Pilgrimage to Ireland's green spot

Pilgrimage to Ireland's green spot

Stuart Maclean Ransay makes a nostalgic return to Ireland after twenty years and finds that, despite the pace of life accelerating, a little bit of Dublin is still 'an oasis of Celtic civility'

Places | 16 Apr 2001 | Issue 15 | By Stuart Ramsay

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While staying in a spiffy hotel in Dublin not too long ago I needed directions to Mitchell & Son, Wine Merchants and home of the outstanding Green Spot Irish whiskey. The first three employees I ask are French and haven’t a clue where it is but one of them points out a real Irish person who says: “Thirty minutes by taxi, five if you’re walking.”I set forth on foot onto the streets of the fair city, capital of this Celtic tiger. A soft rain dampens the din of repair and construction taking place on just about every street and building. This is a different Ireland from the one I had drank in 20 years before. Now there are traffic jams on the scale of Los Angeles and property values that could match those of San Francisco. But some things never change: I pass a ragged-trousered bum pushing a shopping cart, a beatific smile on his face. In the cart is a full barrel of Guinness.When I reach Mitchell’s shop at 21 Kildare Street, I once again experience the old Ireland: an oasis of Celtic civility, timelessness and great liquor. On the way in, there’s a display of Irish whiskey paraphernalia and the original Victorian door that graced the entrance to the wine merchants in 1886. Inside the shop itself, the walls are lined with an extensive range of Irish whiskeys, single malt Scotches, ports, sherries, madeiras and a plethora of wines. Peter Dunne, the Manager, greets me, pours a warming dram of Green Spot and shows me an article from 1888 about the company.The article explains that a Mr R. Mitchell, who owned a restaurant on Grafton Street in Dublin, had just added a hotel and an extensive wine business at 21 Kildare Street. Underneath the wine shop were cellars and vaults where Mr Mitchell kept his Bordeaux wines, sherries (pale, golden and brown), ports and champagnes. Of special interest to the spirits drinker are the references to Irish and Scotch whisky. In Ireland and in Scotland from around the middle of the 18th century, wine merchants would buy spirit from local distilleries and age it in their own casks in the wine cellars. They would bottle it under their own name and sell it to well-to-do customers. Such notable Scotch names as Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s and Chivas Brothers began as wine and spirits merchants or ‘Italian warehouses’. From the 1870s and 1880s onwards they launched proprietary brands that would eventually dominate the British and world market.In 1888 pure pot still Irish whiskey (made from malted and unmalted barley) was, in Dublin, more popular than Scotch and was still the dominant brown spirit in the all-important London market. At Mitchell & Son, Dublin whiskies were being sold for 20 shillings a gallon, the equivalent to one pound today. Scotch was also selling at this price and Islay whisky sold for 22 shillings a gallon. The article also noted that Mitchell & Son possessed two special (proprietary) Irish brands: 10-year-old Eblana at 24 shillings a gallon and 6-year-old Pat Whiskey at 22 shillings a gallon or 42 shillings per dozen. The writer described them as splendid spirits “sold in neat quart jars” and that every day they were “becoming popular in London”. He goes on to say that chemists “attest to their purity” and they are frequently recommended by leading members of the medical profession. A very smart marketing policy at the time.Peter then shows me a 1905 wine list from Mitchell & Son, with the proclamation: “We are large holders of John Jameson & Son’s, stored in fresh Sherry and plain casks.” The shop was selling 13-year-old Jameson Pot Still, Pale and Brown, for 52 shillings per dozen (pale probably refers to a fino sherry cask; brown to the darker oloroso). Mitchell’s Pat Whiskey, supplied by John Jameson, featured a stereotypical and fairly intimidating Irishman bursting through the label, a glass of the elixir in hand. Pat would eventually evolve into the Green Spot brand which, at one time, included a Blue, Yellow and Red Spot, each representing a different age in its range.Green Spot today is an Irish pot still classic and a remarkable, historical survivor. Sipping a dram of the stuff takes you back to a time when Irish whiskey was preferred to Scotch and it is perhaps a pointer to the long-term future of premium Irish whiskey. Mitchell & Son’s relationship with Jameson continues to this day: the whiskey in Green Spot is made in the pot stills at Midleton in Cork. It is kept in a warehouse there for seven to eight years and has a good dose of sherry wood in it. For a fairly young whiskey, it has remarkable depth and complexity.There’s sherry, bourbon and a fragrant, spicy sweetness in the nose. The characteristic malty sweetness of Irish pot still shows up in the full-flavored taste, with spice permeating its depths and lingering, dryish finish. A perfect dram for the hustle and bustle of modern Ireland.As the afternoon drifts by, a steady stream of customers continue to make their pilgrimage to Kildare Street for their Green Spot. Only 500 cases (6,000 bottles) are made available each year and the shop has no trouble selling them. Behind the counter, Liam and Sinead pour sample drams for a couple of American visitors. They’re here to buy wine for dinner, but leave with six bottles of Green Spot instead. A distinguished, white-haired gentleman buys one next. “I think he’s the Minister for Agriculture in the Irish government,” Peter quietly comments, “all kinds of people are buying it now. For many years it was only the connoisseurs who knew about the whiskey. It has always enjoyed a certain status and people are discovering that.”Peter has been with Mitchell & Son since 1970 and the business has changed with time. “When I joined the customer profile was landed gentry. Now, the audience is much younger. The high-tech and financial industries have had a great impact on our business. We’ve expanded our Irish deluxe whiskies and the single malts from Scotland because it’s in demand.”I set to leave when he hands me a bottle of Green Spot. I head out into the vibrant streets of Dublin, cradling my bottle and smiling like a bum with a full keg of beer.
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