“The problem with some people is that when they aren’t drunk, they’re sober,” said William Butler Yeats.
Yes, the Irish love their drink, and with good reason – they have so much of the good stuff! During nearly two weeks in Ireland, we consumed the good stuff by the barrel. From the Liquid Gold to the Honey Blond to the Black Beauty, we tried it all. But, as delicious as it was to drink, the process of making it is almost as fascinating. We were fortunate enough to tour many of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s breweries and distilleries to see the craft process for ourselves (in addition to the slightly more traditional walking tours of historical sites and visiting beautiful ruins, of course).
Breweries and Distilleries in Ireland
The Old Bushmills Distillery
When we arrived for The Old Bushmills Distillery tour, the sweet smell of mash hung in the air over the hills of Northern Ireland. The humming of a haul truck reverberated off the distillery buildings as it was being loaded with the draff (grain waste from the brewing process). The draff was headed back to local farms to feed the livestock. This place feels absolutely perfect – this is an old distillery.
We picked up tickets and met our guide, Seamus. For the next hour, Seamus lectured us about the finer points of production of the Liquid Gold. The Bushmills distillery tour took us through the entire process – from raw grain, through distillation to aging and finally bottling. It was interesting to see that in addition to bottling Bushmills, they also do contract bottling for Jameson whiskey here, too. It was a cool day as we toured the facility, but the heat in the distillation room was an intense 35 degrees Celsius. But that was nothing compared to the warmth we felt inside when we had a hot toddy in the sample room!
Bushmills has been run by liquor conglomerates since 1988. However, despite this corporate muscle behind them, The Old Bushmills Distillery retains an independent charm and attitude. We’ve toured many breweries and distilleries around the world, but this is one of the best experiences we’ve had.
The Guinness Storehouse
The Black Beauty. There are beers – and then there is Guinness. This is a beer that has become the stuff of legend. When we first visited The Guinness Storehouse in 2008, which is Ireland’s top tourist attraction, we learned about some of those legends.
The Guinness Storehouse is an experience, not a factory tour. You don’t actually see beer being made. Through engaging video displays and wall panels, you learn about the four main ingredients in beer: water, yeast, barley, and hops. To this, Guinness adds marketing. The company’s fascinating advertisements over the years are on display.
Arguably, the highlight of the Guinness Storehouse experience is the building itself. The Storehouse is beautifully designed and shaped like a pint glass. The apex of the building is the Gravity Bar. From its 7th floor perch, you can enjoy your pint of Guinness (included in the price of admission) and the stunning views of Dublin.
A heavy rain began to fall as I took refuge inside the Jameson Distillery. I was pretty wet by the time I arrived, but warmed myself in the lobby waiting for my ticket time. The Jameson Bow St. Distillery experience in Dublin is not a factory, but they recreate the mood of Jameson’s vision through a brief video presentation. The artifacts of brewing (kettles, distillers, chillers, etc.) evoke the ambiance of 1780 when the Jameson Distillery once occupied this location on Bow Street (the Liquid Gold is now brewed in the city of Cork). [Note: Until 2017, the location on Bow St. was referred to as “The Old Jameson Distillery. Visitors will now find it re-branded as “Jameson Bow St.”]
The focus of the Jameson tour is on tasting. I was selected to participate in a head-to-head comparison of Scotch (Johnny Walker Black), Tennessee whiskey (Jack Daniels) and Irish whiskey (Jameson 5-year). Through the sampling, Jameson shows the visitor how their triple distillation process produces a mellower and smoother drinking whiskey. After being chilled to the bone by the rain, this was the perfect way to warm up on a cold Irish afternoon!
And the two great misses of our trip to Ireland—
Since 1710, Smithwick’s Brewery in Kilkenny has been brewing the perfect pint of red ale. Smithwick’s is crafted in the St. Francis Abbey Brewery, the site of a Franciscan Abbey (reminding me of the Franciscan monks brewing beer at the Andechs Monastery). On some signs in Kilkenny, you’ll still see reference to the “Abbey Brewery.”
Yet Smithwick’s gets an honorable mention here. Unfortunately, we weren’t actually able to tour the factory. We arrived on the last day they offered tours before closing down for the next year to rebuild their visitor’s experience. The tours on that last day didn’t seem particularly full, however, we were assured they were “fully booked.” The Smithwick brewery is a lovely building in one of our favorite Irish cities. Here’s to hoping they’ll be open on our next visit back to Ireland!
Bulmer’s Original Irish Cider
We discovered Bulmer’s on our first trip to Ireland in 2008. Something about consuming a cold pint of honey blond cider in the middle of a freezing Irish winter appealed to us. When we returned to the United States, we were dismayed to find that Bulmer’s was sold as Magner’s, but there was some import problem and the product wasn’t available. Thankfully, those dark days are gone and you can find a bottle of Magner’s in my refrigerator today.
On this trip to Ireland, we were extremely excited to tour the Bulmer’s facility in Clonmel and learn the magic of their craft. And then we learned that Bulmer’s doesn’t offer tours or even have one of those experience centers. A pity really.
Ireland has a long, drinking heritage. The pub has been a central fixture in Irish life for hundreds of years. By visiting the breweries and distilleries, we were able to trace Irish happiness back to its source.
Visitor Information for Ireland’s Breweries and Distilleries
The Old Bushmill’s Distillery – Hours are – Summer: Mon.-Sat. 9:15am-4:45pm, Sun. 12:00-4:45pm. Winter hours: Mon.-Sat. 10:00-4:45pm, Sun. 12:00-4:45pm. Location: 2 Distillery Road, Bushmills, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland BT57 8XH. No photography allowed inside the distillery and no open toed shoes on the tour. Ample parking.
The Guinness Storehouse – Hours are 9:30am-5:00pm daily. Location: St. James Gate, Dublin 8, Ireland. Complimentary car park.
Jameson Bow St. Distillery – Hours are Mon.-Thurs. 10:00am-5:30pm, Fri. 10:00am-6:00pm, Sat. 10:00-6:30pm, Sun. 10:00am-5:30pm. Location: Bow Street, Smithfield Village, Dublin 7.
Smithwick’s Brewery – Hours are – March-October: 10:00-6:00pm, November-February 11:00-5:00. Location: 44 Parliament St., Kilkenny.
We were the guests of the companies mentioned, but as always, our opinions are our own.