12 Rounds With… Denis Heffernan
If there is a center to Ireland’s magic, it is arguably the town of Cashel in County Tipperary, a place where the early morning mists curl across the ground and the intensely green hue of the hillsides is otherworldly. To the Irish, especially those in Tipperary, Cashel holds special significance. Not only is it the spot where St. Patrick himself reportedly converted the King of Munster to Christianity, it is also the birthplace of Guinness Extra Stout.
Back in the 1740s, Richard Guinis (Guinness), land steward to the Archbishop Price of Cashel, planted the first hops bushes for the stout he was commissioned to brew, something in which his son Arthur would take a keen interest. When the Archbishop died, he willed £100 to each of the two Guinness men, a sum which Arthur would use to start his first brewery.
The descendants of those original Guinness hops plants continue to grow in the garden of the Cashel Palace Hotel. This genteel country house sits in the shadow of the towering Rock of Cashel, the seat of the ancient Irish kings, and is home to the aptly named Guinness Bar. Some years ago, David and I were lucky enough to spend a few days at the Cashel Palace, and it was there that we first met Denis Heffernan. Denis has served as the hotel’s bartender for 40 years and is the embodiment of all that is Irish. In the short while we sat across from him, he quickly became one of our favorite barmen in all the world.
Given the season, it seemed fitting that we invite Denis – who has served everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to John Wayne and Ronald Reagan – to participate in our 12 Rounds. As you’ll see, he has a very singular point of view about his spirits, but then, his answers illustrate a point that we firmly espouse – when you find something you love, why not stick with it? If you manage to find your way to County Tipperary, make sure you pop into the Guinness Bar and say hello to Denis. Whether he serves you a whiskey, a coffee, or a pint of Guinness, his gracious charm will make you believe in the magic of Emerald Isle.
01) What inspired your interest in cocktails?
When I was 18 or 19, I saw some bartenders working in one of the grand hotels in Ireland, Dromoland Castle in County Clare. As I watched them, I thought, “I could do that.” I remember the first drink they made – the only one I could see properly – was a Brandy Alexander. It’s a sipping cocktail and I still like them after a meal.
02) What was your first formative cocktail experience?
Tasting Irish Coffee. I had it in the UK in Southend-on- Sea. The day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas – that was why I had an Irish Coffee. I was working in a bar outside London. I thought, “You know, since this was pretty awful, JFK being assassinated, let’s have Irish Coffee to commemorate his being Irish American.” They used Scotch whisky – which was awful, they didn’t have any Powers (Irish Whiskey) there.
03) What is your all-time favorite mixed drink?
Powers Whiskey & Water
04) Favorite place to drink?
The Guinness Bar Cashel. Guinness was discovered here in this house. It’s part of my history and the hotel’s history.
05) If you don’t know the bartender, what do you order?
A pint of Guinness & a Powers whiskey
06) If you could make any drink with the 12 Bottles, what would you make?
Brandy Alexander (if you email us, we’ll send you a homemade Crème de Cacao recipe, which hasn’t yet made the site).
07) If you could replace any one bottle with another, what switch would you make? And why?
Keep the Redbreast, add Powers because its style is different. Powers is the traditional one. It’s the one our fathers like and our grandfathers like, and occasionally our grandmothers.
08) Outside of the 12 Bottles, what should people make an effort to try?
Powers Gold Label Irish Whiskey
09) If you could only have one mixed drink for the rest of your life, which would it be?
A pint of Guinness . That’s as Irish as it gets. As I’ve said, Guinness was invented in the Guinness bar and Cashel is home for me.
10) With whom (living, deceased, or fictional) would you like to most share a drink?
The cast of the “Magnificent Seven” & my father Myles Heffernan (RIP). I was only fourteen when my father passed away, so I never shared a drink with him. And the “Magnificent Seven” – well, it was the best western movie ever made. So, that cast and my father in the Cashel Palace bar.
11) On which one item should the home bartender splurge?
A Bottle of Powers Gold Whiskey
12) One piece of advice for the home bartender…
You must have good manners and be a good listener.