Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Road to Belfast

Tooling around Ireland is not like traveling in the States.  Distance is abbreviated.   You can drive from coast to coast, from way south Cork to way north Ballycastle, in 5 hours and 10 minutes.  We could have driven straight east from Donegal to Belfast, west coast to east, in just over two hours.  Instead, we looped up north.  We found we had plenty of time.  Besides, we had places to go and things to see. 

When it comes to Americans driving in Ireland right is right and left is just plain wrong.  It took my friend Ken and I quite a while driving north from Donegal to turn that little switch in our brains that allowed us to feel comfortable going down the road.  The roundabouts were a challenge.  It felt for all the world that bearing left would throw us head long into a collision that would kill us all. While old habits, in this case 50 plus years of driving in the right lane, die hard-I’m glad to report they do finally die.  Happily, they expired before we did.

From Ardara in Donegal we took the road to a large city on the border of the Republic of Ireland and the island’s northern six counties.  The name of that large city on the border of Donegal County and its neighboring county to the east, one of the six counties that make up Northern Ireland, is disputed.  If you are a loyalist, which refers to loyalty to the Queen of England, and usually synonymous with being Protestant, you call that city, and its county, Londonderry.  If you do not recognize or accept the partition of your island into two parts, you are most likely Catholic.  In that case you ditch the London prefix and call it Derry.  Politics, religion, and use of language intertwine.  Let’s call it Derry.  If nothing else its shorter. 

I don’t pretend to understand the passion behind the semantics, but then I didn’t experience “the troubles” nor am I steeped in an Irish history created by centuries of oppression, strife, rebellion and violence.  I don’t feel what those living on that beautiful island feel, or what family lore was left to Irish children for generations.  I just try to be sensitive to everyone and learn.

We drove a rented BMW SUV on the wrong side of the road to Derry, where we promptly got lost.    It’s a city of 85,000.  At the first glimpse of a possible exit, we headed straight out of town.  People tell us it was a mistake skipping Derry, and if I go back, I’ll try to rectify that.  But you can’t see everything.

As we drove from the Republic of Ireland into what is called by some Northern Ireland we tried to determine when and where we crossed the line that separates the two government authorities, which use different currency, and all the things that borders do to divide both land and people.  We never found it.  It was invisible.  At some point while lost in Derry we went into a gas station/convenient store and they didn’t take Euros, instead accepting our credit card and pointing out where we might find an ATM to get some pounds.  Also, the road signs changed from kilometers to miles.

Our transition from one human engineered geographical construct to the other was completely seamless.  We couldn’t even tell where checkpoints used to be.  The peace accord of 1998 accomplished that.  The prospect of re-establishing a hard border to establish customs and trade control, instead of the one we so effortlessly crossed, between the Republic of Ireland which will remain in the European Union and the Norther six counties which will ostensibly leave with England, is one of the main Brexit worries and a key political obstacle.  For good reason I’d say.  It would be a step back for all of Ireland, and I found no appetite for that among any of the people with whom I talked, no matter where they lived or went to church.

The closer we got to the sea, the more beautiful the Irish countryside became.  We headed straight to the town of Bushmills.  It was a pilgrimage of sorts.  We were headed to a whiskey distillery that is dear to my heart, and most likely my liver.  It was the Bushmills Distillery, which lays claim as the oldest distillery in the world, granted license by King James I of England in 1608.  My guess is plenty of whiskey was made in stills all over Ireland and the neighboring British isles prior to that but someone produced an old official license for Bushmills and the marketing spin took over from there.

We took the tour, our second of the week, having done the same at the site of the former Jameson whiskey distillery on Bow Street in Dublin.   Jameson moved its distillery in 1975 to Midleton in County Cork where every drop of that nice liquor in the green bottles is now made.  It maintains the Dublin facility as a warehouse and a first-rate tasting room and tour site.  The Bow Street experience features an historic old building and a fancy tour with slide show, dramatic music, dimmed lights.  Besides the tasting at the end, we learned things.  Here’s what makes whiskey from Ireland distinctly Irish.
The Irish don’t use peat in their distilling process, unlike the Scots.  Scotch Whisky (notice the spelling, no e in the last syllable) gets it distinctive taste from peat used as fuel to toast barley.  Barley is wet down and allowed to germinate slightly, then toasted to stop germination.  Irish whiskey uses malted barley too but omits the peat. 

Irish whiskey is distilled three times, at least the leading brands-Jameson and Bushmills, whereas scotch and bourbon rarely are.  Jameson differs slightly in its grain mix.  At one time in Ireland malted barley was taxed.  In order to keep costs down Jameson began using unmalted barley and corn.  Then they liked the taste and continued.  Jameson also blends pot still whiskey with that made using a column still.  That’s a little technical but they think it makes a difference.

Most all makers of whiskey use charred oak barrels, usually from Kentucky, sometimes from France, and for the fancier smoother stuff they switch the maturing whiskey to used barrels that once held a sweeter liquor like sherry, port wine, or rum. Years of aging and the type of cask whiskey is stored in makes the biggest difference in a whiskey’s taste.

Bushmills whiskey, my favorite, comes from Antrim County where the McClures came from, or at least lived for a while.  The walk through the Bushmills distillery was more of a working tour, going from building to building as workers were present and the distilling process was taking place in its various stages.

The finishing room where the whiskey casks are aged is my favorite. Annual temperature variation, in climates with cold winters and hot summers, pushes the liquid into the wood when it is hot, contracts when it is cold, and in so doing picks up flavor from the barrel and the char. You can’t beat the smell in the finishing room.  As whiskey ages it loses volume through evaporation.  The whiskey that is lost when the wood barrels breathe is called the angel’s share.  That’s what you smell in the finishing room.  Heavenly.

I asked the guide which came first, the town or the distillery.  Bushmills the town was first.  Long before whiskey was made there, mills which ground grain were powered by the river Bush.  Hence the name.

Only 100% malted barley is used to make Bushmills whiskey.  The barley is grown near Cork, where the soil makes the grain sweeter.  Every drop of Bushmills whiskey ever made was, and continues to be, produced in that one original distillery on the north coast of the island known as Ireland.  Here is the original building, or so they say.

It was my fourth distillery tour, so I had a pretty good idea of the process.  But on this tour, I had a question I was itching to ask.  I waited till the tour was finishing and asked if of my tour guide privately.
“Some of my Catholic friends back in Illinois don’t like to drink Bushmills because they say its Protestant whiskey, whereas Jameson is Catholic.  One friend claims you have never hired a Catholic here at your distillery.  Any truth to that?”

He turned his head and grimaced.  I hoped I hadn’t offended him.  But he turned back with a collected sort of look.  He began calmly. 

“You can go home and tell your friends that’s BULLSHIT.  Oh, make no mistake at one time it was true.  Absolutely. The still was Protestant owned and that’s where the jobs went.  But that all ended in the 1960’s.  We’re a modern country with equal hiring practices.  For example, I’m Catholic.  So is our master distiller, the man with the top job here.  Our workforce reflects the diversity of our country in that regard, and Bushmills is proud of that.  But we can’t seem to live the rumour down.  That damned story has lived on in the States way too long.  Help me spread the word that it’s false, would you?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

In the gift shop I bought a 16-year old single malt Bushmills that is finished in a Spanish Oloroso sherry cask.   A very thoughtful person bought me a bottle for my retirement, and as stingy as I was with it, that bottle was long ago emptied.  I haven’t found it since.  Colleen took my picture in the tasting room having a glass of it.  It felt like coming home.  Over the years I’ve bought enough Bushmills I feel like I own a piece of the place.

From Bushmills we drove up and along the coast, a short three miles away, to the Giant’s Causeway, a distinctive geological area and UNESCO world heritage site caused by volcanic activity.   There at the edge of Antrim County molten basalt pushed through chalk beds to form an extensive lava plateau.  As the lava cooled, it contracted like mud does when it dries.  The lava fractured vertically into pillars and horizontally into hexagonal and octagonal stone biscuits, often joined by ball and socket joints.  The tallest pillars are 39 feet tall, and the lava in the cliffs is 92 feet thick in places.  The tops of the columns form what look like stepping stones, symmetrical cobblestones if you will, leading from the cliffs into the sea to disappear under the water.

This volcanic activity happened way before Irish whiskey, Guinness, potatoes, flat wool caps, corned beef and cabbage, horse racing, the Irish sweepstakes, smiling eyes, leprechauns, religion of any stripe, songs or even tunes.  It took place before language or people to speak it.  Homo Sapiens showed up in Europe 45,000 years ago.  The Giant’s Causeway was formed during the Paleocene era, 50-60 million years ago.  And I thought the Bushmills distillery was old. 

With it being Ireland, the people who eventually lived there created a legend around the Giant’s Causeway.  Here’s the story.

In Gaelic mythology the Irish giant Fionn macCumhaill (English translation Finn MacCool) was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner.  Finn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel to Scotland so the two giants could meet.  In one version of the tale (Irish legends are famous for having more than one ending) Finn defeats Benandonner handily.  In another Finn hides from the Scottish giant after realizing Benandonner is much bigger than he.  Finn’s wife disguises Finn as a baby and tucks him in a large cradle.  When Benandonner see the size of the “baby”, he reckons the father, Finn, must be a giant among giants and flees back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Finn could not chase him down.
Across a sea channel not far away are identical basalt columns, part of the same lava flow, at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish isle of Staffa.  They lend credence to both stories. You can count on the Irish for always having a story, sometimes two. 

We stayed till late afternoon at the seashore with tourists from all over the world, drawn by the unique and unusual geology of the Giant’s Causeway.  Sometimes the most fascinating attractions are the natural ones.

Before the sun set, we made our way to Belfast.  It had been a long but very good day.