Irish monks are widely considered the first in the world to have made whiskey, having seen the Moors in Morocco use copper alembic stills to create medicines and perfumes. The monks decided to copy the same system to make “uisce beatha,” the water of life.
Hundreds of years later, outside Dublin city’s medieval walls — “at liberty” from laws and taxes — the Liberties was becoming the center of industry, famous for boots, biscuits and breweries. By the 1800s, the area was ushering in the golden age of Irish whiskey, too — spelled with an “e” to distinguish it from Scotch whisky, which was often blended.
“We were the leading city for whiskey production. There were 35 working distilleries here and as many breweries,” says Sheila Renehan, a historian who is also a tour guide with Pearse Lyons, one of the new Liberties distilleries. “You could get drunk on the smell coming down from Thomas Street to James Street.”
The heart of it was the “Golden Triangle,” where the powerhouse names — Roe, Jameson and Powers — were making booze. A gradual decline meant that only Jameson and Powers survived, and when they merged and moved operations to Cork, in the 1970s, Ireland’s capital city had no distillery. Until 2015.
Now, long after the heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries, and as new shops, hotels and apartments slowly generate change in the Liberties, whiskey distillers are claiming their heritage as part of the revival of the craft — and this neighborhood (part of Dublin 8). Tours in the four new businesses go beyond simply how it’s made. You’ll learn quirky trade customs, hear folklore, taste in an old church and even design your own cocktail. So grab your walking shoes.
Dublin Liberties Distillery
Go for: The legends
Dublin Liberties Distillery opened in 2019 in an old stone building on Mill Street that was once a mill and then a tannery. It’s not a typical tourist area, although a regeneration has brought a row of smart buildings to the street, including a hotel.
The Liberties wasn’t just known for the one famous spirit: One story goes that locals thought that a face carved into an arch behind Christchurch Cathedral looked like the devil. You had to pass it to enter the Liberties, and thus enter an area nicknamed “hell.”
At Dublin Liberties Distillery, three copper pot stills work their magic to create the golden liquor from water, grain (usually barley in Ireland) and yeast: one pot still named after Lucy Finch, who owned the building 300 years ago; one after Darkey Kelly, a notorious brothel owner who was burned at the stake as a witch in 1761; and the third honoring the famous local character Molly Malone. The distillery has its own water source — a well connected to Dublin’s underground river, the Poddle. The alcohol matures in former bourbon barrels in a warehouse outside the city, taking three years to legally become whiskey.
Sip a whiskey-and-honeycomb liqueur at the start of a tour, then end under an old mill beam, learning about properly “nosing” (smelling) and tasting, perhaps noticing notes of caramel and vanilla in the Dublin Tannery Edition, or trying the blend that has toffee-apple, caramel and cider flavors. Named after the eerie carving, that one’s called Oak Devil.
Price: Tours from 16 euros.
Address: 33 Mill St. (in Dublin 8)
Roe & Co.
Go for: The hands-on experience
In another part of the Liberties, on James’s Street, at Roe & Co., a wooden “sensory box” in Room 106 holds sniffable items representing flavors of their whiskey: malted barley, fruity candy, caramels, cloves.
Using a bottle of a newly made spirit, tour guide Mia Mackovic describes how the drops of liquid that run down the inside of a glass are called “legs” in the business, but, “the Irish, being more dramatic, call them tears,” she grins.
Roe & Co. opened in the former Guinness power plant, opposite the Guinness brewery, in 2019. The original distillery, called George Roe & Co., dating to 1757, was on 17 acres nearby; its eight pot stills made 2 million gallons a year. But factors including Prohibition in the States, Ireland’s War of Independence with Britain and a new, more-efficient type of still that went into use in Scotland led to the decline of distilling in Ireland in the 1920s. George Roe’s closed in 1923. By the mid-’70s, the industry was barely hanging on.
Today, in the “beating heart” of the distillery, three huge copper stills sit bathed in light from giant windows, with industrial pipes overhead — a reminder of its past as a power station.
In a workshop devoted to flavors, rows of glass bottles and scientific-looking steel utensils are lined up on benches. Don an apron and create your own cocktail based on one of the five basic tastes: sour, sweet, bitter, umami and salt. (Choosing “sour,” we mixed a cordial, made with green tea, malic acid and tonic, with Manzanilla sherry and whiskey, then added soda water and ice.)
The tour finishes with a seasonal cocktail in the Power House bar — a bright space with retro seating and industrial-style lights. Parts of the original power station, left untouched, are visible through glass, another nod to the past in this building’s new life.
Price: Tours 25 euros, including cocktail experience.
Address: 92 James’s St. (in Dublin 8)
Go for: Tastings in an old church
Here, Sheila Renehan, the historian and guide, leads us to the graveyard at St. James’s Church, telling stories of the 100,000 souls buried there over the years, everyone from vicars and soldiers to market people and craftsmen. The graveyard and the first church opened here in 1196.
The late Pearse Lyons, an Irish brewer and distiller who founded Alltech in Kentucky, chose this site for his distillery because his grandfather and great grandfather, a family of coopers (barrel-makers), were from nearby Echlin Street.
Inside the church, amber-colored stained-glass windows showing the craft of the coopers cast a warm light. Two copper pot stills, Mighty Molly and Little Lizzie, sit proudly where the altar once was. In an Irish tradition to name the stills after female family members, these memorialize Pearse Lyons’s grand aunts Margaret Dunne, Ireland’s first female cooper, and her sister Elizabeth.
The church closed in the 1960s and was deconsecrated, later operating as a lighting showroom. When it was renovated, a team of archaeologists uncovered hundreds of overgrown graves and found a 17th-century Spanish coin. The distillery has been open to visitors since 2017.
At Pearse Lyons, you’ll be able to compare five-, seven- and 12-year-old whiskeys matured in casks that held bourbon, sherry and even beer. The tastings are in a bar set into the church’s transept — an appropriate place to ponder spirits past and present.
Price: Tours from 20 euros.
Address: 121-122 James’s Street (in Dublin 8)
Go for: The innovation
Over on Newmarket Square, in 2015, Teeling was the first new distillery to open in Dublin in 125 years; its first whiskey, released three years later, was the first distilled in Dublin since the 1970s. At the time, a bottle of the new Single Pot Still sold for the equivalent of nearly $13,000 at auction, a record.
For founders Stephen and Jack Teeling, making it runs in the blood: Their ancestor Walter Teeling had a distillery in nearby Marrowbone Lane in the 1700s. Today’s Teeling Distillery prides itself on new techniques and trying different raw materials.
On the tour, you’ll see the huge fermenters where the raw ingredients — grain, water and yeast — are turned into alcohol and sent to the three copper pot stills, Alison, Natalie and Rebecca, named after Jack’s daughters. This is where you learn why Irish whiskey is usually triple-distilled (unlike Scotch, which is distilled twice).
The tour visits the barrel room, where you’ll learn about the “angel’s share,” a belief about who seemed to be stealing from barrels. You will also hear why the famed and much-discussed Irish weather — in particular, the constant temperature with no extremes of heat and cold — is actually ideal for making the drink.
At the tour’s end, in the lively tasting room, you’ll learn to sip “properly,” and try the distillery’s small-batch, single-malt and single-grain whiskeys.
Price: Tours from 17 euros.
Address: 13-17 Newmarket (in Dublin 8)
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