Water is life on this day served in two very different flavors.
Let your friends know
Courtesy of Kerry coaches a first glimpse was gleaned as the bus rolled towards Inch beach. The narrow R561 forced a few extra pull offs as tractors inched by on the country lane. I rubbernecked and through the bus windows photographed sheep and cattle silhouetted against the silvery surface of River Maine’s estuary. Closer to our destination the coach hugged the Wild Atlantic Way as it curved along the shore. The shifty Irish weather had greyed over by the time we rolled along Strand Street but colourful houses brightened up the picturesque town. Dingle might once have been a “one horse town” with fishing being the “horse”. However back in 1983 that changed when a lone bottlenose Dolphin was first spotted in the bay. Since, a cottage industry has grown up around the playful mammal and we were here to meet him. He had been cast in bronze in the harbor assuring any visitor at least a glimpse of him.
“Fungus among us”
At the end of the gangway a dozen or so land crabs boarded “Steren-an-mor” leaving plenty of elbowroom to move around at the rear of the boat. Gingerly the captain steered the blue-hulled vessel to sea. On the way out we passed a few fishermen along the stony shore tossing lines and hoping for catch of the day. The Hussy’s Folly stone tower reached for the sky and adjacent a sizable white dwelling, perhaps a McMansion as the Irish sarcastically call grand houses built at the top of the financial wave that crashed ashore in 2008 leaving some unfinanced and unfinished. A group of bright red and yellow kayaks skirted alongside the dark jagged cliffs on the calmer side of the bay. We looked across the green grey waters separating us for any sign, an odd swirl, a patch of foam or the give-away, a dorsal fin breaching the surface. Nothing. We had been warned that in case of no-show there was no money back, after all he is a wild animal with a large brain and a free will. We scanned and scouted the surface for any sign…… Nothing. This was not a wild goose chase after an imaginary Nessie but a very real look out for “Fungi”. The story goes that his name is a spinoff of “Fungus” which was the derogatory nick name given to a young local lad who tried to grow a beard. Perhaps not the most flattering name but it stuck.
So suddenly Bridget the ship’s mate called out and pointed. She had spotted Fungi’s fin. By the time I focus my camera on the spot he is long gone. Eyes scan the last seen spot, no sign. Then a few minutes later he surfaced again this time a bit closer to the boat. We clamber to the starboard side and cameras rattle. He is gone again and the picture shows only a bit of white foam on the surface. Then he surprises us all by showing up in the bow wave just meters off starboard. He tags along and literally rides the wave up and down alongside. Finally a few decent pictures of his arched back and dorsal. He appears much larger than I expected perhaps two and a half meters and he is having fun even if we never get to see his smiley face. So as sudden as he appeared he is gone as the skipper steers towards the ocean.
As soon as the boat left the seclusion of the bay cliffs rose taller and the wind picks up. There on top of the ridge, a round tower, an old lighthouse used to guide sailing ships in centuries gone by. Dingle was an important departure point for Pilgrims who were dropped off in A Coruña to walk the Camino to Santiago de Campostela in Spain. On the port side the skipper alert us to a dark silhouette sticking out of the water on the horizon. The islet of Skellig Michael held a Monastery from the 8th to the 12 century and the monks lived in “beehive” like structures built with stacked stone. Since receiving World Heritage Status in 1996 there are no permanent dwellings. However day trippers flock to the islet for completely other reasons today. It was on the craggy rock upshot a cluster of “beehive” huts were recreated for the final scene in 'The Force Awakens’ and the opening scene in “The last Jedi” the seventh and eighth installments of the Star Wars saga. However for signs of light sabers and the Millenium Falcon fans have to wait until the pre-Christmas release. Back on planet earth the non-warp speed “Steren..” points towards the harbor for our return to shore. As we enter the bay we meet another tour boat and are treated to act two of Fungi the show as he plays in the waves for a few minutes.
Beer and batter
Back on Strand Street a catch of the day and the nation’s most famous Irish stout fills the void left by the boat trip. To shake it all down I stroll up and down Green Street where most facades have nothing to do with the single color but more the pallet of a rainbow. Back on the bus we barely roll out of town before it comes to a halt by a chain link fence. Inside the fence a blue metal shed looking like a grease monkey’s holdout. The pull-up shutter however reveals something completely different. It is not the odors of petroleum and rubber but the aroma of fermented barley that meet us by the door.
Three vice men?
The inside reveals the effort of “three independent spirits: Oliver Hughes; Liam LaHart and Peter Mosley” who had had founded the Porterhouse Brewing Company back in 1996. In 2012 as Ireland started to recover from the 2008 financial collapse they changed gear and rolled up the shutter to Dingle Distillery.
Beyond the roll-up half-a-dozen pine walled vats on steel legs against a backdrop of glistening copper. A cloud of steam rolls our way as a drained mash tun is raked out. After the mornings nippy Atlantic winds this is a place to warm up in more ways than one. The Dingle distillery is quality over quantity and the small scale operation stick to traditional pine walled vats. One reason is that the wood contains an enzyme preventing alcohol from becoming vinegar. But that is luckily not what I smell as I stick my nose over an open wash back where the wort is mixed with yeast. As sugar is transformed into low concentration alcohol CO2 bubbles lift some of the rich aroma into the air.
Once the yeast is exhausted the “beer” a milky light greyish liquid heads for the wash still where it is converted into low “wine” with an alcohol content of 20-25%. In to the intermediary spirit still the alcohol content is further concentrated. These first two stills have a ball at the beginning of the neck allowing for a higher reflux rate yielding smoother spirit taste. The third and final spirit still dispatches a clear 80% spirit at the “spirit locker” which is left open, unlike in Scotland where it is kept closed under padlock and key. To give whiskey its flavor and color it is filled into recycled former bourbon barrels of American oak for the minimum mandated period of three years. At Dingle the first batch was bottled a day beyond that limit in 2015 as Cask No. 2. It was all pre-ordered by the exclusive club of “founding fathers” named on a mezzanine wall. Awaiting the maturation of the whiskey a fourth smaller still produced award winning Gin and Vodka.
“Johnny Walker”, The Gentleman” and “Anonymous” were just a few of the “founding fathers” we read off the wall as we awaited the finale of the tour. First up a cotton towel covered tray of glasses filled with small samples of the raw spirit of the third still. At the lips its strength brought tears to my eyes. After a few deep breaths, a cleared pallet and tears wiped away the finished Dingle Single Malt was presented. With the tumbler in hand I held it to a skylight revealing a light amber color before sniffing and vetting my tongue. Wow what a difference three years make, it was smooth, delicate and I could have handled a refill. Last in line a choice of the award winning pot stilled Gin or Vodka. I gave the Gin a go and it was likewise smooth and not anything like the stuff I had diluted with mixers as a youngster. With glasses empty and an appetite for a bottle to take home the downstairs souvenir shop left me emptyhanded as the batch was long gone and the next pre-sold awaiting maturation. On the way out I with a slight envy passed rack after rack of drums labelled with the names of the “Sons & Daughters” awaiting their “angels share”.
Spirit in the sky
Footnote: A few days later I found myself by a crackling open fire in the Dromoland 16th century castle with a tumbler of Dingle Single Malt, Just guess who soaked it all up then…