Visit Dublin's natural history museum, nicknamed the Dead Zoo, and you might think the city is a time capsule. The glass-cabinet-style National Museum of Ireland – Natural History is so old-fashioned that it's described as a "museum of a museum".
Indeed, you might wonder if the taxidermists of yesteryear had ever seen a koala or kangaroo given the odd takes lurking within those glass cabinets. Roam over the creaky floorboards and you'll see poignant sights: a long-legged baby zebra, the extinct Tasmanian tiger (or wolf, as it's called here) and a human skeleton dangling next to those of other primates.
Yet the winds of change are set to blow through the museum, with redevelopment looming and it won't be Dublin's only renaissance. In the Liberties, a historic industrial quarter that was once a global brewing and distilling powerhouse, a seismic transformation is underway. In the 19th century this area housed the world's largest whiskey distillery, owned by George Roe & Sons. In mid-19th century Ireland, 88 licensed distilleries were producing the world's most popular spirit. Fast forward to the mid-1980s and just two whiskey distilleries remained. As scottish and Canadian whiskeys, as well as bourbon in the USA, soared, Irish whiskey lagged, accounting for only 1 per cent of global sales.
Things started turning around from the late 1980s and, by 2010, Ireland had four whiskey distilleries. Now, just try keeping count. In June this year, Roe & Co Distillery started operations in the Liberties, becoming the country's 25th Irish whiskey distillery. The Irish Whiskey Association reports that another 24 distilleries are planned or in development. The sector is asserting itself to such a degree that there's an Irish Whiskey Tourism Strategy in place. It aims to more than double 2018's 923,000 distillery visitors (88 per cent of whom were from overseas) to 1.9 million by 2025. Australians are among Irish whiskey's biggest fans, with the country ranking as a fast-growing, top-10 export market.
A casual half-hour stroll from the natural history museum brings you to the country's 22nd whiskey distillery. Dublin Liberties Distillery (DLD) is a €10 million ($16 million) facility that opened in February. It shares the same block as the Teeling Whiskey Distillery which, when it opened in 2015, was Dublin's first new whiskey distillery in 125 years. The Guinness Storehouse isn't far away either, which means you can have an extremely boozy time touring this once rough and tumble neighbourhood.
I'm conveniently staying at Aloft Dublin City, so close that I can peer from my room to DLD's rooftop below. Distillery managerJohn Parkshows me what's behind the 400-year-old stone walls that once housed a flour mill and a tannery that prepared animal hides for transformation into high-society frippery.
He leads me to three gleaming copper pot stills and a chalkboard cheekily illustrating the whiskey-making process "from field to flask". "We want to make our tour as personable as possible – for us, it's not about herding people in and out," he says. "It's about them coming here, enjoying themselves and experiencing what we are. You get to see and feel what it's like to be in a proper distillery."
One of the challenges for any new whiskey distillery is the time required to mature its spirits, which for Irish whiskey is set at three years and a day. Until then, as DLD's master distiller Darryl McNally explained at the opening, liquids have been sourced from distillers around Ireland so that DLD can establish its stable of brands. Park says: "Keeping the distillery operational for that length of time is hard work, it's long-haul stuff."
After inspecting the distillery's innards, we retire to the Tannery Bar to sip our way through DLD's portfolio of whiskeys (spelt with an "e" in Ireland; in Scotland it's "whisky"). I ask Park about the state of play between the two producer countries. "It's interesting. Over the last few years you would have said we were more competitors because of the rise of Irish whiskey but now I'd say that's mellowed," he says. "What people are trying to achieve is a quality product. The process of making it is pretty much the same but scotch whisky has its own terroir and Ireland's moving into that space now."
Indeed, at Glasgow's Clydeside Distillery the previous week, I learnt that each of Scotland's five whisky-producing regions has a distinct style, from Islay's peaty, seaweed-inflected spirits to Highlands whisky's heather-honeyed notes.
"One of the advantages Irish whiskey has is its subtlety and its smoothness, which means you don't need to age it as long," Park says. "With scotch, you do have to age it a little bit longer because you need to soften some of the character – it's got more intense flavour because of the distillation process."
At Glasgow whisky bar The Ben Nevis, I watched patrons use a straw to carefully drip water into their whisky. "That's not quite here yet," Park says. "Drinking whiskey neat is still the way to go because Irish whiskey is a lot lighter and smoother. And when you get to the more expensive whiskeys, you just take your time."
Park, for one, can't wait to sample the results of Ireland's 21st-century whiskey boom. "Irish whiskey will change over the next three to five years," he says. "As new distilleries come on, they'll start launching their own products and you'll see a real diversification in Irish whiskey and its quality. People want choice and to try something that's a little bit different."
By now, we've progressed from the entry-level "expressions" to the eye-wateringly expensive but lip-smacking Murder Lane (€160 a bottle, matured in American oak bourbon casks and finished in Hungarian tokaj sweet wine casks). "I think it was this lane," says Park, motioning to the left. "People who went down that lane never came back. There was an archway there with an oak devil hung above it and it was seen as a place of no return." The Liberties earnt its name because it sat outside medieval Dublin's city walls, beyond the reach of officialdom.
It's not the only grim tale Park tells. Copper Alley, a 10-year-old single malt finished in 30-year-old sherry casks, is a place associated with another grisly story. Dorcas "Darkey" Kelly was a brothel-keeper on Copper Alley. She was accused of being a witch and executed in 1761 "but it took a while for her to die", says Park. "Beautiful area this place used to be!"
Today, major investment and development are transforming the Liberties into a place its former citizens wouldn't recognise. "It still has its reputation but that's rapidly changing," says Park. "There's accommodation being built everywhere around here, which in Dublin terms is very rare, so it's a much more vibrant part of the city with all the changes that are happening."
As the Irish would say, Slainte – or cheers – to that.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of the Dublin Liberties Distillery and travelled to Ireland courtesy of Belmond and to Glasgow courtesy of Glasgow Live.
The Dublin Liberties Distillery's Discover tour, which includes tasting three whiskeys, costs €16 an adult; the Explore tour, which includes tasting five whiskeys, €32 euros an adult. See thedld.com; libertiesdublin.ie