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Tippling on Ireland's Whiskey Trail

Those plump little cherubs smiling rapturously from the depths of dark Baroque paintings have reason to be happy, I thought as I listened to tour guide Niall Stewart expound on "the angels' share," a term used to describe the amount of Irish whiskey that evaporates daily while aging in casks.

"No one knows what the angels actually do with their share," said Stewart, as we began our tour of the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin. "But we do know 6,000 bottles of Jameson are lost a day floating in the air."

I'd heard a lot of stories about those lucky angels, and I'd been exceptionally lucky myself: I was on the seventh day of a marathon eight-day journey exploring the Irish Whiskey Trail, tasting my way across the island, learning how to sip and savor one of its most intriguing exports &

its ultra-smooth whiskeys.

My do-it-yourself tour was so pleasurable that I wasn't bothered that at many of the tastings, Irish whiskey was compared with America's native spirit, bourbon. And that bourbon &

a favorite in my Kentucky-born-and-bred family for generations &

always seemed to come out on the losing end of the comparison .

The tour, stretching north and south from Dublin, took me to four whiskey tasting centers. It also provided a quick look at some of Ireland's most popular sights and turned out to be a first-rate bargain: Two friends and I took advantage of off-season prices, scoring round-trip airfare from Los Angeles International Airport to Dublin in October for only $508 each .

We were prepared to spend much of the trip wallowing in the rain, another well-known Emerald Isle trait, but luck was with us here, too, and skies were clear. Even gloomy weather would have been tolerable, though, with that golden Irish whiskey to keep us warm.

Emerald Isle monks get the credit for developing whiskey distillation techniques around the year 600 , an advance that irks the Scots, who would like to claim that distinction for themselves.

Since its inception, Irish whiskey has been fascinating foreigners.

"Of all the wines, Irish is the best," said Peter the Great, czar of Russia, who described whiskey as "the blessed elixir of the Gods." Anglo-Saxon invaders were equally as impressed; they anglicized the Gaelic term for it &

uisce beatha (ish-keh ba-ha), or water of life &

to whiskey.

There's no better place to get a taste of whiskey's history than at the first recorded distillery, Old Bushmills, about an hour's drive north of Belfast, in Northern Ireland, which opened its doors in 1608.

On weekdays, it's a noisy, active place, and visitors can watch the process from distillation and fermentation through bottling. It's the only working Irish whiskey distillery open for tours.

Of course, the most popular place at the plant is the tasting room. (Make sure you have a designated driver before you start tippling. Ireland's twisting, two-lane roads can be scary even when you're sober.)

We booked a premium tour, which meant a special tasting in a private roomful of sofas, a handsome bar and a gathering table. We were shown to the table; in front of each of us were five glasses, half-full of golden liquids. To the side, each of us also had a beaker of water. Tour guide Robert Galbraith was in top form as he cracked his first joke. "A wise man once said, if you don't start in the morning, you can't drink all day." Indeed, it was only 10:30 a.m.

He told us a little about Bushmills' grand celebration: In April, the distillery will mark 400 years of making Irish whiskey. And he mentioned that the tour we just completed draws about 100,000 people a year.

"Some people frown, but a drop of water will open whiskey up and enhance it," Galbraith said, motioning for us to put a few drops &

"just a splash now" &

into the first whiskey we would taste, Bushmills Original. He called it a "gentle giant, a soft and mellow blend."

We twirled our glasses, smelled the heady fragrance, then tasted.

"With a good whiskey, you'll find the flavor will linger on your palate," our tasting maestro said.

We moved on to two other Bushmills: Black Bush and Single Malt 10-year-old. Galbraith helped us describe the flavors; for Black Bush, we used such words as "assertive" and "lovable rogue." (Isn't that the way every Irishman is described?) For the 10-year-old single malt, "delicate with a hint of chocolate-vanilla."

Next, he invited us to smell, then taste Johnnie Walker Red Scotch. The smoky odor and taste were startling after the mellow Irish whiskeys. "That smokiness is from the peat," Galbraith said. "When Scotch is made, malted barley is dried over peat fires; smoke from the peat penetrates the barley. With Irish whiskey, the barley never comes in contact with smoke, because it's dried in closed ovens."

We took a long sip of our Bushmills 10-year-old and then moved on to bourbon. Galbraith expected another revelation, and for the others at our gathering table there was one: The bourbon went down like fire compared with the Irish whiskeys. I felt the heat in the back of my throat, too, but I wasn't sure the comparison was fair. We were tasting Jim Beam White Label. It's the best-selling bourbon in the world , but it's a relatively low-end product that's aged only four years. A more apt comparison might be Knob Creek, a small-batch Beam bourbon that's aged nine years.

But, hey, these guys aren't selling bourbon; they're selling Irish whiskey. And I had to admit their smooth mix of malt and vanilla was memorable.

It was time to move on. In the days ahead, we would visit more distilleries, but for a time Ireland's lush green scenery, thatched-roof cottages and rollicking pubs would hold our attention.

Although Ireland is only slightly larger than Indiana , its roads can be demanding and distances deceiving. When we began our Whiskey Trail journey, we left Dublin in the early afternoon, expecting to arrive in Bushmills village about three hours later. It took twice as long. But by 9 p.m., we were dining at Bushmills Inn, a quaint re-creation of an old coach inn and mill house that was listed as one of the most romantic inns in Britain by the Sunday Times of London.

The charming village is only a mile and a half from the Giant's Causeway, one of Europe's major tourist attractions. After our Old Bushmills tour, we headed that way.

Named for a legend about dueling giants, the Causeway is a magical place with ominous gray cliffs, crashing surf and bizarre columns of basalt that plunge downward into the sea. We jumped rock to rock, listening to the shrill cries of gulls as they arched across the sky, and tried to puzzle out how this jagged promontory &

made up of neatly stacked columns of hexagonal rocks &

came to be. (It's the result of a volcanic eruption.)

From the peaceful Antrim coast we stepped back into urban life in Derry, a walled city with a tumultuous past. Set on a hill on the banks of the River Foyle , Derry &

or Londonderry, depending on your politics &

came under siege and attack for more than 1,000 years. But the historic incident most remembered today occurred in 1972 on Bloody Sunday, when 13 unarmed civilians were shot dead and 15 wounded by British soldiers during a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march in the Bogside area of the city.

Today Derry is calm, the "Troubles," as the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants often is called, finally set aside, and the city has emerged as one of the most progressive in Northern Ireland. We walked the walls around the 17th-century city; below us streets bustled with shoppers.

Leaving Northern Ireland, Sligo County was next on our itinerary.

We drove south, exploring the narrow, winding streets of Galway; detouring for a look at the rugged Burren and sheer rock faces of the Cliffs of Moher ; then heading south again to Cork, where we made an obligatory stop at Blarney Castle .

Our tour had taken us through miles of unspoiled, beautiful countryside, but the landscape had been devoid of tasting rooms. We tried to fill the gap with pub stops, but we were ready to taste some more Irish whiskey.

So, with rising excitement, we picked up the Whiskey Trail again east of Cork at the Old Midleton Distillery in Midleton, once the main Jameson plant. The operation now has moved to a new, adjacent site, where much of the Irish whiskey produced today is distilled and matured. The stately stone buildings at the old plant haven't been used to make whiskey since 1975, but they've been restored for tours, and the tasting room is first rate. I ventured in, seeking Irish whiskey converts.

"That's me," said Bill Dowling, a retired San Francisco attorney-turned-bartender. ("I finally don't have to apologize for my profession," he said.) Dowling had just finished a tasting, but I got the impression that he didn't need the education.

"I've been practicing on Irish whiskey for years," he said, laughing. "In fact, I have some Jameson waiting back in the hotel right now. I'm going to go back there and practice some more."

My friends and I volunteered again to be tasters. Only a few members of each distillery tour group get to be tasters, so we learned quickly to raise our hands immediately and wave them frantically when the tour guide asked for volunteers.

We were chosen, and magically, five more glasses of spirits and beakers of water appeared in front of us. We repeated the sip-and-savor tests we'd first tried at Bushmills, this time focusing on Jameson, Paddy and Power's Gold Label.

This is a great way to spend a vacation, I thought to myself. And two more chances to be volunteer tasters still lay ahead.

Next on our list was Locke's Distillery Museum, and we headed north to visit it. Established in 1757, Locke's is now part of the Cooley Distillery family and offers the last remaining example of a small pot still distillery in Ireland. The facility is smaller than some of the others but wins points for charm.

The brands available here include Connemara , Kilbeggan and Tyrconnell . The new Michael Collins also comes from the Cooley distillery

Last on our list was the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin. Well organized and easily accessible to tourists, it has the most polished presentation. Tour-guide jokes rank high here.

"We're serious in whiskey making," guide Niall Stewart said, "but not in whiskey drinking. You can drink it with water, cranberry juice, Coke, anyway you want it. Just make sure you buy Jameson, not something else."

And about those angels &

Stewart has a theory. "All great whiskeys have magic to them. Who's to say that's not what the angels provide?"