"What makes us so unique is that we hold on to the traditions of the past," says Master Distiller Barry Crockett as he shows off the world's largest pot still and a ye-olden-days waterwheel that once powered all of the machinery at the distillery.
Crockett also reiterates Emer's musings that Irish whiskey is triple distilled, declaring the final product is "cleaner, more pure, and sweeter in taste, like apples, pears, and peaches."
One of the things I most enjoyed about Kilbeggan, dating to 1757 and drawing about 45,000 visitors annually, was its amalgamation of unusual sounds, from the rhythmic ba-ba-boom-ba-ba-boom of some sort of mechanical gears grinding together to the flip-flipping of waterwheels to gurgling, bubbling streams.
Andrina Fitzgerald, who at 24 years old is one of the youngest whiskey distillers in Ireland, showed us a 185-year-old pot still, said to be the oldest in the world. Funny. It didn't look a day over a hundred.
Northern Ireland was next in our sights, to the village of Bushmills in Co. Antrim. As we drove northward, I sighed contentedly at the emerald green and gorgeously lush scenery of Ireland's pastures and craggy cliffs. It's not called the Emerald Isle for nothing, and the serene countryside is punctuated by the bones of ancient castles, pastoral stone fences, and masses of fat, happy sheep and cattle.
Finally arriving in Bushmills after a stop at mythical Giants Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we found a quiet Old World village crammed with taverns, shops, and restaurants. From our accommodations at Bushmills Inn, the distillery, which brings in about 120,000 guests a year, was less than a half-mile walk.
"Bushmills is the heart of the Irish whiskey industry," said Robert Galbraith, our guide and Bushmills ambassador, before explaining the heritage of its distilling process really hasn't changed in the more than 400 years since King James granted the first license to distill in 1608.
We had booked a premium tour, so Galbraith took us to a comfortable tasting room. Before us sat glasses of whiskey, the liquid inside shimmering like gold from light pouring in through the windows.
The whiskey went down smoothly as we sipped our way through several centuries of whiskey-making traditions. Quietly I raised a glass and silently cheered "slainte" to King James.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: Aer Lingus flies nonstop to Dublin from several major U.S. cities, including Boston, New York-JFK, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Orlando.
LODGING SUGGESTIONS: Our group stayed at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, the Wineport Lodge in Glasson in Co. Athlone, and the Bushmills Inn in Bushmills.
INFORMATION: For comprehensive information on Ireland, visit http://www.DiscoverIreland.com. To book distillery tours, visit http://www.Bushmills.com, http://www.Tours.JamesonWhiskey.com, and http://www.KilbegganWhiskey.com.
Become a toast master during a whiskey tour of Ireland
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