A summer job waiting tables on board the Larne to Cairnryan ferry was enough to convince Ben Munro (27), that a career in hospitality was right for him.
These days, Ben Munro works behind the bar at The Dirty Onion in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, but at the age of 15, his summer months were spent looking after P&O passengers on the Irish Sea crossing.
Despite his early ambition, however, Ben yielded to the wishes of his parents and moved on to the former University of Ulster at Coleraine when he was 18 and took up a course in architecture and marketing.
His foray into academia lasted barely a year though and by 19, he’d accepted an offer from Hilton Hotels and was working as a waiter and bartender in Australia. From there, he launched into a four-year working holiday which saw him spend time at venues in South Africa, California and latterly, in England.
“I was fairly convinced at that stage that this was the path my career would take,” recalls Ben. “And while I had always intended to come back to Northern Ireland, I just wasn’t sure when that would happen. Eventually, however, my dad Alex became unwell and I decided that it was time to go back. I wanted to be close to home again and to see my family.”
Once back in Belfast, Ben took up a post as a waiter with Premier Inn at the Titanic Quarter and set about gathering funds for a trip to Japan with old school friend, Helen Marmion. Meanwhile, The Dirty Onion opened its doors in Cathedral Quarter and about a week later, Ben was offered a job:
“I loved it straight away, it was such a cool wee spot,” says Ben. “Working for the Premier Inn can involve 50-hour weeks and it’s great for saving money but not so much for a social life and one of the reasons I came back was to see more of my family. So when I was offered the job at The Dirty Onion, I jumped at it.”
Ben was initially on the floor at The Dirty Onion, but after his trip to Japan with Helen in July 2014, he was moved behind the bar.
“I do a bit of everything in here now, my job falls somewhere between that of a supervisor and a bartender,” he says. “We have an extensive range of whiskies in here and one of my tasks is to advise customers on which whiskey they should try based on their palette.”
The Dirty Onion doesn’t do cocktails, its emphasis is very much on whiskey and gin and, increasingly, on locally-produced artisan gin. Its popular Boilermaker Club, which runs all day between Sunday and Thursday, offers customers a bespoke menu of already-paired Irish and American whiskies and beers.
Ben’s recommendation for this month’s article [see box] is a typical example of the sort of match-ups that customers might select.
“This is Belfast’s oldest building, it’s been more than 100 things in its lifetime from a flax spinners to a bonded spirits warehouse. So there’s a great tradition of whiskey and beer-drinking here and we’re very proud of the collection of whiskies that we’ve built up,” says Ben.
“I actually find that people will come in and they might not be after a whiskey, but when they’ve heard all about the history of the building here, they’re a lot more open to trying one.”
Ben is very enthusiastic about the Cathedral Quarter’s burgeoning reputation as a destination for spirit and beer enthusiasts of all shades:
“We’re a major part of that scene,” he remarks. “In fact, I think it’s fair to say that The Dirty Onion really kicked it all off when it opened its doors three-and-a-half years ago.
Ben – who will get married to Helen this summer – says he currently has no plans to work anywhere but The Dirty Onion:
“I love whiskey and I love talking about it,” he adds. “I’m really excited about some of the changes that we have in the pipeline at the moment. I can’t really say much now, but there are going to be some big developments to look forward to based around our Boilermaker menu.”
Beavertown Lupuloid IPA paired with Powers Three Swallow pot still Irish whiskey.
Firstly the beer. There’s no messing around with this one. Beavertown Brewery in London produces some very flavoursome beers, so we knew they would pair well with whiskey. Lupuloid IPA has got big hoppy flavours, tropical aromas and coming in at 6.7%, it’s not to be underestimated. We must say, considering its strength, it’s superbly balanced.
Now the whiskey. Powers has introduced an equally well-balanced pot still whiskey with Three Swallow. This whiskey is primarily aged in American ex-bourbon barrels and married with a small sherry-aged component. The flavours on the palate include banana and juicy tropical fruits. Together with the Lupuloid, this is some party. The tropical elements of both the beer and whiskey complement each other and create a perfect match.
Our pairings are served on a bespoke whiskey barrel stave that we got made especially for the menu.