Whisky returns to the Emerald Island — Part II — Kilbeggan Distillery

by Elizabeth Willoughby

In the 1800s, Dublin was the world capital of whisky production. In the 1900s there were only a couple of distilleries left on the island. This century, Irish whisky is making a comeback. Join me in finding out who's left and who are the new kids on the block, where they came from and where they're going.

original barrel

To E or not to E, that is the question.

One of the first confusions about whisky is how to spell it — with or without an E. Hang onto your drams for this crazy answer: If you're from Japan, Canada or Scotland, whisky is spelt without an E: Whisky. You might also notice that none of these countries have an E in their names. Coincidence? If you're from Ireland or the United States, it's spelt whiskey, with an E in whisky and an E in the country names. One explanation is that the Irish added the E to differentiate their whisky from Scottish whisky, which was blended. The spelling on the label, however, is up to the distillery, no matter its place of origin. If you're American, you might also spell whisky like this: Bourbon. That brings us to another question: what's the difference between bourbon, Scotch and Irish whisky?

Uisce beathe, but what's in a name anyway?

All whisky is made from the fermented mash of a grain (usually barley, rye or corn). After that, the end result is due to several factors.

Bourbon: This whisky, from the US, is distilled from mash that is at least 51 percent corn. It tends to be a bit sweeter than other whiskies, and it is matured for any amount of time in 100 percent virgin, charred, oak barrels, which can only be used once. Luckily, Irish and Scottish distilleries have a need for such barrels, since their whisky is matured in barrels that have already been used for bourbon.


Scotch: Whisky from Scottish distilleries is known as Scotch. It's also known for its smoky nose and taste because the germination process is halted by the heat from peat fires. Common lore says Scotch whisky is double distilled and matured in bourbon infused oak barrels for the flavour and colour it provides, and re-charred once they've been used too many times to regain the faded qualities.

Irish whisky: Whisky from Irish distilleries is made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley, is triple distilled in pot stills before it is matured for a minimum of three years and one day in oak barrels that have been previously used to hold maturing bourbon or sherry, and they're used by the Irish distillery a maximum of three times.

These oft repeated points make a handy short list of the differences between the whiskies, especially Scottish and Irish brands, but historically such distinctions are a stretch. According to the Whisky Bible, in the 19th century, many inland Irish distilleries also used peat for firing because, like in Scotland, peat was plentiful; some Irish distilleries used two stills, while some used three, like in Scotland; and sherry butts were as common in Scotland as they were in Ireland before WWII. But it's true that Irish whisky used a mixture of malted and unmalted barley, which originated back when the British put a tax on malted grain. Today this is no longer universally true.


Kilbeggan Distillery — over 250 years old, could this be the first?

While Northern Ireland's Bushmills may be the oldest licensed whisky distillery in the world, Kilbeggan claims to be the oldest licensed pot still whisky distillery in Ireland — older than Bushmills by some accounts, disputed by others. I do not claim to know the truth, but the fact that Matthew MacManus obtained a license to produce whisky in Kilbeggan in 1757 doesn't seem to be controversial. Almost 90 years later, the distillery was acquired by the Locke family who ran it for three generations from 1843; by 1887 it was distilling 160,000 gallons annually and employing more than 70 people. Rumour has it that the pure pot still whisky that it produced won the hearts of devotees that included Winston Churchill.

Kilbeggan distillery used turf (peat) from nearby bogs, locally grown grain and water from the Brosna River, which also ran its water wheel. The Locke family, who maintained a good reputation as an employer, allowed workers to graze their cows on the distillery's pastures (for a fee), delivered a shipment of coal to each worker's household before winter each year (for a fee), and workers received two shots of whisky as a daily allowance (for free).

distillery river

Even fish got their share. According to the distillery museum, the waste material from the stills was tipped back into the river, and "this had the effect of knocking out the fish in the river, but not killing them. However, if left alone, the fish recovered when they reached fresh water down the river."

Back in the day, Locke's whisky was made from barley, wheat, oats and rye bought from local farmers and from the Locke's own fields. First turf, then English coal (cheaper to buy when the Kilbeggan branch of the Grand Canal opened in 1835 — except during WWII when coal was scarce) was used to heat the kilns to dry the germinated grain, heat the stills that distilled the alcohol and fuelled the steam engine when the water was too low to turn the wheel. The water wheel was the primary source of power to drive the machinery, such as the mill stones, mash tuns and pumps. Sherry-held oak casks gave the whisky its flavour, and the cooper first charred them to give the whisky its colour.

Distillery Picture

Image © Kilbeggan Distillery

"Inquiries are ignored; what lies between lines is magnified and, sure as god, a scandal still emerges."

One of the last distilleries still operating in Ireland at the time, Kilbeggan was scandalised in 1947 when, due to slumping sales, the distillery was put up for sale. Accusations arose that "international chancers of fame" — a shady Swiss national and an Englishman using a false identity — representing a Swiss syndicate had attempted to buy the Locke's distillery, while the government refused to entertain the claims of Irish nationals for it. It was also claimed that a nephew of the President of Ireland was to complete the sale to the Swiss citizens through a Senator of the Fianna Fail Party, and that large amounts of the distillery's whisky were to be sent to England to be sold on the black market. The evidence required to prove the accusations, however, was not forthcoming.

Due to the scandal, the Lockes withdrew the distillery from the market and tried to re-energise the business, but were unable to sufficiently improve their sales and Kilbeggan stopped its whisky production in 1954. For years afterwards, the property was used for such things as a piggery and a machinery storage yard, but in 1987, the community decided to restore the run-down buildings into a museum using mostly surviving machinery from the Locke period: mill wheel, warehouses, stores and steam engine. As well, they created a restaurant and bar in original rooms. It won them a 25,000 pound AIB Better Ireland Award, which was reinvested back into the project.

Whisky production was also revived at the Kilbeggan site where, nowadays, only barley grain and only bourbon-held oak casks from America are used, and the distillery scandal of 1947 is still talked about.

delivery truck

An hour's drive west of Dublin city, Kilbeggan in County Westmeath is worth a visit to the distillery and museum with an authentic, centuries-old atmosphere. Tours are guided or self guided. Don't forget to have a tasting at the bar afterwards, and don't forget you can keep your glass. Then head to the Pantry Restaurant for a hearty Irish lunch menu including steak, fish and farmhouse cottage pie. If you time it right, you can also enjoy some live Irish music.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2016

This article was published at © 2016


JavaScript must be enabled in order for you to use Google Maps.
However, it seems JavaScript is either disabled or not supported by your browser.
To view Google Maps, enable JavaScript by changing your browser options, and then try again.


A good travel piece is fun, informative and factual,
not a place for hackneyed embellishments.
Do contact me to discuss bringing journeys into the realm of possibility for your readership.







Go to top