The first evening I ever worked in a bar, I, like a lot of people, bluffed my way in to the job. Things were going great, I had mastered polishing glasses, my lemon slices were second to none, that was until I looked up and saw a wizened old man sat at the bar. Well, I say sitting, but it was hard to tell where the coated and chipped varnish of the bar ended and his bog stained hands began, he looked like he had been carved into the counter, and to be honest, I really didn’t hear him walk in. No small talk, just the politely gruff request for a “pint and a ball of malt.”

Not wanting to giveaway the fact I had no idea what I was doing, I started to fill the slowest pint of Guinness ever pulled, looking his way hoping for some kind of affirmation. I knew by the cut of him though, with his Donegal tweed cap and coat, it was definitely a pint of plain he wanted. That was the easy part, I hadn’t a notion as to what a ball of malt was, but instinctively I knew he wanted a whiskey chaser. It didn’t matter which one, not that there was much choice anyway: Jameson, Paddy, and Power’s; that was about it. I confidently poured him a half one, and confidently made my first mistake. I asked him: “Would you like water or ice for your whiskey?” He looked up from his pint, already two thirds of the way down, stared at me with his bloodshot eyes, now filling like turloughs of clarity, and told me: “The only thing you cut whiskey with, is more whiskey”. He let out a guffaw of laughter, and finished his pint. He knew well.


That was my first introduction to Irish whiskey, and there was something mystical about that exchange, that amber blend of summer-soaked barley and a farmer down from the mountains for the day. Later that evening, an American tourist plonked himself on a high stool and called for a Scotch on the rocks. Without thinking, I said to him: “You’ve come all the way to Ireland, would you not try an Irish?” He looked at me, said: “Huh, I guess you’re right, hit me up.” He took his first sip, and I know now, the look on his face was the years of peaty smoke being cleansed from his palette by the subtle flavours of his first Irish whiskey.

So there it was, my first step down a road that would see me never sell a Scotch whiskey in over seventeen years working in hotels, bars and restaurants. It wasn’t until years later; a work colleague pointed out to me he had never seen me sell a Scotch. I thought about it, and realised he was right. It hadn’t been a conscious decision, but subconsciously, all those years, my pride in being Irish had distilled itself down to a mash of grain and cultural currency.

I explored the history of Irish whiskey, found out that before prohibition in America, there were over four hundred distilleries in Ireland, now sadly down to a handful. That was the start of it’s downfall. Being our biggest market at the time, the demand dried up. Abroad, Irish whiskey developed a bad name. There were so many used Irish whiskey barrels floating around America, it was the obvious choice for bootleggers to fill them with cheap hooch and pass it off as “Irish”. Coupled with the fact a lot of G.I.s developed a taste for Scotch while stationed in Europe during W.W. 2, it gave rise to the myth that Irish whiskey was an inferior product.


Luckily for me, the recent global popularity of Irish whiskey makes my mission easier, as shelves are now filled with a huge selection of Irish whiskeys. There are whiskey trails, boards, and tastings now, but for me, it all boils down to that moment. Funnily enough, it was the first and last time I was ever asked for a whiskey in that fashion, but every time somebody orders a Scotch, I hear it and see that old man smiling over his ball of malt.

 

Damien 

Bar Manager  - Harbour Hotel Galway 

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May 16, 2016