Palace Pride As part of our series on great whiskey bars, we visit the Palace Bar in Dublin and talk to owner Willie Aherne about his pub and his love of Irish whiskey It’s a bright Thursday lunchtime as I make my way down Dublin’s Fleet Street and through the beautiful frontage of The Palace Bar, adorned with colourful overhanging flower baskets, the shimmer in the handmade Victorian stained glass windows. I am meeting the owner, Willie Aherne. I’m early and he is deep in conversation with some business colleagues. I make my way down the old bar towards the rear. The dimly lit bar is pierced by wonderful natural light through the front and there is a wonderful sense of history as you walk towards the back area of the bar, where not so long ago the great thinkers, philosophers, writers and poets of days gone by would convene. Their photos adorn the walls illuminated by the skylights from above. This is not old-style, this is genuinely old and reassuring, comforting. Barely time to take it all in I get a shout and am welcomed warmly by my host. And so we begin… SF: Thanks for your time Willie, great to be here. Please can you tell me how you got started in the business, your background and a bit about the Palace Bar? WA: Well, the Palace has been here since the 1800s, in fact, 1823. My grandfather would have bought her in 1946, just after the war, from the widow Ryan. I think the sum was IR£26,500 in old money, which at the time was the biggest price for a pub on the island. My grandfather would have come from Rearcross in county Tipperary, a village up the mountains there. He would have come up as a young fellow, with the arse hanging out of his trousers, like his brothers and they all got into the licenced trade. They would have served their time in two houses, I think my grandfather, as a young fellow, would have worked on Capel Street and then he had a brother or two, Gerry Aherne who had Aherne’s up there in Camden Street, The Hogan Stand which is now Devitts. Jack Aherne who used to be in Capel Street in or around where the old Allied Irish Bank is. He’s out in Tallaght now, well the next generation is - Old Bawn in Tallaght. So, my father would have been reared upstairs, along with my aunties and that. It was a family home. As a young fellow, I would have come in since I was knee-height to a grasshopper cleaning bottles of coke and having my orange and crisps afterwards and wiping down the shelves. As I went later to school, period - the 1930s, the 1940s. To be fair that was probably, like, it always had the literary connections with the journalists and the writers those years. But the ’30s and ’40s especially, it was kinda the literary hub, say, in Dublin if not Europe during the war as well. On match days, I’d come in in the morning washing glasses and sweeping the floor during the Holy hour with my father in the morning. When I got older, through secondary school, I would have worked weekends, for pocket money, or during summer holidays or Easter holidays and things like that, along with my brothers and sisters, we all would have done it. SF: Was it always a busy bar? WA: The Palace is one of, probably, a dozen of this kind of vintage pub that is still intact in the city like you know. Back in the ’60s, they tore many a lovely old Dublin pub apart - modernizing was the word they used at the time. My grandfather at the time, his peers were saying “Bill, are you going to move with the times, are you going to be left behind?” The story goes, my grandfather was very upset about this and he went for a walk one day, down to Ryan’s pub in Parkgate Street and Bongo Ryan was there. Bill was having a drink and he said to Bongo “Are you modernising” and Bongo said “No” and he said “Well I’m not either” and the two of them shook hands and Ryan’s in Parkgate Street is there this day and The Palace Bar in Fleet Street is here this day. The Palace was, like, always a very busy bar. It was a very famous literary pub in the period - the 1930’s, the 1940’s. To be fair that was probably, like, it always had the literary connections with the journalists and the writers those years. But the ’30s and ’40s especially, it was kinda the literary hub, say, in Dublin if not Europe during the war as well. "... in those days it would have been like walking into an alligator pit" SF: Who would you have had in? WA: The Editor of the Irish Times there at the time, a great character. Robert Smiley was his name. He used to basically hold course in the back room out there and he would be surrounded by all his men, his writers, journalists you know, Alec Newman the Assistant Editor. Then you would have had Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O'Brien, Behan, Harry Kernoff, the artist, Brindsley MacNamara, Austin Clarke, they all would have - like it’s been documented, like, you know. If you’d gone into The Palace back in those days it would have been like walking into an alligator pit, it was the great minds. But then it’s been said to me before, it’s been told to me over the years that now Ireland back in those days was probably a very backward country, probably a very censored country, what took place in that era in the back room, a lot of those men, they were the great minds. They would have shaped Irish journalism, Irish writing, Irish poetry, Irish music, they were nearly ahead of their times a lot in what took place. My father said he would always love a time machine to go back and sit in the corner and soak it all in, take it all in, and it was all men and it was all bottles of stout and a small one - that’s what it was. SF: The whiskey bar upstairs, when was that started? WA: The bar upstairs was the early 80’s. Whiskey went through a period probably between the 1990s and early 2000s where it wasn’t really fashionable when I was a young fella. It was the little old fella that used to come in here and drink a Jamie, or Jamie with a lemonade. We would have had maybe six or seven Irish whiskeys on the shelf for your standard Jameson, Paddy Powers, maybe a bottle of Tullamore, a bottle of Black Bush and Crested 10. That was it. Whiskey wasn’t huge in the ’90s and kinda maybe, you know it was kind of an older man’s drink. It only started seven, eight years ago and then it’s just in the last two/three years it’s just grown rapidly. SF: And the profile of people drinking it changed a lot as well? WA: I think, to be honest with you, we probably saw more continental younger people drinking Irish whiskey than Irish people at first. I think I would have seen that. But I think, yes, it was more young Americans, Scandinavians or young Spanish drinking Jameson or a Tullamore Dew, I saw that more. But definitely in the last few years now, maybe with just the coverage it’s getting and the people are getting more knowledgeable and the whole interest in Irish Whiskey, a lot more younger people are getting educated on it, well they’re trying it now and it’s great to see the interest women have in it now too. SF: You have a fantastic whiskey selection up here and upstairs you’ve created a really amazing Whiskey bar, Whiskey Palace. When did you start that and when did you decide that Irish Whiskey was going to be one of your main points? WA: Well I would have worked here through College in the ’90s. I would have done a bit of travelling in the late ’90s. I came back in 2001 and said: “right father this is it, I want to come into a full-time position here”. I had to say it to my father, I wanted to come in. I wanted a bit of responsibility. So I came in, anyway, I wanted to drive things on a bit. I always had a great interest in pubs - looking at pubs, looking at the design of pubs, looking at products and displays and stuff like. I like to think I had my finger on the pulse. I went to many rugby internationals in Scotland. I went to some beautiful bars in Edinburgh. I’d walk in and the display of the whiskey would be fabulous. You could have 150/200 bottles of Scotch. I thought “wow”, the aesthetics of it looked classy. I always thought it was fabulous so I started to build up our Whiskey collection here, but it was probably more Scotches. I’d say in the early 2000’s we probably had about 40/50 Scotches here on our shelf and probably about 8, 9 or 10 Irish Whiskeys. So this is where I was. I was starting to learn myself and get educated myself. I remember we joined the Irish Whiskey Trail with Heidi Donelon, we joined that just to educate myself and staff on what we were offering. Probably the watershed moment for me, when the light bulb went off in my head was John Cashman, in his Cooley days, Kilbeggan Cooley, when it was under the Teelings. He gave a talk, down in Kilbeggan, and I was at it and he went through the history of Irish Whiskey and I was blown away. I love history but I was blown away. In the 1800s there would have been 100/150 Distilleries on this island. Most towns had a Distillery. We were the drink around Europe with the aristocrats. It wasn’t Brandy it was Irish Whiskey that was the toast of Europe. And then, what happened, we got our independence, the Trade war with England, Prohibition in the States. The second world war, soldiers stationed in Scotland. Scotch rose Irish went down and distilleries started closing throughout the 1900’s- 1940’s and I was blown away by that. It probably triggered something in me - a bit of National pride, I’m kinda going “Why are we promoting Scotch Whiskey so much in The Palace? Irish Whiskey is as good, if not, better” so I kinda set my stall out then to start liaising more with the Irish distillers and started to build up our collection and looking around at different bars and any Irish Whiskeys I could get my hands on. I think we were first with displays of Greenspot.