Cairo Whiskey Tasting. Irish Whiskey on The Nile.
There is something about the light in Africa. Once you have been there, even once, it stays forever in your memory. As a scent, not experienced for thirty years can immediately return you to childhood times, the light of an African morning evokes powerful memories of previous visits and experiences.
The light of Egypt and North Africa is slightly different to the light of Uganda or Somalia further South and East, but those who have lived or worked in any of these places, will still instinctively know if a movie scene they are watching was filmed on location in Africa or in some remote studio in Hollywood or the UK.
It had been 25 years since I last drove through the streets of Cairo and the memories of my early career came flooding back as our Irish embassy staff car carved through the morning traffic along the banks of the Nile. Back then, I was working for the United Nations. Today, I would be #Working4Ireland.
#Working4Ireland is the clever social media hashtag used by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and their network of Irish Embassies around the globe to highlight the work they do in promoting Irish Culture, Products and Tourism.
Punch #Working4Ireland into Twitter or Instagram and you will be amazed at both the volume and diversity of work conducted by Irish Ambassadors and their Embassy Support Staff (local and DFA) in promoting Ireland and Irish Culture, Food and Business around the world.
I had been invited to Cairo by the Irish Ambassador to Egypt, Seán O’Regan. Seán and I had first met a few years ago when he served as Irish Ambassador for both Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and I was working with a European Union Mission based in Sarajevo. A shared love of Irish food and culture combined with a shared background of growing up in West Cork led to a discussion one evening about the possibility of me running an Irish Whiskey and Food Pairing event in Lubijana, Slovenia on a weekend that I would be free.
Unfortunately, as both Seán and I were approaching the end of our respective postings, time was our enemy and our event was not to be – this time. But a few months ago, Seán, who is now based in Cairo, re-issued his kind invitation. I had some annual leave to spare, so in January 2019, I found myself pulling up outside the front door of the Cairo Conrad Hotel on a sunny January morning.
The Cairo Conrad
The 5 Star Conrad Hotel on Cairo’s Nile Corniche, is one of Cairo’s leading business and touism hotels. It is managed by Conrad Hotel veteran Mr. Wolfgang Maier who over a forty year career, has managed many of the Conrad Hotel group’s leading hotels around the world.
The room chosen for our Cairo Whiskey Tasting event was the Conrad Cairo’s Stage One which has stunning views acoss the river Nile to the river island of Gezira which houses Cairo’s Zamalek Business and Diplomatic Quarter.
Aya Sayed from the Irish Embassy and I worked closely with the Cairo Conrad events team and in particular with their Executive Chef Paolo Rocco. Together, we perfected the tasting menu, set up the venue, choreographed and rehearsed the stage management of the event which started that evening at 7.30 pm.
Aya had already done a tremendous amount of preparatory work in advance of my arrival including the design and printing of our bespoke tasting mats and Tuath Glass coasters.
The Whiskeys and Food Pairings
In designing the tasting card for the event, I was conscious that many of the guests might know little about whiskey, let alone Irish Whiskey. The challenge therefore was to design an event and a tasting card that would appeal to beginner and aficionado alike. As both the Ambassador and I shared West Cork childhoods, we decided to showcase West Cork artisan foods as food pairings with our Irish Whiskey tasting card.
Our Selected Irish Whiskeys
I had finally selected six Irish Whiskeys for our event representing two blended Irish Whiskeys, an Irish Single Grain Whiskey, An Irish Single Malt Whiskey, A Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey and a Cask Strength Irish Whiskey.
I wanted to show that there is more to Irish Whiskey than (the excellent) Jameson, Tullamore D.E.W.and Bushmills which many of the audience would have been familiar with already from seeing them while passing through Cairo Airport. For this reason, I focussed on 2 and 3 Pooka “Special” and “Premium” Irish Whiskeys which are all readily available outside Ireland and which have a little extra magic that makes them stand apart from their peers.
Guests were welcomed on arrival to the hotel with an Irish Whiskey Sour made from Jameson. An eclectic playlist of Irish Music added to the atmosphere of the welcome reception. After a quick few words of welcome from the Ambassador, the first whiskeys and food pairings were served and the event commenced.
Whiskey 1 – Teeling Small Batch – Rum Cask Finish
I chose Teeling Small Batch because of it’s sheer quality and also because it allowed me to introduce the concepts of Whiskey Blending and Cask Finishing, which in the case of this Teeling expression is with Rum Casks.
If any one “Non Big-Three” Irish Whiskey expression can be said to have been in the vanguard of the Irish Whiskey Renaissance, it was Teeling Small Batch. It has been one my personal “Desert Island” Whiskeys since I bought my first bottles in Dublin Airport when it launched in early 2013. I gave it our our Irish Whiskey Trail Whiskey of the Year award for 2013. We paired our Teeling Small Batch with Smoked Duck, Celery Cream and a Kumquat Compote.
I also used our Teeling Tasting to introduce our audience to techniques for Nosing, Tasting and Watering Whiskey using the Tuath Irish Whiskey Glasses we had provided.
Whiskey 2 – Hyde 1916 Single Grain Irish Whiskey
A chance to talk about Single Grain Whiskey, Coffey Stills and the influence of wood on maturation. A chance also to introduce Single Grain Whiskey as the perfect carrier or blank-canvas for a subtle cask finish. Hyde Whiskey are leading independent bottlers and bonders of Irish Whiskey. Hyde’s motto “It’s all about the wood” is well reflected in this very classy, but simple example of all that’s best in Irish Single Grain Whiskey, which has been expertly matured in nothing else but Bourbon Casks.
Even a beginner can easily identify the Bourbon Cask influences in the Nose, Taste and Finish of Hyde 1916. Oodles of toasted oak, vanilla, caramels and burnt wood. Hyde 1916 was our Irish Whiskey of the Year in 1916. We paired this elegant and classic Single Grain Irish Whiskey with a simple dish of Oak Smoked Salmon with Fresh Dill.
Whiskey 3 – The Irishman’s Founders Reserve
Back to Irish Whiskey Blends for our third whiskey, but with a very special blend unique to the Irish Whiskey World. The Irishman Founder’s Reserve from Walsh Whiskey is blended from Single Malt and Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey.
Normally a blended whiskey is composed of the more robust single malt or single pot still blended with a lighter (and generally less expensive) single grain. For example, Jameson and Powers are based on Single Pot Still while Bushmills Black Bush is based on Single Malt. This unusual Single Malt – Single Pot Still Blend is affectionately known as the “Champagne Blend” and is unique to Walsh Whiskey.
Lots and lots of full bodied copper pot still flavour here, so it was very well matched with an equally flavoursome Gubbeen Cheese from West Cork on a Sour Dough Crouton.
Whiskey 4 – Pearse 5 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey
There are so many excellent Single Malt Irish Whiskeys out there, but almost all still share a common heritage from either Bushmills or Cooley. Pearse 5 Year Old is the first independent Irish Single Malt Whiskey of the new Irish Whiskey Generation and it has a wonderful back story. While Dr. Pearse Lyons was building his iconic Church Distillery in Dublin’s historic Liberties Quarter, the Pearse Lyons Master Distiller Jack O’Shea was quietly distilling their whiskey one hundred miles away using the two Vendome American copper pot stills which formed the centre of gravity of the new Church Distillery when it opened in 2017.
This meant that just one year after the Dublin Distillery opened to the public, Pearse Lyons Distillery had their own 5 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey ready for sale. Pearse 5 is a limited edition run of just 4,000 bottles, so a worthy member of our Cairo Tasting.
Pearse 5 also allowed me to explain in detail how single malt whiskey is made from grain to glass and also gave me a chance to introduce The Dublin Whiskey Trail, Irish Whiskey Trail and Irish Whiskey Tourism to our international audience in Cairo. A chance also to tell the inspiring story of Dr. Pearse Lyons, Irish Visionary and Entrepreneur.
Pearse 5 is a solid example of all that is best in a classic, beefy, Irish Single Malt Whiskey. What better to pair it with than Irish Corned Beef and Potato Cake. Hearty food for a hearty whiskey.
Whiskey 5 – Powers Three Swallow Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey.
Time to tell everyone about Ireland’s own unique style of whiskey, Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey (SPS). Up to this year, Single Pot Still Whiskey meant something from Irish Distillers. So, Powers, Redbreast, Green, Yellow and Red Spot and some of the “fringe” Midleton and Paddy expressions.
2019 will see Single Pot Still expressions from Teeling, Portmagee and several other Irish Whiskey brands come to market as stocks from the newer Irish Whiskey Distilleries reach maturity.
But Powers are the original Single Pot Still and are still, in my opinion the best. I thought long and hard about which Powers expression to include and narrowed my choice down to the retro-style Powers John’s Lane or the more recent Powers Three Swallow. The Swallow won.
There is something beautifully honest and simple about this superb entry level single pot still Irish Whiskey. For many years (and before it became fashionable), Green Spot was one of my personal favourite Irish Whiskeys, but in 2015, along came Powers Three Swallow which in my opinion knocked Green Spot off it’s perch. It is a great entry level SPS, packed with fruit and spice flavours and a classic SPS lucious mouth feel. And all for a little more than a standard Powers.
I always feel really proud when talking about SPS to an international audience as this is truly an exceptional whiskey style, completely unique to Ireland. Like The Irishman Founders Reserve, those rich copper pot still flavours needed an equally rich food tasting to pair with. We went with Milleens Creamy Cows Milk Cheese from the Beara Peninsula in West Cork. At room temperature, Milleens has real bite, depth and body. A perfect pairing of grain and grass.
Whiskey 6 – Redbreast 12 Cask Strength Irish Whiskey
I had to include a Cask strength Irish Whiskey to finish the night. Following on from the Three Swallow, it just had to be another Single Pot Still so the choice was obvious. Redbreast 12 Cask Strength at 57.2% ABV.
For many, Redbreast is the SPS standard bearer. It was both interesting and rewarding to hear the positive and enthusiastic feedback from my newly educated audience, many of whom had never heard of or tasted a sherried Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey before.
What I love most about showcasing Cask Strength Whiskey in a tasting is that it brings the whole lecture together in the mind for my students at the end of the night. Everything that they have learned about Irish Whiskey and Whiskey tasting is brought together with what I think is one of the most valuable whiskey tasting lessons of all.
The final person involved in the “Grain to Glass” whiskey making process is often the whiskey drinker themself when they add just the right amount of water to the drink to create the perfect glass of whiskey for their own personal taste and enjoyment.
The Cask Strength tasting was definitely the evening’s highlight for many of our guests. We paired Redbreast’s full bodied Single Pot Still Spice and pepper with crumbly Clonakilty Black Pudding and Gubbeen Salami.
The formal part of the evening concluded with a quick Irish Coffee lesson (practical) paired with Butler’s Irish Chocolates.
The audience invited by the Irish Embassy to Egypt were drawn from the local and international diplomatic, administrative and business communities in Cairo including the General Managers of several high profile hotels and restaurants, all of whom I had the pleasure of chatting to in the hour or so after the tasting.
I was also delighted to meet members of the very vibrant and long standing Irish community in Cairo and members of the highly knowledgeable Cairo Whiskey Club.
It was a real pleasure also to meet several members of a very active Cairo Food Blogging and Influencer scene. I was amazed at how influential Instagram and Facebook were in Cairo, with several of the influencers having a few hundred thousand followers each between their combined social media accounts.
One photo taken of @CairoFoodieCoupleand @BikoB wearing their newly acquired Teeling Whiskey Cloth Caps had an online reach of over 250,000 when posted that evening from the event. Great coverage and great support.
The Tuath Glass
We provided bespoke tasting mats and coasters for each guest and also a Tuath Glass which they took home as a memento of the evening. The more I see and use the Tuath Glass, the more I like it. It really is in a different league to the Glencairn. I used 20 ml samples for the tastings which although modest, looked absolutely great in the Tuath Glass. This is another Irish export product that we in the Irish Whiskey world should be very proud of.
On the morning after the event, I was fortunate enough to have time to check out some of Cairo’s incredible tourism offerings including of course, the world famous Cairo Museum and the Pyramids.
Many thanks to Mohammad from the Irish Embassy for a terriffic one day tour of Cairo on the day after the tasting event.
Leaving Cairo Airport on my way home, I noticed a small stand dedicated to Irish Whiskey, with expressions from Jameson, Bushmills and Teeling. If you look closely, you will see that there was even some good old fashioned Jameson 12 Year Old.
There were over 8 Million visitors to Cairo last year, most of whom passed through this airport. At one stage, Egyptian Tourism accounted for 1% of all global tourism. There is a huge opportunity to expand the Irish whiskey offering here in this very busy international airport
Some Thank Yous.
This Cairo Whiskey Tasting was an amazing event to have been involved in. Many thanks to:
- The Irish Embassy in Cairo who arranged the event and who organised my travel and accommodation.
- Mr. Wolfgang Meyer, Executive Chef Paolo Rocco and all of the wonderful staff of the Conrad Cairo.
- Aya and Mohammad from the Irish Embassy Team in Cairo.
- Teeling Whiskey (especially Danny Joyce in Teeling – Dublin Airport), Hyde Whiskey, Walsh Whiskey and Pearse Whiskey for providing brochures and other support material for me to bring to Cairo. Danny kindly gave me a bag full of Teeling Whiskey Cloth Caps as I passed through Dublin Airport. I used them as prizes for my “Star Whiskey Tasting Students” and they were the hit of the night during the event and on social media afterwards.
- My Students from “Kerry and Cairo” who kindly invited me to a wonderful home-hosted Dinner Party before I left Cairo.
- Our wonderful and engaging event-audience from Cairo who made me feel so welcome in their city.
Finally, I would like to thank Ambassador Seán O’Regan for taking the initiative in setting up this event, creating a great opportunity to promote Irish Whiskey and Irish Food to a new and emerging market.
It was both an honour and a privilege to be #Working4Ireland.