Whiskey with an “e”

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“So smooth I would drink it even if my name were not on it.” Those are the words of John Jameson, who established his namesake Irish Whiskey company in Dublin, Ireland. While Bushmills claims to be the oldest Irish whiskey, there is no doubt that Jameson is the largest and most popular, selling more than 20 million bottles annually in 122 countries worldwide. (The United States is the largest market for Jameson.) Originally distilled at the famous Bow Street distillery in Dublin, since 1975 Jameson has been produced exclusively at Midleton, an enormous modern distillery in County Cork. It is in Midleton that we took a fascinating tour of the plant and learned about the process of producing Jameson Irish whiskey.

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John Jameson and his wife Margaret

One of the first things you learn is that John Jameson was not Irish, but Scottish. Jameson’s wife, Margaret, was from a family of distillers, and upon their marriage, they came to Dublin in 1786 so that John could manage her family’s Bow Street distillery, which had started production in 1780 (hence the 1780 date on all Jameson labels.)

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Jameson Whiskey Label

The Jameson label also displays the Jameson family coat of arms and includes the motto “Sine Metu,” which means “without fear.” The family was granted the coat of arms in honor of their pursuit of pirates along the Scottish coast in the 17th century.

I won’t confuse you with all the technicalities of the distilling process, but during the tour, you do get to see how it all takes place while walking through historical buildings and viewing some of the old equipment, including the copper pots where the main distilling takes place. Jameson Blog8You get educated on the difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey. Besides the obvious — Scotch is made in Scotland while Irish whiskey is made exclusively in Ireland and uses an “e” in the spelling — Scotch is distilled twice, while whiskey is distilled three times. Both spirits use the grain barley, but Irish whiskey uses both malted and unmalted barley, all procured from within a 50-mile radius of the plant.

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The use of unmalted barley in Irish whiskey originally began centuries ago as a cheaper alternative to malted barley, which was taxed by the British. The barley is dried in a closed kiln fired by natural gas (formerly coal). This contrasts with the traditional method used in Scotch whisky distilleries, which fire the kiln with peat, adding a distinctive smoky peat flavor.

One factor that both countries agree on is that the final product must age in wooden casks a minimum of three years in order to be official. The production of the wooden casks was what I actually found the most fascinating part of the tour. The art of barrel making is performed by a “cooper.” These casks are not just slapped together, but are precisely constructed using only timber for the barrels and steel for the hoops: no glue, no silicone, only the occasional river reed to help seal the top of the barrel. Once barrels are filled, they swell to accommodate the whiskey and become watertight. The slightest flaw in the barrel making — an imprecisely angled wooden plank, a weakness in the timber — means that the barrel could leak its valuable contents.

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It is an exacting process, and one performed at Jameson by a fifth-generation cooper who has been doing it for 40 years after taking over for his father. (It is a dying art, as while once over 10,000 coopers were working in Ireland, today there are only four!)

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The barrels that Jameson uses aren’t made from scratch, thanks in part to an Irish timber shortage in the 19th and 18th centuries. Instead, the distillery imports two kinds of barrels: sherry casks from Spain and bourbon barrels from Kentucky. Every bottle of Jameson is a mixture of the whiskeys aged in those two kinds of casks, balanced to get the characteristic notes of vanilla and spice. Every cask that comes into the distillery is examined for damage or flaws in the wood grain that would affect the taste of the whiskey or the integrity of the barrel, and any flawed candidates are sent back into the cooperage to mend.

Of course, the tour concludes with a visit to the lively and exquisite tasting room, where one can taste the many different Jameson varieties.The Jameson Experience. Midleton Cork I highly recommend this tour, even for those who aren’t lovers of the spirit — the surroundings and education makes it worth the time.

Also of course, Ever Irish Gifts sells some beautiful Jameson products, from a pair of whiskey glasses emblazed with a Jameson pewter logo, as well as an actual Jameson bottle made into a clock. Sláinte!

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Aran Woollen Mills – A Stitch Back in Time

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Aran Islands – A Stitch Back in Time

On a visit to Ireland last May, we made it to the lovely town of Westport, situated along the Wild Atlantic Way in County Mayo. This town, with its stone bridges and tree-lined streets, and in the shadows of Croagh Patrick, is a must see if you are in the north west coast of Ireland. It also happens to be the home of one of our sweater suppliers, Aran Woollen Mills (formerly Carraig Donn). The sales director, Kieran Costello, was more than a gracious host in giving us a tour of the impressive facility, as well as treating us to a delicious lunch in town, along with owner Vincent Hughes and his daughter.

The beginnings of Aran Woollen Mills actually go back more than 50 years to the nearby Aran Islands (see our previous blog: Aran Islands – The Right Choice ). Vincent is part of a large family, and his parents, looking to keep the children occupied while on the Aran Islands over the summer break, put them to work selling their homemade sweaters to the throngs of tourists. Since those humble beginnings in 1965, the family has grown Aran Woollen Mills into Ireland’s largest home-based knitwear manufacturer.

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The Town of Westport in County Mayo

A walk through the manufacturing facility gives one a great appreciation for the amount of work that goes into making the sweaters we sell.  Each piece is a testimony to the skill and craftsmanship associated with the entire process, from the design team to the quality control inspector. Working almost exclusively with natural materials, the three designers on staff don’t have to travel far for their ideas. Westport is surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery imaginable and provides an unlimited source of inspiration to the team.

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Craogh Patrick – Inspiration closeby

While the sweaters themselves are no longer knitted by hand (machines knit the six to eight individual sections of the sweater), Carraig Blog5we were amazed at how many craftspeople are actually involved in the process. About 15 workers play a major role in producing one sweater — from a sizer, to the people assembling each individual section that comes off the machine into a wearable garment, to creating the neck line, to putting on the zipper and/or buttons, to sewing on the label, and finally to the packaging.

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Lest I forget, there are at least three to four quality control stations along the production process, where each garment is set on a light board. The background light allows specially trained workers to detect even a minor flaw, in which case the sweater is pulled from the process for repair or discard. Carraig Blog4When I say specially trained workers, some who have been there for decades, I am not joking. We looked at a piece as it was placed on the light board and, to our untrained eye, everything looked perfect. To our surprise, a minute flaw was pointed out, and the sweater was flagged for further work.

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A literal Stitch Back in Time

While lunch afforded us the opportunity to hear family stories from a generation ago, our tour gave us an even greater appreciation for the amount of work that is required to produce even one sweater to sell. Not only are there many sets of eyes looking at and many hands touching each one, every stitch is steeped in symbolism from the surrounding countryside, from the fisherman’s cable (representing safety and good luck) to the honeycomb (a just reward for hard work).

And you, our customer, are the beneficiary of that hard work. Please check out our different styles of Aran sweaters, both for women and men, and the next time you put on a genuine Aran Woollen Mills sweater, you’ll appreciate the large team of craftsmen who literally had a hand in it.

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Aran Woollen Mills One-Button Classic

Enjoy a Classic,

Doug

Thatched! You Can’t Top It.

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Thatched roof houses can be found in many corners of the earth, but those found in Ireland hold a special place in our hearts. Can there be a more enduring symbol of Ireland than the quaint, thatched roof cottages that still dot the countryside, and still bring a smile to our faces, no matter how many times we see them? On our last trip to the Emerald Isle earlier this year, I lost count of how many times I put us in danger, suddenly pulling off to the side of the narrow roads, or forcing the car in reverse, just to snap a picture of one of those cute cottages that seemed to appear out of nowhere. It got me thinking, however: What is the history of these thatched roofs, and why did they become ubiquitous in this part of the world?

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Thatching goes back hundreds of years, and thatching methods have traditionally been passed down from generation to generation. It is a craft of building a roof using dry vegetation such as straw and water reed, layering the vegetation to shed water away from the inner roof. Thatch has some natural properties that are advantageous to its performance. It is naturally weather-resistant, and when properly maintained does not absorb a lot of water. Thatch is also a natural insulator, and air pockets within straw thatch insulate a building in both warm and cold weather. A thatched roof, along with the fact that most cottages had few windows, ensures that a building is cool in summer and warm in winter.Thatched Blog5

Those beautiful thatched roof lines you see atop the stone Irish cottages were created by skilled craftsman using domestic cane. This cane grows well in the moist soils of Ireland and was inexpensive and readily available. Typically, naturally abundant sod turf was first placed on the wood roof beams to provide another layer of insulation before the cane thatching was placed on top.

Many people, and insurers, think thatched roof cottages are more susceptible to fire, but thatch is not as flammable as you may believe. It burns slowly, like a closed book, thatchers say. Thatched Blog 1The vast majority of fires are linked to the use of wood burners inside and faulty chimneys. Nonetheless, today, a layer of aluminum has replaced the turf layer as a fire precaution.

Thatch has fallen out of favor in much of the industrialized world not because of fire, but because thatching has become very expensive, and alternative “hard” materials are cheaper. This situation is slowly changing, and while thatched roof cottages are not being built in the numbers they once were, there are still more than 2,000 of them dotting the Irish countryside.

When you have a chance to visit Ireland, make sure you get outside the major cities and enjoy the thrill of spotting one of these beauties for yourself. The charming town of Adare, Thatched Blog2in County Limerick, has an unusual concentration of the adorable thatched roof cottages (although a fire a few years ago completely destroyed several of these iconic structures). Let us know, and send us a picture of your favorites. (And you can check out some of our favorites.)

Also, don’t forget that Ever Irish Gifts has many lovely items that would look fantastic in your or a friend’s Irish “cottage”, whether it’s thatched or not. discover more

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Aran Islands – The Right Choice

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There are many sightseeing options when visiting the central western side of the Emerald Isle. The Cliffs of Moher, The Burren, and Connemara National Park are all on a must-see list. If you can squeeze it in, a visit to one of the Aran Islands should also be high on the list. It is a full-day commitment due to the fact that it is accessible only by ferry (or small plane), but it is a special day, where you step back in time to a different era.

The Aran Islands are three rocky isles guarding the mouth of Galway Bay. We visited the largest island, Inishmore, mainly because it was the most convenient to get to, and it is also home to the prehistoric fort of Dún Aonghasa, perched on top of a high cliff. After a 30-minute car ride from Galway to the ferry terminal, and a 30-minute ferry ride, we arrived at the small village of Kilronan. Inishmore is inhabited by less than 1,000 residents, very few of whom speak English. The signs are all in Irish, but that only adds to its charm and fun. While you can hire a taxi or horse-drawn carriage to travel around the island, we rented bikes for the day, which was an enjoyable way to tour this small island.

aran-island-blog-1.jpgBiking the island can be strenuous, but it allows an intimate introduction to the Aran Islands. You can stop and say hello to the animals. We were fortunate enough to come across a foal and its mother, the afterbirth not far away, indicating that this baby horse was probably less than 12 hours old. Aran-Island-Blog-2

Biking also allowed us to visit and explore the craggy shore line. The island is an extension of the Burren. The terrain of the island is composed of limestone pavements with crisscrossing cracks known as “grikes,” leaving isolated rocks called “clints.” A tough and challenging walk for sure, but fun for discovering small ocean life.Aran-Island-Blog-3

Biking also allowed us to view close up the famous stone walls that permeate the entire island, and give rise to the patterns found on the Aran Island sweaters. Of course, it is also fun to see the many thatched roof cottages that dot the island as well.Aran-Island-Blog12
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The highlight of our day was a visit to Fort Dún Aonghasa. No bikes are allowed at the fort; the uphill pedal probably would have been impossible anyway. A 14-acre site, the remains of the fort consist of three terraced walls perched on the edge of a 300 foot-high cliff. The views from it are breathtakingly spectacular. Excavations indicate that people had been living at the hill top from about 1500 BC.
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One fact I found amusing was that there was a fence that prevented a person from wondering off the fort property onto neighboring farm land, but no barrier that prevented someone from falling 3oo feet straight down into the ocean! Aran-Island-Blog-6Not far from the fort, people actually do dive off the cliffs into the Worm Hole, a naturally formed, rectangular-shaped pool which hosts several cliff diving competitions. Not for the faint of heart, but it would be fun to watch.Aran-Island-Blog13

As there is only one return ferry to the mainland at the end of the day, a leisurely bike ride can get a little more harried as the day progresses. Heading back to the harbor, we quickly stopped at the medieval ruins of the Seven Churches, Aran-Islands-Blog14took more pictures of the stone walls and cottages, and of course had to see the some of the residents making the most famous export of the island, the famous Aran knit sweaters. In fact, one of our sweater suppliers, Carraig Donn, got its start right here on Inishmore, but I will tell that story in my next blog. Of course, if you can’t visit the island personally, you can always check out our selection of Aran sweaters (men’s and women’s) as they are made in and come directly from Ireland.Aran-Islands-Blog15

After arriving back in our hotel after an exhausting yet exhilarating day on Inishmore, we knew we had made the right choice. A day on the Aran Islands is truly a special day.

 

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Doug

 

 

Wanting More Moher

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Of all the images you might see on posters of Ireland, in books about traveling in Ireland, and on Irish websites, probably pictures of the Cliffs of Moher are the most ubiquitous.  Although I have been to Ireland a number of times in the past years and have traveled around this magnificent Emerald Isle, for some reason I have never made it to the Cliffs. It’s not like I felt cheated when I got back home – the sightseeing I did do was pretty incredible, but for some reason, my itinerary never got me to County Clare.

When putting together the itinerary for our trip this past May, I told myself that this time there were no excuses to be made; it would definitely be on our agenda. So there we were, leaving Ennis, the capital of County Clare, to spend a day on the Cliffs. The weather was discouraging on the hour or so drive. While we started off in bright sunshine, as we got closer to the coast, the clouds/fog started rolling in. Moher-Blog3By the time we got to the visitor center parking lot, we could barely see the front of our car. Great, I finally get to the Cliffs of Moher and all I would get to see is a sign and thick fog.

As I handed the attendant my six euros to park, I asked her what the forecast was, and whether the fog would lift. She very confidently exclaimed: “No worries. It will clear shortly.” We walked the quarter mile or so to the visitor center, an impressive building built into an embankment of grass. The exhibits and videos there were fascinating, but I kept wondering if the video would be the best we were going to see of the Cliffs.

After exhausting all there was to see inside, we decided to venture out in hopes of catching any sign of what we had just seen in the exhibits. We walked outside and lo and behold, just as the parking lot attendant had said, the fog lifted, the sun came out, and there was not a cloud in the sky.  Amazing.  The first glimpse is just awe-inspiring. The sheer drop of the Cliffs, and the fact that they extend as far as the eye can see, definitely makes for a “WOW” moment.

PuffinWe decided to take a few-mile hike to the south to Hags Head.  Our first stop was close by where guides had set up telescopes so that we could see the large population of puffin birds that inhabit parts of the Cliff. These small, comical birds with a black and white evening suit and a colorful bill could have kept us entertained for hours, but the lineup of people also wanting to catch a glimpse through the scope, which is the only way to see them, gives you the kick in the pants you need to move on.

Just before leaving the boundaries of the official national site, we passed a memorial to those who have fallen to their deaths off the Cliffs. It is a startling reminder that there is no fence to prevent someone from falling 600 feet straight down into the ocean.Moher-Blog1I must say, this did not stop a number of people we saw from taking photos of themselves or friends perched precariously close to the edge. I hope they got a great shot because as far as I am concerned, they probably could have taken a very similar photo a few feet farther from the edge and closer to safety.

What a beautiful hike we had to Hags Head, where we had a picnic lunch with an amazing view. The return to the visitor center is just as awesome as the views going the other direction are so different even though were hiking the same trail. A special moment for us occurred as we happened upon a marriage proposal overlooking the Cliffs. Moher-Blog2The stunned bride to-be beamed as her friend photographed the whole scene. Luckily, she was not too close to the edge. And by the way, she said “Yes!

And we also say “Yes”. A visit to the Cliffs of Moher is a must for all. It will have you yearning for Moher.

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County Clare is a special place to visit. If you are from County Clare, check out our silver pendant in the shape of County Clare (or any of the other 31 Counties). Alternatively, we have a silver pendant in the shape of the country of Ireland, and you can have your birthstone custom placed over the County of your family heritage.  These special gifts let you wear Ireland close to your heart.