweetens with rich caramel, vanilla and butterscotch atop a deep layer of dried fruit.

Finish: Lingering hints of dry fruit and caramelized sugar. [9]

References

[1] Sack of Balbriggan:

[2] Ireland Invented Whiskey:

[3] Pot Still Whiskey:

https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/food-and-drink/how-uniquely-irish-whiskies-are-retaking-the-premium-market-1.2137016

[4] Meath Royal Country:

https://www.meath.ie/discover/discover-the-boyne-valley/quick-facts-about-county-meath

[5] Battle of Julianstown:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/plantation/planters/es10.shtml

[6] Drumcondra:

[7] Battle of the Boyne:

https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-the-Boyne

[8] New Grange:

https://www.newgrange.com/

[9] Slane Tasting notes:

https://www.slaneirishwhiskey.com/our-whiskey/the-nature-of-whiskey/

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