Distilleries – waking the spirits

Being half Irish, there was always whiskey in the house when I was growing up. As it happens, my parents weren’t actually “proper” whiskey drinkers – I don’t have childhood memories of my father drinking anything “straight” or “on the rocks” like in the movies. In our house, whiskey was both a drink and a kind of statement of origin, as you can’t be an Irishman living abroad and not have Irish whiskey in the house. You just can’t.

Before schools went all PC and health and safety and banned all alcohol from school grounds under any circumstances, my parents were the superstars of my primary school fête, making Irish Coffee for the adults who would queue around the corner to get a glass. Because my parents did this with style – strong, black coffee from a percolator, soft whipped cream beaten as needed, brown sugar brought back from Ireland in the family holiday luggage, and Paddy’s Irish whiskey from Cork. All of this combined to perfection in the appropriate glass stemware. No plastic. No straws. No stirring.

When the Jameson Experience opened the old Cork Distilleries Company in Midleton, we were among the first visitors to tour the distillery, to sniff the malted barley, and to do the blind tasting in the oak-panelled bar at the end. (Well, the grown-ups, anyway.)

I, of course, hadn’t a clue (I was 14). When I was a kid, my father won a golf competition of sorts and the trophy was a miniature copper still on a wooden pedestal. I remember thinking how unlucky he was for winning such an ugly trophy. Last summer I stopped by at the distillery in Midleton with my sister and our hubbies and kids. There is a large copper still on the lawn outside the visitors’ centre. I pointed it out to the 6 children, telling them to look, LOOK at the still! Yes, that big shiny thing! Look, it’s a still! It’s what they used to make the whiskey here! Needless to say, they were not one bit impressed.

  
Of course, one might argue that this is a good thing. Kids shouldn’t know about strong alcohol! But, you see, that’s where the Irish culture and heritage comes in again – especially as an Irishwoman living abroad. I think it is important that my sons know the difference between Scottish and Irish whiskey and have the wisdom to never, EVER drink Bourbon or else be smote down by the spirits of their ancestors! Also, my husband likes whiskey as an after-dinner drink on special occasions and over long discussions with friends. Better they learn to tell the good stuff from the supermarket, mix-with-cola variety now. It’s general knowledge…

I was lucky enough to visit another type of distillery last spring in Nicaragua – the Flor de Caña rhum distillery in Chichigalpa.

 

 They have their visitor tour honed to an art. From sugar cane to molasses, through the distillation and ageing processes, you get to ride an electric trolley across the large estate and watch workers fit iron rings around wooden casks. Towards the end you even get to taste 18-year-old rhum in the family’s private underground bar, with furniture made from upcycled whiskey casks. Only problem: it was half past nine in the morning!

Like with many larger industries, most of Chichigalpa was built around the rhum plant. Workers moved there with their families, so Flor de Caña built a school, then a medical center and a municipal stadium. At the end of the 19th century, Flor de Caña brought Nicaragua’s first cinema projector to Chichigalpa for the entertainment of its workers and their families – the rhum plant has its own cinema to this day.

  
  

The white stuff on the floor is stuff to keep the termites away. I asked if they would attack the casks, but our guide just laughed. “No! They would just get drunk! The powder is to protect the pallets!” Silly me. 

The smell in that warehouse was amazing. “The angel’s share” our guide explained, the famous 1-2% of spirit that evaporates every year while it rests in it’s cask. In my opinion, some of the angels weren’t flying straight in Chichigalpa.

 

Sugar cane molasses – the raw materials for rhum. In the background you can see the old steam engine that was used to transport materials across the plant until only two decades ago.

The thing about alcohol

This is not a post to glorify alcohol. It’s not a post opposing drinking with abstinence, either. Hubby and I both have a case (or two?) of alcoholism in the extended family that would discourage anybody from overdoing it. I was never a big drinker – I lived in rural Ireland for most of my youth, and having to drive 20 miles to get to town and doing so with your mother’s Corsa is a pretty good way of staying sober through 5 years of college. Seriously – I had one hangover in my entire life (from the night before I met my husband, but that’s another story…). Today, I enjoy drinking good wine and the occasional cocktail. Hard liquor is not much my thing, but I do appreciate the skill involved in turning barley into whiskey, sugar cane into rhum. Something magic happens when grapes turn into wine, but much of it is down to science, intuition, and experience.

Another thing is getting older. Since hitting 40 last year (why do I remind myself???), Hubby and I have been taking the typical mid-life-crisis steps of getting more exercice, eating better, and drinking less. Living in France, drinking a glass or two of wine every day is not unusual. I have worked at secondary schools where there were bottles red wine or cider on the teacher’s lunch table every day. Trying to be more reasonable, though, we’ve been cutting down. Well, it doesn’t take long for you to feel the effects: after only a few weeks, my tolerance has gone way down. After a glass, I might have a second one, but just as likely I won’t finish it. I don’t want to go without – I really enjoy the taste! – but quick as that I can feel the alcohol going to my head and my cheeks getting rosy. What a wuss! Good thing my faourite tipple is champagne, which I prefer to drink before the meal at the apéritif. That way I have all the dinner (and gallons of sparkling water) to process my two glasses and wake up fresh as a daisy the next day.

Sláinte! Enjoy responsibly…

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