An early account of the life of St. Patrick records that the men of Thuath-Mumhan, or Thomond, which is now Ireland’s County Clare, crossed the river Shannon to be baptized by the saint. From that shore, on a hill in County Limerick, St. Patrick blessed the principality—which borders the wind-whipped Atlantic Ocean on the west and the Bay of Galway on the northwest—in thanks for the abundant gifts its emissaries brought with them. Good fortune has since remained with the region in the form of its verdant landscape, whose sheltered bays and wide, sandy beaches furnish some of the most picturesque views to be found in the British Isles. Undoubtedly these breathtaking vistas inspired the ruling Dalcassian families to build their well-fortified castles amid its softly undulating hills. Among these families, which include the O’Loughlins and O’Briens, the MacNamaras (originally MacConmara) constructed two of the most impressive and best-preserved edifices to be found there today. Bunratty Castle, built by Sioda MacConmara in approximately 1450, is the region’s most complete medieval stronghold, remarkable for its four soaring, crenellated towers; but Knappogue Castle, erected in 1467 by Sioda’s son, Sean, appeals to the modern sensibility more than the father’s fortress, not only for its comfortable appointments but also for the whiskey that bears its name.
The castle has a long and varied history, having sheltered a succession of dignitaries ranging from Oliver Cromwell to Charles de Gaulle; yet the preservation of this legacy has not, until recently, been assured. Although the house underwent extensive restoration after Lord Dunboyne purchased it in 1855, by the 1920s the estate—then owned by a local farmer without means—had fallen into disrepair. The house stood empty until the 1960s, when Mark Edwin and Lavone Andrews of Houston, Texas, acquired the property. Mrs. Andrews, an architect by profession, devoted herself to transforming the ruin into a home for her family, painstakingly reconstructing and refurbishing its rooms in exacting detail, even replanting a walled ornamental garden that dated to the period of Lord Dunboyne’s tenure.
While his wife occupied herself with architecture, Mr. Andrews pursued his own interests—among them pure pot still whiskeys. He collected these vintage casks from a variety of sources, storing them in a warehouse in Cork, where he would sojourn on occasion to sample their progress. When he felt that a particular cask had aged to his satisfaction, he bottled it. He named his whiskey for the castle and placed his signature on each label, thereby preserving his own bit of history and adding, at the same time, to Knappogue’s evolving heritage.
The Andrews’ son, Mark, has taken up both his parents’ enthusiasms. The castle, now open to the public, offers this and future generations an exquisite monument to County Clare’s storied past, while Mark’s own firm, Castle Brands, continues to offer enthusiasts the opportunity to indulge in his father’s fine Irish whiskeys. The recently released Knappogue Castle 1951 ($800)—obtained from the B. Daly Distillery in King’s County and the last of the bottlings from Mr. Andrews’ personal collection—will delight imbibers with its complexity. While Irish whiskeys, in comparison with their Scotch cousins, can be rather leaner in flavor and less languorous on the finish, this well-ripened spirit is generous and full from the first nosing to its final note. Beginning with a rich, syrupy, brandied bouquet of Bananas Foster, the 1951 treats the palate to a wonderfully unctuous transit that begins with soft oats and corn silk with a touch of sugarcane. A delicate spice like sassafras laces the long finish, along with cool clover, leaving one with the impression of a well-integrated progression that, as one commenter suggested, enables you to “taste the hills of Ireland in 40 shades of green.” Indeed, the Knappogue Castle 1951 stands as proof that County Clare continues to be blessed.
Castle Brands, 800.882.8140, www.castlebrandsinc.com