The Luck of the Irish

In May of this year I had my first taste, in Belfast, of Bushmills 20-year-old single malt whiskey aged in sherry casks. It was an unforgettable experience. Appropriately enough, the idea for the trip to Belfast was hatched over a Bushmills in Minneapolis with a new Irish friend. Like most wild goose chases, a trip to Northern Ireland seemed like a good idea at the time.

I had met Leslie at a Caribou coffee shop (the omnipresent local equivalent of Starbucks) in Minneapolis. Leslie was a musician and a recent émigré from Northern Ireland. I ordered a caramel latte and we chatted between the hisses of the coffee machine. I described my book, The Cellini Masterpiece, to him and he bought a copy on the spot. A few days later I got a note from him saying how much he liked the book. That being music to my ears, I invited him to join me for a wee taste of Ireland in a local pub. It was appropriate not only because of Leslie’s nationality but because Rick in the story is a confirmed Bushmills addict.

Although he preferred John Jameson, Leslie was more than pleased to accept Bushmills. We met at an upscale watering hole with a cherrywood bar, a piano tinkling in the background, and a bartender who parted his hair in the middle and wore a bow tie. The only thing missing was ferns. I should have been able to envision the prices, but I foolishly let the waitress seat us. Leslie was anxious to tell me about the John Hewitt Bar in Belfast, where a group of young artists, including writers, painters and musicians, hang out. He said I should go there sometime, that the Rebels would like to meet me and listen to me read my book; he was quite sure that I could get coverage from local news media. He told me about a reasonably priced B & B that was just across the street from a mystery bookstore called No Alibis.

Wood burned in my head as the wheels began to turn. It did sound worthwhile, and besides, the next time I went to London, I could take advantage of a cheap flight to Belfast.

The bar and mystery store seemed pretty good reasons to make a trip to Northern Ireland, but a possible trip to the Bushmills Distillery ... I was hooked.

I contacted the distiller and told him about my book, thinking there might be a commercial tie-in. He suggested I send a copy of the book to their public relations branch in New York City. I had already done that than a month earlier, with no response.

I probably would have put off the trip indefinitely if it weren’t for the confluence of two other events. One was a super-low airfare to London on the web. The second was a breaking news story about a Maltese sea captain who had forced his Chinese illegal aliens to swim to the Sicilian shore instead of taking them there.

What a plot idea for my second book! Suddenly I had a reason to go back to Malta, though I had just been there a month earlier. I decided to go for it. Bad choice. Woody Allen explained the difference between a schlemiel and a schlimazel. A schlemiel is a person who goes around spilling soup. The schlimazel is the one he spills it on. In my time, I have been spiller and spillee more times than I care to remember.

I laid out an itinerary that included stops in London and in Malta. I needed to visit the British Museum and British Library and I arranged an interview with the young investigative reporter who unearthed the story about the drowned Chinese language students. I also penciled in two days in Belfast. I could change my return if I needed more time.

Unfortunately, getting there wasn’t as inexpensive as advertised and I would have to be at Gatwick at five in the morning to catch my flight. The flight back was at an equally unpalatable hour, but I bit the bullet and made my reservation.

After wasting my time at the British Museum and the British Library, learning nothing, I was happy to learn that a tour of Bushmills had been arranged for my second day in Belfast. I arrived in Belfast at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday morning. After I settled into my B & B, I visited No Alibis. The owner wasn’t in and wouldn’t be back until the next day. Okay. Time to check in at the John Hewitt bar. I had sent five e-mails to Pedro at the John Hewitt without a response. Leslie had said that was just the way he was and that I was expected. I wasn’t. Pedro had no idea who I was and said it was too late to arrange for a book signing or discussion in the next few days. I asked about the Rebels and he said they weren’t around. I kicked rocks all the way back to my hotel.

The next morning I made another visit to No Alibis. The owner said he had sold the five copies he had bought and needed more. I was happy to sell him the ten I had with me, which I had imagined I would be signing at the John Hewitt. When I asked him about the Bushmills Distillery he said it was a three-hour train trip and that I had better contact the Bushmills for instructions using his telephone. They told me I was expected, but since it was Friday afternoon everyone except the tour staff would be gone, including the distiller. ****! The good news was that they were sending a cab to the station as a token to an honored guest.

The cab was waiting. When I arrived at the distillery the tour manager gave me a ticket for a tour of the distillery that included a whiskey-tasting at the end. After all I’d been through, I couldn’t think of a better way to end the day.

A wonderful stereotypical Irishman with a reddish moon face was my guide. He had me sample Bushmills and the other brands of Irish whiskey and I could actually tell the difference. Then I had a taste of other whiskeys, including Scotch and Jack Daniels. I already knew what they tasted like but I didn’t want to argue. Next came the Black Bush, a delightful blended whiskey that I had loved for years. “Let’s try a few other things,” Bryan said with a twinkle in his eye.

The next stop was the 10-year-old single malt. For some reason, my taste buds weren’t as sharp as they had been before, but I nodded enthusiastically when he asked if I liked it. “Just stay here,” he said. I had no place to go and he soon came back with a glass containing a darker-hued liquid. “This is twenty-five years old.” It tasted just fine to me.“One more to go.”

The last sample was a honey-colored single-malt whiskey that was the top of the line and bottled in extremely limited quantities. It retailed for somewhere around 125 British pounds a bottle. Regular Old Bushmills is a little taste of heaven in a bottle, but this was in a completely different universe. Certainly the cherubim and seraphim never tasted anything more divine. A warm haze blurred all thoughts about Rebels, John Hewitt, Pedro, and the 5:00 a.m. flight back to Gatwick.

Ireland had worked its miracles on me, even if I didn’t get to meet the distiller and I still don’t know if Bushmills wants to work with me. As I left, I got a personalized bottle of 10-year whiskey and a certificate of being an official taster. And my trip to Malta? I could have skipped it, except I came home with some great ideas for the next novel. Oh yes, and I also got to meet the Catman of Malta. You’ll have to read my next novel, Language School, to find out what that means

John Anderson, AKA Raymond John, is a retired Army and Navy Intelligence Specialist. He has a Master's Degree in History from the University of Minnesota and has sold stamps and other collectibles for more than thirty-five years. His novel, The Cellini Masterpiece, received an honorable mention in the IPPY Awards.

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