Back to life (Kilbeggan)

Back to life (Kilbeggan)

A unique occasion in the history of Irish whiskey took place recently – an old distillery came back to life\r–our man was on the spot for the first drops of spirit

News | 01 Jun 2007 | Issue 64

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My last visit to Kilbeggan was in the summer of 2006 when tourists were making their way around the old mash tuns, machinery and giant pot stills – all silent and ghostly reminders of Irish whiskey’s glorious past.This time things were different and the contrast could not have been more marked.The first sign of this contrast was seeing the old 1887 steam engine in full working order with a surrounding buzz of activity. However, it was soon to be upstaged by the gleaming copper pot still which would be the day’s star turn.While other relics of Ireland’s distilling past are fading away, Kilbeggan is distilling again and on its 250th birthday.The Old Kilbeggan Distillery has held a distilling licence since 1757. This makes it the oldest licensed distillery in Ireland. 2007 sees it celebrating its 250th anniversary and what better way to mark the occasion than by starting to distil again.Matthew McManus was the original owner but it was under John Locke in the second half of the 19th century that the distillery became a major business. Mothballing enabled it to survive the 1920s and 30s, troubled times for Irish whiskey, but rising debt and declining sales eventually brought the company into receivership. In 1953 the stills went cold, the buildings and stocks were sold and Kilbeggan seemingly joined the long list of silent distilleries that litter the history of Irish whiskey.Despite changes in ownership, much of the old machinery remained in situ and the buildings themselves were saved thanks to the efforts of the local people who in the 1980s secured a lease for the buildings developing them into a tourist attraction. Remarkably, even though it hadn’t distilled since 1953, different owners kept on renewing the distilling licence.Cooley burst onto the Irish whiskey scene in 1987. Having acquired the rights to the ‘Kilbeggan’ and ‘John Locke’ brand names it soon bought Kilbeggan Distillery. It leased the building itself back to the local village at a peppercorn rent to preserve it as a museum of industrial archaeology.However, Cooley retained the bonded warehouses for maturation – whiskey had returned to Kilbeggan.Fast forward to a sunny but bitterly cold March day in 2007, 54 years to the day since distilling ceased at Kilbeggan. A large gathering warmed up with Kilbeggan Irish coffees and hot whiskeys. The most notable members were the direct descendents of the three families that owned the distillery during its whiskey producing years – McManus, Codd and Locke – all there to witness a truly unique event.Cooley Chairman Dr John Teeling delivered a welcome speech with his customary flair: “the oldest licensed distillery in the world will soon become the oldest working distillery in the world,” adding that it was a great testament to the people of Kilbeggan that the place had survived at all. As he was concluding, Cooley’s distillery manager David Hynes appeared in the door of the still room giving the ‘thumbs up’ at which point John Teeling abruptly wound up his speech declaring ‘there is whiskey’!It was time for the 200 year old pot still to play its staring role.As many as possible packed into the small still room and attention focussed on the spirit safe under the watchful eye of Noel Sweeney, the master distiller. As the first drop appeared the place erupted into applause and cheers, there were also a few misty eyes. Afew more drops soon followed, then a trickle, before the foreshots came through in earnest. So there it was, the first spirit to be distilled in Kilbeggan for more than half a century.For the record, the historic drop was a malt with a big pear drop aroma. The first distillation was done at Cooley’s plant in County Louth before the low wines were bought to Kilbeggan for the second distillation.The whiskey distilled at Kilbeggan will now mature in the old granite warehouses and won’t be bottled until at least 2011. But, happily, there was a new whiskey to enjoy on this historic day as Cooley launched its first ever aged blend – Kilbeggan 15 year old. It has a malt content of around 30 per cent and aged exclusively in first-fill bourbon barrels. The whiskey will be limited to 4,000 bottles and will be the first of a series of limited edition aged blends from Cooley. Although such an event is not quite the place for an in depth whiskey tasting, I can report that the trademark fruitiness was there joined by a delightful vanilla presence from the oak – a sweet, smooth whiskey very much in the Kilbeggan style.Environmental considerations mean that there are no plans to turn Kilbeggan into a fully functioning distillery at the moment.However, the expectation is that wash, rather than low wines, will be brought to Kilbeggan in the future so that the full distilling process will take place there, front end processes will be done in County Louth. In addition to the pot still, an old Coffey still has also been installed and, if John Teeling has his way, the old pots currently exposed to the elements will also be back in action.Killbeggan is likely to operate as a small batch boutique distillery. However, the kind of whiskeys that will be distilled there have not yet been finalised.The old Locke’s Distillery made a very highly regarded ‘Old Pot Still’ whiskey.I really hope that today’s Kilbeggan will live up to that reputation and distill a fully flavoured pot still whiskey.After all, it is the one style of whiskey unique to Ireland and a key part of Irish whiskey’s heritage.When I visited in 2006, Kilbeggan was a part of Irish whiskey’s past; it is now firmly a part of Irish whiskey’s future.
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