Spirit Guide: White-Knuckle Driving – Seven Grand Crew Tours Ireland and Scotland! (Part #1) By Pedro Shanahan
Fresh offstage from closing night of a 9 week run of a play, I bided my libations at the cast party afterward, paid respects as the director gave his speech, danced a couple tunes with jubiliant comrades under the stars. Feeling grateful but rushed, I said too few goodbyes and raced home to pack. It was already 2:30am.
Packing posed a problem because of my situation: We were to be traveling to Ireland and Scotland as ambassadors of American whiskey-love. I had 12 bottles of Bourbon, all Single Barrel selections exclusive to our bar, chosen by our staff. Some of this juice was over-proof, I wasn’t even sure if the TSA would let on the plane with the stuff.
The plan was to put everything in a bag to check through, put my clothes in a carry-on and pray that nothing got seized or broken. I carefully swaddled each baby in a Seven Grand t-shirt, with packing wrap. I padded corners with socks and boxers, a sweater beneath and shirts on top, crammed in some Vice magazines and a book of poetry as hard-walls.
All of this took way too long, the adrenaline from the show and the promise of travel made the possibility of sleep laughable. I got in a cab at 6:45, more excited than tired.
I got to the airport and while going through security I could barely hear my name being called through the PA system, I asked a TSA what I should do and he told me to go to my gate. I had made it through security in decent time, but when I got to the gate, there was no attendant there. When one did arrive, I was told that I needed to return to baggage security, all the way back out front.
When I got there a large guard smiled and asked, “Were you the guy with all the whiskey? Don’t worry, it went through.”
Sitting next to me on the flight out of L.A. was a beautiful blonde (engaged). When she ordered a coke zero from the steward I detected an accent. “Are you Irish?” She was. A Belfast girl that told me that if was going to the Bushmill’s Distillery, to stop in Portrush. The Harbour Bar was something to experience.
The flight to Dublin gave no sleep. We get to teach people about whiskey every day, but I had never been to Ireland or Scotland, and was way too jazzed to rest. This trip was chance to really deepen our understanding of whiskies, in it’s birthplace!
I landed just after sunrise in Dublin. I met up with Angus and Andrew in the rental car office at the airport. They had just flown in an hour earlier from a London all-nighter, and were in a similar state as me.
Andrew bravely commanded the rental car, taking on the wrong-side wheel, left-hand gear stick, skinny roads and alien turnabouts, while Angus slept in the back seat. The GPS spat out Irish-broqued instructions, and reunited, we came up with a theme for our adventure while swerving through the beautiful Irish countryside, headed North: White-Knuckle Driving. I was to be navigator.
We got to Portrush, Northern Ireland, (Pounds, not Euros) and it was sunny and beautiful in the late afternoon. Found a B&B, via Rick Steves’ guidebook- The Harbour Heights, run by a local photographer and his wife, Tim and Sam. Took a walk around town. They had waves! A crew of surfers were hitting cold breakers in their wetsuits, making us jealous. If only we had a day off. But we were on a mission. We were to tour Bushmill’s distillery the next morning and then drive to Cork in the afternoon.
Back at the Harbor Heights, I unpacked my checked bag. Somehow all 12 bottles of our single barrels had made it through customs, some whiskey had spilled, pushed out through the corks, I assume from pressure changes while in flight. There was a TSA inspection notice inside the bag. Security in L.A. had unwrapped every single bottle, then re-taped and re-packed them, and all had arrived unbroken.
We went to the Harbour Bar, just up the street from our digs. There was a tiny pub, crowded with locals, where you could make a dinner reservation and the bartender would ring a bell when your table was ready. Apparently, the owner’s son had moved away to become a Michelin-rated chef, and then moved back home to Portrush to help the family business. It had worked. The place was popping on a Monday night, the food and service was great, we talked to folks who had driven over an hour to get there!
After dinner we settled back into the pub, where Kerry the bartender was hosting the local farmers as they drank and talked trash on each other. Kerry turned us onto some Bushmill’s 12 year, from a bottle that could only be purchased at the distillery. Sweet honey malt, with the best tasting Guinness we had ever had as a chaser.
Angus was wearing Andrew’s Old Grand Dad cap, while sitting outside looking out across the docks. A group of middle-aged women were sitting on the benches next to him chatting, and the most fiesty of their crew, Margeret, was trying to get him to give her Andrew’s cap. He was lucky to get out of there with the hat.
We shut down the bar with Kerry and the locals that night. A couple was there celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, and we toasted with them until last call. Some of the old-timers sang pub songs in what sounded like Gaelic to me. We gave Kerry a bottle of the Henry McKenna 10 year that we had brought and thanked him for his hospitality, hoping we would get a chance to reciprocate someday. It would be hard to beat this great first night in Northern Ireland. We walked toward the Harbor Heights with the restaurant workers headed home from their shifts, boats knocking in their slips on the black waters behind us, the wind pushing us down the main drag.
We got up early, ate a quick breakfast cooked by Tim (the menu offered a traditional Irish Breakfast, cereals, toast, coffee and tea, and porriage served with a shot of whiskey on top as an option,) took a picture with Tim out in front of the row house, thanked him and headed up the coast on the way to Bushmill’s Distillery.
We stopped at the ruins of Dunluce Castle on the way to Bushmills, where the last royals had moved out of after part of the kitchen had fallen into the ocean during a party, killing several of the staff. The Scots had rulers posted there for centuries, but had once been burned out of town by Irish rebels.
We got to Bushmills, and it looked like they were expanding, Bulldozers were moving earth around. We got a VIP tour from Niall Mehaffey, and a video crew shot us thieving samples from barrels for Russian TV. We did a private tasting in a room where the Clintons had once sipped whiskey. Niall showed us to the bottling plant, where they were actually bottling Jameson, as demand was so great that Jameson had to outsource some of their bottling. Niall was really great, he tasted us on their full line, and told us how much grain spirit was in each whiskey (about 50% in the White label, and 20% in the Black Bush.) We got to sample the 16 and 21 year old expressions, the Black Bush offering it’s dark caramel tones, the 16 rich with sherry notes and nuttiness, and the linger of the 21 leaving green apples and cherries long on the senses.
We gave Niall a bottle of the Henry McKenna as well, and had lunch in the cafeteria at the distillery. Hannah, who had helped set up our tour, looked at us like we were crazy when told her that we were about to drive to Cork County. About 5 hours away, it’s pretty much the full length of the country, running North to South.
A lot of the back roads are only wide enough for a tractor to get through, and sometimes we were so rural that the GPS would show us floating out in the ocean. We dodged stone walls and headed South. The white-knuckle drive continued on!
We arrived at Castlemartyr as the sun was going down, where we were to be hosted by Pernod-Ricard for the opening of the new Jameson Experience at Midleton, “The Housewarming,” the next day. An idyllic spread, the castle had once been a battlefield, a hospital, a boys school, and now a resort with golf course and spa. In what had once been a chapel for the boys school was now a bar, where we met with writers, bloggers, industry professionals and celebrated influencers to pretty much drink the place dry. We did some late-night exploring in the castle ruins by candlelight, and somehow made it back to our rooms without any serious injuries or arrests.
They herded us, bleary-eyed the next morning, onto buses bound for the brand new Jameson visitor center at Midleton. It was a massive event, with food carts and cocktails, a master cooper making barrels in the workshop. We were hustled from area to area by Emer Rogers from Pernod-Ricard and got to meet David McCabe, whose education lab, The Academy, was amazing, with a live distillation demonstration, drop-down charts, grain samples, everything a whiskey teacher would ever want or need.
We got to see the new stills, the largest Copper Pot Stills in the world. My phone died out on me, so I have no pics of the Cooperage demo, one of the highlights of the day, where retired cooper Ger explained all the old-school tools while dismantling and reassembling a barrel right before our eyes in the original cooperage work room (where Gabriel Byrne’s grandfather had once worked.) Back in the day, coopers would wear ties and vests beneath their work aprons, as their trade was regarded as one of the most highly skilled in the world.
We were tasted by Master Distiller Barry Crockett on his final day on the job after 47 years in the business, he was responsible for every drop of Jameson that you’ve probably ever drank. He was turning over the reigns to Brian Nation, who was also there doing tastings in one of the dunnage rackhouses. It was a speed-tour of sorts, with so many groups in attendance for The Housewarming. We got to sample Redbreast 12 and 15 (dried fruits, citrus, baking spice and honey, berries and apples- some of my favorite Irish whiskey) and the Greenspot (sweet barley and cereal, slight mint and lemon) and Yellowspot (milk chocolate and hay, light caramel,) which are soon to be available in the U.S. An absolutely unforgettable day, and it wasn’t over yet.
After a brief respite to freshen up back at the resort, we were on the buses again, headed to the distillery for a Barrelman’s Feast in the Rackhouse to honor Barry Crockett. The spread was immaculate and gigantic with hundreds of guests, whiskey was flowing, bands played, we all toasted Barry, and the Cheiftains took the stage, playing to well after midnight and the bartenders jigged behind the levithan bars. We all made it back to the Castlemartyr, and stayed up way too late once again. We gave out more bottles of our Single Barrel Bourbon, one Fighting Cock to Shawn Kelley from Pernod-Ricard who had invited us and organized the events, and one to David Wondrich (Much-loved spirits writer and historian.)
One of the bartenders at the Castlemartyr, Morgan, wanted to recommend a pub in Doolin when we asked him for any tips on traveling toward Galway. We said our thank-yous and goodbyes to those who were slowly milling around in the morning after, loaded up to head toward the Cliffs of Moher.
We made it to the Cliffs of Moher, stunning granite cliffs on the Southwestern coast. Musicians braved the winds and played crouched along the walls upon the walks. We dropped tips and bought some gifts before leaving and wound our way through An Clar County, flags for the local Soccer team were flying everywhere.
We stopped in Doolin and got lunch at the pub Morgan had mentioned, Gus O’Connor’s. It was the kind of place you would take the whole family. The place was busy in the middle of the day, a band of retirees were singing and playing music in the middle of the dining room. They had a big bucket that people could throw tips into, a paper sign taped to the bucket declared that all proceeds would be donated to the nearby elementary school. A tourist asked one of the players how late they would be playing, and the bandleader replied: “Lady, we’ll be playing here until we die.”
Got to the Spanish Arch Hotel in Galway, winding through the narrow old-world streets with the GPS not able to tell is where we were. The receptionist was drop-dead gorgeous, with a biting Irish wit. I hope to God she had a boyfriend. We dropped our bags and walked down by the docks, where the Spaniards had once come in trying to backdoor the Brits. Hit a pub that I could not decipher the name of, but an old man played harpsichord and the sun was going down and it made you want to cry in your beer. Famous Irish poet Seamus Heaney had died a couple days before, and some of the pubs had little memoriams set up in their windows. Actors re-enacted street duals and gave tours through the historic old-town, college students and tourists partied all night in the streets beneath our hotel room. Little rest in the aftermath of The Housewarming.
We had to bail fast the next morning, not wanting to be late for our tour of Kilbeggan later in the day. Kilbeggan was claimed to be the oldest working distillery in the world, we had been told that it was still powered by an ancient water wheel.
We got into Kilbeggan in the early afternoon, and were greeted by John Cashman, their Brand Ambassador. We got a tour of the distillery, originally opened in 1857, which was tiny and old and very beautiful. They had two small pot stills running, which were making whiskey that would be blended into their base expression, and into some Single Malt, bottles of which could only be purchased at the distillery. It was a really cool museum, with all the old equipment on display, and the water wheel was turning, but not powering the distillery as far as I could tell.
John tasted us on Kilbeggan Single Malt and Irish Blend, and Locke (not currently available in the U.S.) and the Connemara Peated and Un-Peated, and Cask Strength. All utterly sippable, the Connemara Cask Strength stood out, brassy and bright cherry and grassy sweet peat.
We got to meet Andrina Fitzgerald, the youngest and only female distiller in the Irish Whiskey Business, and gave her a bottle of Eagle Rare, and a Henry McKenna for John. As we ate lunch at the distillery, a yellow jacket crawled up my pant leg and gave me a good sting on the knee, but at least it wasn’t Angus, he’s allergic. The waitresses at the cafe got a good laugh as I hopped and shook in a crazy walk on my way to the bathroom trying to get the hornet out of my pants.
We thanked our hosts and booked it for Dublin, Andrew had scored us second row tickets for a World Cup qualifying game that night between Ireland and Sweden. White-knuckling through the roundabouts, we made it to the car rental return just as they were closing the gates. The attendant was anxious to get to the game as well, he hustled us through check out and called us a cab. “Just leave the rubbish in the car, I’ll clean it later!” It seemed as though the entire city was rushing toward the coliseum.
Soccer fans were everywhere. The Swedes wore yellow and blue, and were hanging out of cabs, singing and yelling as they passed. They don’t serve alcohol in most of the stadium at the games, so every pub within 5km of the game were packed and overflowing into the streets. We flowed with the noisy masses toward the coliseum. Our seats were great, and the spectacle immense, but the Irish National Team lost a hard-fought match. Cashman had given us a list of pubs to hit on the way home from the game, so we walked the crowded streets toward the hotel in a light rain, and stopped for Guinness and shots with the locals along the way.
The streets of Dublin were packed with cabs. Many more taxis than private cars. We had covered a lot of ground in a very short time, some of the pubs we had visited pubs had Irish Heraldry posters on their walls where tourists could try to find their Clan names on large maps. I’m part-Irish, and this was my first time in Ireland. I hoped to somehow connect with my ancestry during our travels, to find some reflection in the people and country, but had not been able to locate my surname anywhere. We decided to visit the Stag’s Head, a big and busy pub where James Joyce used to hang out. It had been one of the bars the Seven Grand’s owner and designer had gone to when researching their plan to open a whiskey bar in Downtown L.A. The Stag’s Head was part of the reason we were in Ireland, they featured Power’s Irish Whiskey in a cask on the back bar.
When we walked up to the bar at the Stag’s Head I noticed a bottle of whiskey on the top shelf that looked like it had my name on it, but I couldn’t see the whole label, so I asked the bartender to pull it down. Although I hadn’t been able to find anything locating my Clan in Ireland, when he handed me the bottle, there it was: Shanahan’s Single Malt, with my family crest on the label! Unbelievable. Shots all around!
We got up the next morning and had to find a laundromat. Angus had a list of some of Dublin’s oldest and most famous pubs. We were going on a pub sprint, having one whiskey or beer in each location before moving on. Right across from the laundromat was one of the pubs on his list: The Long Hall.
The Long Hall is a historic Victorian pub, with dark red walls, elaborate carved woodwork and tiny mirror mosiac. Family-owned and operated, they made a great Irish coffee.
The next stop was Mulligan’s on Poolbeg, another James Joyce haunt, with a big back room that used to be a speakeasy. Apparently the speakeasy was so popular, local officials gave the owners a liquor license, rather than cause problems when it became an issue. Old paintings on the walls and white-haired, long bearded regulars gave the place the feel of revolution.
We hit the Temple Bar and the Palace, a posh joint resembling a cathedral of libation with high-pitched ceilings opening to domed skylights. A surly local squared up on Andrew after finding out we were American, accusing him of coming to “tarnish the pale white skin of their precious Irish Angels,” as if we were so lucky. He slammed his Guinness and stormed off into the night. A cool drizzle fell as we lurched toward Dawson Diner to meet up with Alex Strauss and Josh Harris from Bon Vivants for supper.
A final visit to the Stag’s Head concluded our time in Dublin for this trip. Shots of Shanahan’s and beers. We had early flights in the morning, with Angus having to return to the States and Andrew and I flying to Aberdeen to continue our education and meet up Jeff Baker, (one of our bartenders who was so riled up upon hearing about our trip plans that he flew on his own dime to come join the white-knuckle tour in Scotland.)
Ireland had been lush and accommodating, it reminded me a lot of the Pacific Northwest where I am from. Green and golden, with fresh air and slow rolling hills. The people had been laid-back and welcoming, the whole trip had been a dream-come-true. We wanted to return soon, and hopefully get more members of our bar staff to be able to make this pilgrimage as well.
We had come to Ireland to learn about whiskey- steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, stick on the wrong side of the wheel, car on the wrong side of the road. And we were supposed to be drinking Whiskey on the way! If you visit and decide to rent a car, I advise getting as much insurance as possible, drink coffee and water, drive more to the right than you think you need to, avoid the stone walls, honk at the cows because they will look at you, and don’t always trust the GPS or count on having wifi service anywhere. Stay out late enough to hear people singing pub songs and ask the old-timers for poems or at least some good Gaelic drinking toasts. Try to memorize them. The women are beautiful and the whiskey the most easy-drinking in the world, you will not be disappointed. Oh, and the diesel stations don’t offer squeegees for your windshield, so learn to love squinting through dead bugs.
Looking around Dublin I felt like I could live there. I guess that’s what connecting to your sense of ancestry is about- relating to those people around you enough that you feel like you could have a place there. The Irish have an innate ability to lift a person from the blues into a state of grace, they’ve been doing for themselves for centuries. A potent lesson, when you work in hospitality. Poetry and catharsis. That’s what I left Dublin thinking about. Thank you for the love, Ireland.
Pedro Shanahan, Seven Grand DTLA, Spirit Guide