Whisky and I.
We did not seem to be made for each other.
I was eager, though. How nice would it be to sit in front of a cosy fire-place and sip on a glass of whisky!
So much for the glorious image. There was just one tiny problem: the taste. I could not bring myself to really enjoy it. If only the bloody stuff tasted better!
Luckily I am pretty persistent. Things I don’t like I will try again and again.
The last time I tried whisky it really blew up in my face, though.
The setting couldn’t have been any better: in the course of some final exams I had recluded to my grand-parents’ cottage in the country-side. It’s a little house that you step in just to find yourself back in the sixties or seventies. Psychedelic wallpaper and no distractions. Perfect.
It was 11pm, probably later, and I had become pretty desperate. I had less time left and more material to cover than I had thought (what a surprise. Not.). What to do in this situation, when I could already smell the foul reek of failure? I needed to keep studying, I needed to be tough even though I felt it was all hopeless, I needed to be strong and manly about it; I needed to spit contemptuously on the ground, and just do it, now more than ever.
Clearly, I needed whisky!
So I looked around (and of course, there was a whisky bottle to be found), poured myself two fingers of the liquid, sat down in an arm-chair and channelled the pressure that was upon me, because in a moment, you know, the whisky was going to put things into perspective. It’s what whisky is supposed to do. Oh, I have read books and watched movies, and I know that this is exactly what it is supposed to do. And I was finally ready to value that.
I took a tiny sip. I let it linger in my mouth for a while. Unexpectedly expectedly horrible. I mustered the courage to swallow. I instantly regretted this bout of braveness. The only perspective that I got out of this experience was the one of a five-year-old who is forced to drink cough medicine.
Disillusioned, once again. I can tell you now that I passed the exam shortly after that, but the whisky had definitely not passed his.
Five years later, I found myself in Ireland. What else did I find? A whisky-tasting on the schedule of my trip. Needless to say, I was not too impressed. I know you, Whisky. You’re the brew that has let me down before. Contempt, contempt!
I pretty much knew I wasn’t going to like it. And I don’t like not liking things. How depressing. Even more depressing to know that I could not just pour my unfinished glass back in the bottle like I had done it five years ago. Even though I didn’t like whisky, I didn’t want it to be wasted.
The tasting was held in the hotel where we would stay for the night after a day of exploring. And I didn’t know it yet, but this place was going to be for me the definition and culmination of Irish hospitality. A hospitality that made me drink more whiskey than I thought I ever would (which is probably still not very much). And if you just noticed how I suddenly started spelling ‘whisky’ with an additional ‘e’, it’s because that’s how whiskey from Ireland is spelled, so it’s only fair I’m spelling it right when writing about it. The leprechauns might come for me if I don’t. I’m not risking that.
So. About the Irish hospitality. There are two things that stand out and make it very special.
First: the climate in Ireland. That’s a wild guess of mine. I liked Ireland and its moody clouds. It did NOT rain all the time; it hardly drizzled, and it wasn’t cold. And Ireland can totally pull a grey sky off anyway, what with the ever-vibrant green below. So while I did not experience the climate as harsh or depressing, there must be times when it really is like that, for the interior of restaurants, hotels (and homes, I expect) is usually made up in a way that makes you think the outside must be completely horrible.
Because all these places are super cosy. They are meant for you to spend time there. Which is an atmosphere establishments all over the world aim for, I reckon, but now I know that they are all amateurs and need to come to Ireland to see the light.
In Germany, we have a saying that illustrates the difference that Ireland doesn’t make: “A guest should feel like he is at home, but he shouldn’t behave that way”. Meaning: the guest should feel accepted and comfortable, but not so comfortable to rest his feet on the table and spread his things all over the place, I guess. In Ireland the guest should feel like he is at home, full stop.
So the sofas and arm-chairs are actually really comfy; the books on the coffee tables are interesting – this is not a setting, this is a place that really let’s you live there; exhale, relax, enjoy the turf fire. Hence the motto of the hotel where I stayed: “Linger, Relax, Enjoy”. And you do.
The second reason why Irish hospitality is special, are the Irish themselves. They have a way of treating you like they would treat a good friend’s friend. Meaning: they might not know you personally, but you must be alright, since you’re a good friend of… uhm, Seamus; so come on in already, and have a hot drink!
Hospitality is not an easy business. Negative experiences with guests can really get to you, even if they seldom occur, and you can’t help being a bit less trusting in people in general, so you put up a tiny wall between yourself and them. I never felt this wall in Ireland; I always just felt welcome and taken care of – in an unobtrusive way.
Then again, the Irish give you whiskey to taste – that’s a bit of a deal-breaker for me, but I mean, it’s a sacrifice I was willing to make. And I made it, and I was rewarded. Because I found a whiskey that I really, really like. Hemingway would be so proud of me – or maybe he wouldn’t, because the whiskey that I found tasty was in fact an Irish Whiskey Liqueur (does that count? No?), so I guess that’s too girly to be approved by Hemingway. Who are you anyway, Hemingway – I approve of it myself! Hah!
Surprisingly, the other two whiskeys I tried weren’t too bad, either, but they did come with oysters (from the bay), salmon and chocolate, so I don’t know if that falls under ‘cheating’ on my behalf. What I do know now, is that the combination of whiskey and chocolate is just pure gold (Hemingway would probably not have his whiskey with chocolate, though. Just saying.).
The whiskey we got to taste is by the way made by the owners of the hotel we had the tasting at, and their “Irish Fiddler” whiskey is an award winner, too!
So if you are travelling the Connemara region of the Galway County in Ireland, and you find yourself near Cashel Bay, I recommend you check out the Zetland Hotel. The owner and the staff are just incredibly nice and helpful, and the only thing that I really disliked was the fact that I only got to spend one night there – boo!
If you don’t make it there, rest assured you’ll still get your treatment of proper Irish hospitality. You just might miss out on Mama Cáit’s Potato Cakes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
My experiences at the Zetland Country Hotel were part of a trip I was invited on by Failte Ireland – many thanks!