How craft spirits are bringing Dublin’s Golden Triangle back to life

After a lost century, Dublin’s Golden Triangle glows again, with new distilleries riding high on Ireland’s craft spirits boomTuesday, 17 March 2020

The smell makes me smile. It’s faint, but as I walk down James Street, it gains strength. Ghosting over the black gates, swilling around old steeples and 21st-century cranes, its toasty, porridge-like pungency nests in my nostrils. Some Dubliners love it; some hate it. But we all know it instantly: it’s the smell of barley roasting in Guinness’ St James’s Gate Brewery.

“That’s how The Liberties neighbourhood smells a couple of hours a day, my friends,” says tour guide Shane McCann on a tour of the newly opened Roe & Co Distillery. “Tourists wonder what’s going on.” 

The Liberties is home to the Guinness Storehouse, Ireland’s most-visited tourist attraction, but the Black Stuff is far from the only drink on offer round these parts — Ireland’s craft spirits boom has seen several new whiskey distilleries open up in recent years. A couple of minutes’ walk from Roe & Co is Pearse Lyons Distillery in the former St James’ Church; copper stills sit in its nave and a glass spire lights up seductively at night. Nearby Newmarket is home to the Teeling Whiskey Distillery, whose bottles can be found in every pub in Dublin.

Dublin has form with whiskey. In the 1800s, a small area of the city known as the ‘Golden Triangle’ was a global powerhouse, with brands like Jameson, Powers and George Roe (for which Roe & Co is named) known all over the world. But a failure to modernise, the rise of Scottish whisky, war at home and Prohibition abroad combined to create what’s often referred to as ‘a lost century’. 

However, tides are turning. In 1980, just two working distilleries remained on the island; today, there are 30.  

Continuing the tour, Shane leads us to a flavour workshop. The aim is to “demystify cocktails a little,” he says, encouraging us to blend whiskey and ice with sweet, sour and salty additions. “Bar menus can be confusing. Some guys light their drinks on fire, others throw orange peel all over the place — and it all makes you just want to run out the door.”

What’s remarkable is the neighbourhood in which this story is unfolding. “The Liberties is a living, breathing village,” says Liz Gillis, a historian who takes me on a walking tour of the area. Turning one corner, we see a chunk of medieval city wall. Turning another, we pass Variety Jones, a hip new restaurant with one Michelin star. Meath Street, with its street vendors, feels like a small town where everyone knows one another (“they know your secrets as well!” Liz laughs). But there are new hotels and apartment complexes, too. Cranes hover over a skyline once dominated by church steeples; debates about gentrification are in full swing. I ask Liz how she feels about the development in the area. “There’s nothing wrong with change,” she muses. “They just don’t have to go knocking everything down. It’s about an interaction of both.”

Back at Roe & Co Distillery, Shane invites us to open a wooden box. It’s filled with jars of clove drops and toffee, whose notes we seek out in whiffs of whiskey. Momentarily, the smell of barley slips my mind.

More info: Distillery tours in The Liberties can be taken at Roe & Co, Pearse Lyons and Teeling. visitdublin.com   

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