It may not be feasible to take that dream trip to Ireland these days, but it still possible to go on a tour of the Emerald Isle — right here in Hamilton.
A tour of Irish whiskeys, that is.
In November, Tír na nÓg, the nationally recognized Irish bar on Hamilton Avenue, started up a new club: the Irish Whiskey Ambassadors Club. To gain membership in the club, patrons must drink 32 different Irish whiskeys — one for each county in Ireland. Not all at once, of course.
Irish Billy Briggs founded Tír na nÓg in 1991. It’s been called the best Irish bar in New Jersey and one of the best places to get a pint of Guiness in the United States.
Briggs died in 2008, and Todd and Maureen Faulkner have owned the bar since 2012. And the Springfield residents want Tír na nÓg to be known for whiskey as much as it is known for Irish stout.
For the Faulkners, the club is a way to engage customers as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.
Todd Faulkner says he had the idea for the Irish Whiskey Ambassadors Club a few years ago, but wasn’t sure exactly how he wanted to do it. The pandemic and the business slowdown that came with it gave him plenty of time to think about it.
Over the summer, as patrons were making the best of things sitting in folding chairs at folding tables out in the tiny Tír na nÓg parking lot, Faulkner was at work installing a new back bar inside. When it was finished, it looked like the perfect place to set up a row of Irish whiskey bottles.
“I wanted to do 32 whiskeys, the reason being that there are 32 counties in Ireland (including Northern Ireland),” Faulkner says. “We don’t have a whiskey from every county, because there aren’t that many distilleries in some counties. But the number 32 is significant.”
The club started up on Nov. 9, and as of late January, 83 “recruits” had signed up. When recruits have tasted all 32 whiskeys, they become ambassadors. Sixteen people have already gained membership in the club, which entitles them to Carhartt zip hoodies with the Irish Whiskey Ambassador logo on them.
“It’s actually a lot of fun being a bartender and having the people come in competing with each other, seeing who’s ahead of who,” Faulkner says.
Faulkner says he had two customers, Toby and John, who were determined to become the first full member of the club. The day came where both were at the bar drinking their 32nd different whiskey.
“They were sitting there enjoying a really nice Midleton’s, a high-end Irish whiskey, and they were down to their last sip. Toby looked at John and said, ‘Better look at your phone, John.’ John looked at his phone and Toby swigged his down and said, ‘I’m first.’”
Faulkner says the club has generated a number of friendly rivalries among patrons. “What I’m noticing is that somebody starts up, they bring in a friend and another friend, they have a whiskey and a beer. There’s no schedule to this. You can take a year or two years to finish.”
He mentions one group of 10 who are all competing with one another to be the first of their group to finish. Often, several of them will come in together to taste their whiskeys. And sometimes they will come in alone, to try to get a little ahead of the pack.
Ambassadors get other perks besides the jackets. They also gain access to some members-only whiskeys, Irish and non-Irish, that are available at the bar. Once they complete those, they’ll reach a new level of membership: they’ll become “chief whiskey officers.”
Recruits are restricted to five whiskeys a session, for obvious reasons. There is no set order for trying the whiskeys.
“It’s fun,” Faulkner says. “Some people go alphabetically, A through Z. Occasionally we have someone taste a high-end one and then do a not-so-high-end one, so they can taste the difference. A lot of guys are saving the high-end whiskeys to the very end, which is actually smart because you get to enjoy those on an even palate.”
Faulkner says the club has given the bar a big boost in terms of business, right when it was needed. Tír na nÓg was closed for last St. Patrick’s Day because of the pandemic — Irish bars across the country depend on that one day for a huge chunk of their annual revenue — and things don’t look great for this March 17 either.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen next week or the week after,” he says. “It’s definitely not going to be like any St. Patrick’s Day we had before. I think it won’t be normal, but I’m hoping in 2022 we’ll be back.”
In the meantime, the Irish Whiskey Ambassadors Club helps bridge the gap until bars can open fully again. Faulkner has hopes for something like a “new roaring 20’s” once that day comes.
“Once the restrictions are lifted and we’re all comfortable, maybe we do St. Patrick’s Day on the 17th of every month,” he says.
Tír na nÓg, 1324 Hamilton Ave., Hamilton NJ 08629. Phone: (609) 392-2554.
Todd Faulkner’s 3 Irish whiskeys to try
As the co-owner of Tír na nÓg and founder of the Irish Whiskey Ambassadors Club, Todd Faulkner has had the opportunity to sample all of the whiskeys on offer at the bar.
Here are three that Faulkner recommends to people looking to put something in the cabinet alongside their bottles of Bushmills and Jameson.
Power’s 12-Year. “My favorite. It is the best bang-for-the-buck Irish whiskey that I have tasted.”
Kilbeggin Single Grain Whisky. “A cheaper whiskey, but there’s so much flavor in it. A fantastic entry-level Irish whiskey. There’s sweetness in it and hints of caramel. Very nice.”
Midleton Barry Crockett. “A little stronger, a little darker, but a very nice celebratory whiskey.”