Walk down to O’Connell Street in Dublin, cross The River Liffey, turn right, and eventually you’ll reach an area known as The Liberties.
Once the city was walled, and this was where the boundaries were. The area’s called The Liberties because an unofficial town, outside the rules and taxes of Dublin itself. There’s a modern building here called The Corn Exchange, and that’s because it was here that merchants would enter the city with produce from the land. And here brewers and distillers would meet them and buy grain at prices lower than they could in Dublin itself. Search hard enough and you’ll find any number of references and symbols of the rich brewing and distilling heritage that once existed here. You can even see the copper stills, now moss green, abandoned by the mighty Powers Distillery.
There is little of those times left today, and the area is depressingly depressed, a shoddy mass of dirty walls, torn posters and closed down businesses.The huge all singing and dancing tourist attraction The Guinness Storeroom is here but the irony of scores of tourists being shuttled in and out from the city centre as local pubs with Guinness signs are closed down and boarded up isn’t lost on the locals.
Through Guinness and now with a resurgent craft industry, beer has always been an integral part of the Dublin fabric. But while whiskey is a feature of every bar in the city, Ireland’s capital didn’t distill it for many many years. So it is appropriate that in the heart of The Liberties distilling has just started again.
It’s a good walk from the city centre to the new site, and I doubt I would have ever found it without Fin O’Connor, who has just completed a book on pot still whiskey and is a font of information on the Liberties and the distilleries that operated here. There were 37 of them at one time, some considerably bigger than Jameson. It’s a perfect platform for my visit to the Teeling Whiskey company’s new Dublin Distillery.
Stephen Teeling had pre-warned me that the new distillery was ‘rough and ready.’ In actual fact it’s a building site. Distiller Alex Chasko has to lead us round piles of plastic sheeting, building materials and debris. The distillery is dark and incomplete. The visitor reception area is nothing but an empty space with a concrete floor. When Alex is asked when it is due to open he mentions a date towards the end of April.
Not a chance, though often looks can be deceptive and it might shape up fast. An most importantly from a whiskey lover’s point of view, it is fit for purpose and its whiskey heart is beating.
Alex uses the light on his phone to lead us down a a ramp to the still room, where three stills are in place and producing. They’re an impressive site and the symbolism of the gleaming copper isn’t lost on us: Dublin has whiskey spirit again – for the first time in 125 years.
When you’re in Dublin these days, you can’t help but feel that the Teelings are reclaiming their Dublin heritage from the Jameson family. They’re too polite to say that, of course, but walk through the city and Teeling is a name you see a lot. And hear a lot, because there’s a buzz about what the family is doing, and the excitement is almost palpable.
The family remembers its roots too. When Sweny’s (sic) the little ancient chemist mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses and now run as a charity faced closure due to a council rates demand, Teeling stepped in to provide whiskey for a tasting that paid off the bill.
The Teelings have form in Dublin. The whiskey relationship started in 1782 with Walter Teeling. But while The Liberties is all about heritage and history, you’d expect something a little different and innovative from the family, and that’s what they intend to offer.
“Our philosophy is that while we are respectful to the rich provenance of Irish whiskey,” as a new generation of whiskey makers we are confident to forge a new future for Dublin and Irish whiskey,” says the company’s website.”
You better believe it. The plan is to offer tours from may for 14 Euros. There will be a retail space offering exclusive merchandise and bottlings. There will be a cafe and whiskey and cocktail tastings. And there will be a distillery making single malt and pot still whiskey to a 50:50 recipe.
Bringing back whiskey to where it all started for Dublin is an emotional necessity for the feelings, but it might make sound business sense, too. There are some signs that life is returning to The Liberties, and it has the potential to become fashionably bohemian. If so, Teeling will be at its very heart.