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  • Writer's pictureNigel

South East Whiskey Festival 2023

The first South East Whiskey Festival took place in early March in a number of pubs across Wexford town and I was lucky enough to attend both days with a friend of mine. The event itself was fifteen tastings across Friday night and Saturday held in four different pubs. Ireland's most popular distilleries were all represented including Killowen, Powerscourt, Slane, Teelings and Dingle. Over the course of the weekend I was able to attend four tastings - Pearse Lyons, a general Irish whiskey mix, Powers and Echlinville. Although the event was - essentially - an opportunity to enjoy some Irish whiskies compered by some of the most illustrious people in the Irish whiskey community, that's not the reason I enjoyed it so much and will be there again next year.

At every tasting I met whiskey enthusiasts and the fun and conversations shared with those around the tasting tables was exceptional. Every event had a festival feel and, especially, as Saturday progressed, the opportunity to chat with other attendees across different pubs was taken with both hands. Those chats were the most memorable part of the weekend - with distillers, bar staff, paying punters and organisers. The whiskies themselves, exceptional as they were, provided the canvas on which the weekend's fun was painted.

I arrived to Wexford town on Friday early evening and met a friend at the Pike pub in Wexford town for a few pints. It was the palette cleanser for the weekend; the Rubicon between the work of the week and the festivities ahead.

A pint of plain in the Pike

The first tasting - Pearse Lyons

With the world put to right we wandered down to the Undertakers' for a few more refreshing pints and the first tasting. This was the Pearse Lyons tasting, and the MC for the event was Conor Ryan and we were treated to five cask strength offerings from the distillery, including one taster of new make liquid straight from the cask.

Conor Ryan from Pearse Lyons explains it all

The whiskies were exceptional, with one of the beer-cask finished offerings being paired with a beer (Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale). I've enjoyed Pearse Lyons' offerings for many years and the distillery is one of the most impressive modern venues around. Based on the samples provided to us on the Friday evening, the distillery will be producing exceptional whiskies in the years ahead.

After the tasting, there was nothing for it only a short tour of a few of the Monck Street distilleries and a bag of chips before retiring for the evening.

Day two - Saturday

The first tasting was in the early afternoon, so the first point on the agenda was to get a bit of food in Joanne's on the Main Street. Halfway through my full Irish, I spot Graham and Fay Coul sitting a few seats away from me. Graham was, unsurprisingly, on his mobile phone and I imagine he was posing his usual teasers on Twitter. I obviously decided not to say hello and leave them in peace to enjoy their food.

As it was nearing eleven o'clock I popped down to the Crown bar which would host the next tasting. I was a couple of hours early but figured a large bottle of cider and a pint of blackcurrant would be a smart preparation for the upcoming tastings. I happen to bump into both Graham and Fay again in the bar - at this stage, I'm assuming they're following me - so I did say a quick hello to wish them well in the tasting they were hosting later that day. Graham and Fay sat with me for half an hour as we chatted all things whiskey. It would have been rude of me not to try a sample of an unreleased Dingle dram, and twice as rude not to accept the chocolate and socks gifted to me. I'm looking forward to making good on my promise to visit the distillery soon.

Graham and Nigel pose for the camera

The second tasting - an Irish mix

So it's creeping towards lunchtime and I've enjoyed a drop of Dingle and some Bulmers, so it was naturally time for a whiskey tasting. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Connacht tasting didn't happen and instead Barry Chandler from Stories and Sips stepped up to bring five samples to the attendees. This was very impressive - things clearly didn't go to plan but the backup plan put in place by the organisers was a very suitable replacement. Barry regaled us with a history of Irish whiskey and answered questions from the floor in a very patient manner. We were treated to an offering from WD O'Connell, an 8-year old Locke distillery expression, the latest Powers release (Rye), Blue Spot and Redbreast 12-year old cask strength.

The Powers Rye was recently released and I was very much looking forward to tasting it. Powers is one of my "go-to" whiskies and a new release was genuinely exciting. I remember my tasting notes involving herbs and some menthol, and it was a very light and airy drop in comparison to some of the more meaty Powers expressions. I didn't realise how much of the grain for Powers came from Wexford until this weekend, so a nice little learning point there for me too.

It was a really lovely event and I was lucky enough to share the table with a couple who had moved to Wexford from Switzerland. They were great company. At the end of the tasting, we were given gifts - fine art prints and a whiskey satchel. The art print is in my library and the whiskey satchel will get plenty of use in the future. I didn't take many photos here, but I did take one showing the food on offer, which was provided at every tasting.

Sandwiches, cider and south-east glasses

The third tasting - Powers

There was a couple of hours between this tasting and the second Saturday tasting, so obviously it was time for food. However, the sandwiches served me well, so I wandered down to the next bar (the Swan) to get there early and try the pints. I had a great chat with the barman, and had a snifter of one of the Waterford releases. I'd highly recommend this pub for the pints, the lounge and the craic. I'll visit again.

I think Powers is one of the more underrated whiskies, so this tasting was one I was particularly looking forward to. The line up was Three Swallows, John's Lane, Rye, and two samples that made up some of the Powers releases of significant age. The Powers brand ambassador, Matthew Smyth, hosted the evening assisted by Michael Cowman (one of the organisers of the event, who's from Bunclody and works with Last Drop Distillers). It was great to hear the stories about the Powers brand and to try (again!) the Rye offering.

A civilised few tasting glasses

Again, it was the other attendees who made the event special as we sat with a couple with whom we spent half the event laughing. The father and son beside us were good fun too - quite hilarious as we figure out that we live just down the road from each other and indeed the son plays Gaelic Football with my old GAA club. It's a small world.

A slightly wider angle betrays us!

The final tasting - Echlinville

After a very fun tasting, it was time to retreat back to the Undertakers for the last tasting which was the Echlinville Distillery tasting. I first tasted one of the Dunville's expressions when I hosted a tasting during the Covid lockdown where samples had been sent by Dick Macs. Of course it was only fitting then, that one of the Dick Macs crew was sitting beside me as Jarlath Watson explained the histories of the distillery and the Dunville brand.

Unfortunately I didn't take many pictures here - just a video or two - but Jarlath's enthusiasm for the whiskies they're making was infectious. The liquids were fantastic too. I've no doubt that this distillery will be producing some of the finest whiskey on the island in the years ahead and their regular PX releases will continue to be of the very highest quality.

On the other side of me was one of the bar staff from the Sky and the Ground who remembered me from the last time I was there. She was really knowledgeable and it was lovely to be remembered too!

After all that, it was time for a drink

Speaking of the Sky and the Ground, the entire festival made their way to the pub for a post-festival celebration. The event was incredible fun and we spent the last few hours chatting whiskey to all and sundry. A special word for Dáithí O'Connell who listened to me praising his whiskey for a few minutes (but probably felt like hours to him). As the evening progressed, the chats grew longer, the laughter louder and there was even a song or two in the wee hours.

Dáithí and Nigel in the Sky and the Ground

And so, the event ended. As I wandered back to the hotel from the Sky and the Ground I reflected on a brilliant event. I was able to chat to many passionate whiskey folk and share glasses with friends old and new. It was even nicer to have the event in Wexford and just down the road from my home.

I've already added my name to the mailing list for South East Whiskey Festival 2024. If it's half as good as this year's, it'll be a great event.

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