Fionnan O'Connor sits at the head of a long table, surrounded by about twenty chatty UC Berkeley undergrads. At the tender age of 23, he is not much older than they are. But in dress and mannerisms, he is worlds away.
Wearing an old tweed jacket and sporting a disheveled cowlick, the Irish-born/Southern California-raised O'Connor stands up to discuss the chosen "dram" of the night. The evening's tasting features two different incarnations of Midleton's Redbreast Pure Pot Still Irish whiskey: the standard twelve-year-old, and a fifteen-year-old variation.
"Now that we all have our whiskey, I want you to take a great big smell of it," he said lifting his whiskey snifter, his melodic voice a self-described mixture of SoCal "vanilla" and Clontarf middle-class. "Really breathe it in."
The students in his DeCal class, called "Whiskey: Its Culture and History," are most likely excited at the prospect of expanding their alcohol knowledge beyond the ingredients of a screwdriver, and in a classroom setting at that. But O'Connor has a much different relationship with whiskey than most people in his generation, evident from the florid language that he uses to describe it. As he talks about the evolution and almost complete extinction of Irish pure pot stills (PPS), words like "oily," "thick," and "potent" are commonly thrown around. He uses flavor descriptors like "smoky melon" and "burnt grass."
"Unlike with last week's incredibly strong Ardbeg Uigeadail, it is really important that you take a huge mouthful of the Redbreast in with each sip," he instructs his students. "The flavors really open up when you hold it in your mouth. Hold it for at least thirty seconds in your mouth — and always remember to aerate!"
O'Connor instructs the class as naturally as if he has done this all his life. And it's this easy Irish charm that has caught the attention of not only the UC Berkeley student body, where he has taught his DeCal class since 2009, but also the international liquor powerhouse Diageo, which recently hired him as one of its "whiskey ambassadors." The sophisticated San Francisco speakeasy Bourbon & Branch also tapped him to teach a class on Irish whiskey on June 27.
Although he has been drinking the distilled spirit for just eight years, O'Connor has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of whiskey that rivals even the most seasoned experts. He's an active member of the Irish Whiskey Society in Dublin, and is currently writing a book on the history of whiskey. His ultimate goal is to change people's opinions about the drink.
In many ways, that's already happening. Long associated as the stiff drink of choice for old men, whiskey is viewed in a far more sophisticated light these days. It now nearly rivals vodka in terms of popularity among many consumers, and bars increasingly feature it on their cocktail menus.
According to O'Connor, the Bay Area is uniquely positioned to become a major whiskey mecca. The damp climate of Northern California is suitable for creating a distinct peat that would give locally produced whiskeys a true local flavor. In fact, O'Connor has his eye on creating his own micro-distiller that would use all local ingredients. And with the area's high concentration of bars and mixologists on the cutting-edge, the Bay Area could become home to a thriving new industry.
There's just one major problem: State law currently prevents micro-distillers from selling their products directly to consumers. Unlike wineries, where the public can taste and then buy wines straight from the producers, craft distillers in California are prohibited from doing the same thing. And attempts to change the law so far have been unsuccessful.
In other words, while the wine industry thrives, the nascent market for craft distilled spirits is stifled, leaving entrepreneurs like O'Connor in the cold.
Born in Ireland, O'Connor was primarily raised in Southern California after his father received a Fulbright scholarship for architecture to attend UCLA. But instead of completely planting his roots in the sand of Santa Monica beach, O'Connor would spend every summer in Dublin — as he continues to do. Spending one fourth of every year in a country that has no hard, fast drinking-age laws jump-started O'Connor's passion for whiskey.
He tasted his first dram of whiskey when he was just sixteen years old, in a Galway pub with his uncle. Immediately, he knew that this was more than just an ordinary drink. He was fascinated by the whole culture behind the liquor, as well as its complex flavor: "The intensity of the stuff and the whole mythology of peating and distillation and cask seasoning really appealed to me," he recalled. "The really lathery PPS whiskeys and PPS blends that I was first drinking in Ireland probably made this [love] hyper obvious."
His interest in the spirit led him to start reading up on the history of different whiskey-producing regions. Soon he was traveling around the United Kingdom and Ireland to visit active and silent distilleries. "It became a hobby that gradually developed into a minor obsession, and, by now, it's probably a major obsession," he joked.
In many ways, his passion for whiskey is the culmination of his dual Irish and American identity, which manifests in many aspects of his life. He has a constant need to talk about Ireland and classic literature. His closet seems to consist entirely of loose corduroy pants and baggy jerseys for the ancient Gaelic sport of hurling. He majored in English, and as a student started UC Berkeley's first hurling team.