Situated on the Brosna River in Co. Westmeath is the Old Kilbeggan Distillery – the home of Kilbeggan Irish whiskey.
Opened back in 1757, the Old Kilbeggan Distillery is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world.
While many people think of Scotland as the home of whiskey, it was actually the Irish that invented the art of whiskey making. French monks landed in Ireland in the 6th century bringing with them the technique they used to create perfumes and “Eau de Vie”, the French for water of life. They used an apparatus called an “alembic” which was later renamed by the Irish as a pot still.
Rather than using the grapes and other fruits that grew in France, the Irish used the local cereal crops as ingredients. “Uisce Beatha”, the Irish for water of life, was born. Throughout the years as Ireland became more anglicised the pronunciation of “uisce beatha” evolved into whiskey.
Irish whiskey was immensely popular in Britain and their colonies during the 18th and 19th centuries so much so that by the mid 1700’s there were over 1,200 distilleries in Ireland, the majority of which were unlicensed.
The many illicit distilleries soon forced the government into action and a period of tax rises and increased government vigilance and control over distilling followed.
While there were many illicit stills operating in the Irish Midlands, the new government regulations and controls led some to go down the legal route.
One of these was the McManus family who started distilling at the Old Kilbeggan Distillery in 1757. Few would have thought it at the time, but this started a 250-year plus link between Kilbeggan and Irish whiskey.
The town of Kilbeggan was chosen for a good reason – the three natural ingredients needed for whiskey distillation, water, grain and turf for malting and fuel, were found there in abundance. Situated on the banks of the river Brosna gave it access to a pure water supply coupled with locally grown cereal crops and a ready supply of turf from the nearby bogs.
Unfortunate circumstances would hamper the McManus link with the distillery. Matthias’s son, John McManus, the then manager of the distillery, was also a member of the United Irishmen who rose in rebellion against English rule and was executed in Mullingar for his part in the local uprising.
In 1794, the Codd family, long associated with the local malting trade, took a stake in the Old Kilbeggan Distillery. They doubled the capacity of the distillery in the first few years of their ownership. The number of legally registered Irish distilleries reduced dramatically due to increased taxes and government control. Those who remained in business increased in size to meet the continued demand for whiskey by the middle classes. Times were hard for small distillers and many were forced out of business beset on the one side by illicit distillers who bypassed the stringent tax laws and on the other side by the larger distilleries and their ability to cut prices.
Thankfully, these punitive tax laws were repealed in 1820’s leading to a new lease of life for the Old Kilbeggan Distillery. Significant capital investment expanded the distillery to take advantage of the more favourable operating environment. This coincided with the opening of a branch of the Grand Canal that extended into the town of Kilbeggan providing an ideal supply and distribution point.
However, the resurgence of the Irish whiskey industry proved short lived. The Total Abstinence Movement of Father Theobald Mathew began in 1838 and within a few years a large amount of the population had “taken the pledge”. This movement and a general economic malaise in Ireland lead to many distilleries falling on hard times. This resulted in increased competition between the Irish distillers, which meant continued growth for the larger companies at the expense of the smaller distilleries who often had no option but to shut down.
The boom times for Irish whiskey had ended by the early 1840’s and the Old Kilbeggan Distillery had fallen into a state of disrepair. It was at this time that the Locke family arrived in Kilbeggan.
The Locke family came to Kilbeggan in the 1840’s with little wealth or status. Few imagined that they would be involved with the highest point of the Distillery’s 250-year history and be associated with it for over 100 years.
John Locke, having come from failed whiskey ventures in Tullamore and Monasterevin, bought the assets of the Old Kilbeggan Distillery from the Codds in 1843. The temperance movement in Ireland was now disbanding and interest in whiskey was re-emerging. By 1870 the distillery was producing more than ever before and a major expansion of the distillery commenced. This coincided with the significant increase in the export of Irish whiskey to the English market. Between 1860 and 1900 exports of Irish whiskey to England increased from 1 million gallons to over 8 million gallons a year.
During this time, there were significant changes in whiskey distillation technology in Ireland and increasingly in Scotland with the arrival of the patent still. Using a patent still, a distiller could make far more whiskey than could be made using the conventional pot still. However, there was no place for the new patent still at Kilbeggan. They maintained the same distilling techniques that were used when the distillery was founded. The traditional pot still distillation methods that were handed down from generation to generation were kept intact.
However, this traditional approach became a thorn in their sides as the demand for the cheaper patent still whiskey overtook demand for traditional pot still whiskey. From 1890 to 1910 sales declined rapidly. In 1910 the Old Kilbeggan Distillery was only producing at the same level as the late 1860’s. In order to increase sales Lockes began to look further abroad for sales. They started a relationship with a broker in New York and expanded their business in England. However, while times were hard worse was to come.
In spite of economic problems at home, by 1900 Irish whiskey was the leading strong spirit in Britain. Large quantities were being exported to the West Indies and to the US market. It is thought that from 1919 to 1933 Irish whiskey accounted for up to 75% of whiskey consumed in the US.
It would take three major setbacks to break the success of the Irish whiskey industry - the Irish War of Independence, US Prohibition and the introduction of Scotch blended whisky.
The Irish War of Independence started in 1916 and lasted until independence was secured in 1921. Shortly after independence a trade war with Britain developed denying Irish whiskey access to the lucrative markets of Britain and its Empire.
The same time saw the introduction of Prohibition to the US in 1920. This experiment lasted until 1933 by which time the Irish whiskey industry was mortally wounded. When Prohibition was over, the damaged Irish whiskey industry could not produce the volumes needed by the reawakened US market. The Scotch whisky industry using the patent still could easily meet the increased demand with their new blended whisky. Sales of Scotch boomed at the expense of Irish.
Against such a “perfect storm”, the Locke family battled to stay above water. By this time John Locke’s two daughters Florence Eccles and Mary Hope Johnston, nicknamed "Flo" and "Sweet", were the directors and main shareholders. Despite their best efforts, the distillery ceased production in 1954 and eventually closed in 1957.
The demise of the Old Kilbeggan Distillery mirrored the overall decimation of the Irish whiskey industry. By 1966 the number of distilleries operating in Ireland had dropped to a paltry four. This soon became two as Jameson, Powers and Cork Distilleries merged to form Irish Distillers and then finally to one when Bushmills joined the monopoly in the early 1970’s.
For nearly two decades, Irish whiskey was controlled by one company. Such a monopoly did little to develop Irish whiskey. The creation of Cooley Distillery in 1987 brought much needed competition back to Irish whiskey.
Cooley Distillery is the brainchild of Irishman John Teeling and was the first new whiskey distillery to be set up in Ireland in over 100 years. Cooley was set up with a clear vision to rescue some of the famous old Irish whiskey brands and distilleries that had been mothballed during the previous 50 years.
The first step was to acquire a production facility on the picturesque Cooley peninsula. This was followed by the acquisition of some of the most famous old brands in Irish whiskey history. The Old Kilbeggan Distillery and its brands were acquired in 1988 with a vision to use the old warehouses to mature whiskey as well as to restore the distillery and its brands to their former glory.
Since the ‘70s the Old Kilbeggan Distillery had been saved by a handful of local people who had maintained the distilling license and preserved almost all of the old distillery equipment. This labour of love has meant that the Old Kilbeggan Distillery retains the character and history of its previous owners.
Since 1987 Irish whiskey has being making up lost ground and has been the fastest growing segment within the brown spirits industry. Following the sale of Irish Distillers (owners of Jameson, Paddy and Powers) to the multinational French company Pernod Ricard, and the subsequent sale of Bushmills to the UK multinational Diageo, Cooley is the only Irish owned Irish whiskey distillery.
Cooley has used the warehouses in the Old Kilbeggan Distillery to mature whiskey since inception. The ancient granite warehouses provide the perfect climate to produce the smooth sweet flavour of its award winning whiskeys.
While the old distillery, last used by the Locke family, has been preserved and can be seen in all its glory in the Locke’s Distillery Museum on site, another vital step in the rejuvenation of the Old Kilbeggan Distillery took place in 2007. To celebrate 250 years of existence on the same site, from 1757 to 2007, steps were taken to recommence distilling. An ancient pot still that was last used in the 19th century was painstakingly refurbished and fired up on the 19th March 2007, 54 years to the day when distilling stopped.
The distillery produces up to 250,000 bottles of whiskey a year, which mature in the adjacent granite warehouses. This is the oldest pot still working in Ireland and will revive a traditional style of distillation not seen in Ireland for many years. The firing of the pot still was witnessed by direct descendants of four families – the McManus’, the Codds’, the Locke’s and the Teeling’s who between them operated the distillery for over 240 years.
Irish whiskey is once again the drink of choice in many fine establishments around the world. Due to its smooth sweet nature a whole new generation of whiskey drinkers are discovering the rewarding variety of taste Irish whiskey can provide. Kilbeggan is proud to be part of this rejuvenation and has a large part to play in getting Irish whiskey back to heights it once enjoyed.
Kilbeggan is a uniquely Irish whiskey. Like most Irish people, Kilbeggan is easy going and approachable, but with its own distinctive style. The finest grain and malt whiskeys are blended together for the smooth, sweet taste and lovely malty finish that is Kilbeggan Irish whiskey.
Making Kilbeggan requires three key ingredients - pure clean water, with which Ireland is fortunately blessed, cereals of grain and barley and most importantly experience. Whiskey has been made in Ireland for hundreds of years and by drawing on this rich whiskey making heritage Kilbeggan is born.
To distil whiskey the distiller requires starch in sufficient quantity which will then be turned into sugar at the distillery to make an alcoholic spirit. Starch comes from the cereals of grain and barley which when broken down creates the sugars required to produce the alcohol.
Kilbeggan Irish whiskey is crafted by the Master Blender and his staff at the distillery for your enjoyment. Tropical and citrus fruits together with, vanilla and toasty wood aromas are your first experience of Kilbeggan Irish whiskey. In the mouth it has a soft, silky smooth texture, a delicious sweetness with, toffee, fruit and peppery spice flavours all of which are followed by a creamy vanilla and toasty wood finish – Kilbeggan is a joy to behold.
Just as the saying goes “there is more than one way to skin a cat”, Kilbeggan can be enjoyed in many different ways. It can be consumed on its own or with a drop of water. It doesn’t end there, its versatile nature also means that it makes the perfect Irish coffee and it’s a great cocktail ingredient. Kilbeggan Irish whiskey really has something for everyone.
Kilbeggan Irish whiskey and the Old Kilbeggan Distillery are part of Cooley Distillery, the only independent Irish-owned whiskey distillery. Cooley was established in 1987, the first Irish whiskey distillery to be setup in over 100 years with a clear vision of saving some of the historic brand names of Irish whiskey.
Cooley is extremely proud of being able to resurrect the Kilbeggan Irish whiskey brand and keeping it independent to maintain its authenticity. Cooley continues to invest in the Old Kilbeggan Distillery and the commencement of distilling onsite in 2007 is part of larger plans that Cooley has for bringing the Old Kilbeggan Distillery and its brands back to their former glory.