Taking Liberties: The Battle to Bring Irish Whiskey Back to Dublin

One of the first things you notice upon entering the modern and airy Teeling Distillery in The Liberties area of Dublin is the logo: a striking phoenix rising from the ashes. The symbolism is as potent as the whiskey. Launched in 2015, Teeling made history as the first distillery to open within the city limits of Dublin in over 125 years.

“For many, many years, Irish whiskey was on its knees in Ireland,” says Stephen Teeling, one of the two brothers behind the brand, and the son of Jack Teeling Senior, widely regarded as the father of the modern Irish whiskey revival. Although no other city in the world has a history of urban distilling quite like Dublin, much of it has been forgotten. “There was this untold story that a lot of people didn’t know,” says Stephen.

It’s said the Irish invented whiskey (with that extra ‘e’—the Scottish, of course, prefer whisky) after monks brought the distillation process back from Europe in around 1000 A.D. The word itself is derived from uisce beatha—a Gaelic translation of the Latin name for distilled spirit, aqua vita, or “water of life”.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Irish whiskey enjoyed its Golden Age, taking 60 per cent of the market share for whiskey sales at its peak. Dublin was the heart of it all, home to 37 distilleries renowned for their exceptional quality. The Liberties, once a lawless neighbourhood just beyond the city’s old walls, boasted a remarkable 32 of them, each producing pure pot still whiskey made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley.

The Liberties area of Dublin is the logo: a striking phoenix rising from the ashes. The symbolism is as potent as the whiskey. Launched in 2015, Teeling made history as the first distillery to open within the city limits of Dublin in over 125 years. “For many, many years, Irish whiskey was on its knees in Ireland,” says Stephen Teeling, one of the two brothers behind the brand, and the son of Jack Teeling Senior, widely regarded as the father of the modern Irish whiskey revival. Although no other city in the world has a history of urban distilling quite like Dublin, much of it has been forgotten. “There was this untold story that a lot of people didn’t know,” says Stephen. It’s said the Irish invented whiskey (with that extra ‘e’—the Scottish, of course, prefer whisky) after monks brought the distillation process back from Europe in around 1000 A.D. The word itself is derived from uisce beatha—a Gaelic translation of the Latin name for distilled spirit, aqua vita, or “water of life”. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Irish whiskey enjoyed its Golden Age, taking 60 per cent of the market share for whiskey sales at its peak. Dublin was the heart of it all, home to 37 distilleries renowned for their exceptional quality. The Liberties, once a lawless neighbourhood just beyond the city’s old walls, boasted a remarkable 32 of them, each producing pure pot still whiskey made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley.

As with so many other industries, it was new technology that first began to undermine Irish whiskey. In 1832, its dominance was challenged by the introduction of the Coffey still, a column still which allowed for faster production than the traditional pot stills. English and Scottish distilleries were quick to adopt it, but Irish whiskey makers were reticent to change. Ultimately, the Irish War of Independence in 1919 proved disastrous for the industry, putting an end to its exports to Britain and the Commonwealth countries. The last whiskey distillery in Dublin finally closed in 1976, marking the end of a century-old tradition or urban distilling in the Irish capital.

Teeling Distillery

Teeling Distillery was founded after Jack Teeling Senior sold his Cooley Distillery in County Louth, about an hour outside Dublin, but he is quick to give the credit to Stephen and his other son Jack, Jr. “For us there was, I suppose, a driving ambition to bring distilling back to Dublin,” says Stephen.

Once in Dublin, armed with 16,000 barrels of old Cooley stock, rebooting the city’s whiskey legacy proved difficult. The brothers had to fight to overcome the logistical and financial challenges of running a distillery in an urban centre. They also set themselves the challenge of stubbornly keeping some key aspects of traditional Irish whiskey making.

Despite the lessons of history, you’ll find no column stills in their bright new distillery. Instead, the brothers travelled to Italy and asked a centuries-old family-run grappa still manufacturer to build them three shimmering copper pot stills. Now the distillery’s centrepiece, they’re reminiscent of the kind used by the great distilleries of the Liberties during its heyday.

Like most Irish whiskies, their whiskey is triple-distilled, making it sweeter, rounder, and smoother than its Scottish cousins. They’re aged for a minimum of three years, and you won’t detect any smoky peat notes. Adhering to these traditions doesn’t mean they can’t also experiment, though. “I think it’s a delicate balancing act,” says Stephen, “[We] try and be respectful for the past but confident enough to try and innovate and be progressive.”

Most Irish whiskies have been aged exclusively in old bourbon or Sherry casks, but the Teelings have been trying new—for some purists, even radical—methods. Now the brothers are finishing their flagship Small Batch whiskey in rum casks, which impart subtle flavours of vanilla, salted caramel, and even banana. They’re also toying with dozens of other cask varieties, including Calvados apple brandy, bitter amaro and white Burgundy.

“Nobody had taken some of the approaches that we had done,” says Stephen. “When we said it to previous generations, who would have made whiskey in a certain way, it kind of made them a bit nervous.”

But the balance has been paying off, as the wider Irish whiskey revival continues. Irish whiskey has consistently been the fastest growing spirit in the world every year since 1990. Teeling is now featured in whiskey bar menus around the world, taking its place beside Scottish and Japanese brands respected for their commitment to heritage and craft. Perhaps it’s too soon to declare Irish whiskey’s second Golden Age, but it’s getting there.

“We wanted to be real. That, for us, is important,” says Stephen. “Everything that we do has to be credible.” Creating a new urban distillery has not just been about holding on to Dublin’s whiskey heritage but letting go of it a little too, creating something that honestly reflects the vibrant, modern city it is today. Stephen points out that the team coming to work in the distillery every day is a blend of different backgrounds and nationalities. “We’ve had a few people come in and say, ‘Why don’t you just hire all Irish people?’ says Stephen. “And we were saying, ‘Well, that’s not a representation of what Dublin actually is at the moment.'”

“I think nostalgia for many, many years dominated a lot of things in Ireland,” says Stephen. “We’re saying: look, the past is the past. Judge us on what we’re doing now.”

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