The Changing Face of Roe & Co

The Changing Face of Roe & Co

Two of our writers take a look at the past, present and future of Dublin’s Roe & Co Irish Whiskey

Behind the Brand | 29 Mar 2019 | Issue 158 | By Phoebe Calver

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In its modern-day format, Roe & Co has established itself as a brand that focuses on the rejuvenation of Dublin’s Irish whiskey scene.

Work on its new distillery, based in the St James’s Gate Guinness complex, is on schedule and come June when the doors are open to the public, Roe & Co is a set to become a household name once more.

European brand ambassador for Roe & Co, Alan Mulvihill explained, “Work on the distillery is progressing well, but we are encountering a lot of things that we couldn’t really have planned for. For example, the installation of the bridge that crosses the majority of the building is a millimetre-exact process, the reinstallation of an entire floor, as well as building our washbacks inside the distillery has made it quite eventful.

“Perhaps the greatest of all of our ‘sticking’ points has been the access point for delivery of our grain, which is on a hill so steep and sharp that there is only one truck in Ireland with an axel capable of making the journey. That dude knows his value.

“There are so many facets of our surroundings in Dublin that we are attempting to bring together.

"The building itself is the old Guinness Power Station, originally built in 1947, which is quickly becoming an iconic part of the Dublin skyline with its twin chimneys.

“In terms of the Roe story, we are determined to pay homage to the great man himself by learning from his successes and being informed by his mistakes. There is so much of his story that we love to tell, both the highs and lows, which echo the history of our great spirit.”

While all this regeneration has been happening back home in Dublin, the team at Roe & Co have worked on putting together the Roe & Collective; a celebration of the people that they engage with everyday either in bars, coffee houses and gigs to name a few.

Alan added, “The Roe & Collective came about really organically, we were looking for a way to support the burgeoning art scene that surrounds Dublin 8, where our distillery is being built.

“This started with us throwing parties for them, slinging some whiskey and it slowly built into this wonderful culmination of good whiskey and great people. What’s not to love?”

At the Shoreditch-based launch of the brand’s campaign, Roe & Co kicked off its Roe & Collective creative sessions with the team at Make Your Own, London (M.Y.O).

“M.Y.O is a perfect example of what we are trying to achieve as a brand, in that they are bringing about crafts and trades that are often forgotten – be that brush lettering or lino printing – but in a new and innovative way.

“We wanted to offer people who are affixed to the 9-5 routine a different way to spend their evenings, perhaps picking up a new skill and hanging out with people differently. It’s nostalgic, it’s fun and a chance for people to escape the hustle of city living for a couple of hours.

“So far, we’ve had events in Dublin, Amsterdam and Berlin, alongside the wonderful night in London. It’s amazing, we get to meet these incredibly talented people and do some awesomely creative things. I’m in serious danger of becoming interesting myself as a result!”

Looking forward, in terms of the spirit itself, current plans are in place to have the second Roe & Co expression launched in unison with the distillery opening its doors to the public.

Alan explained, “We are a blending company that prides ourselves on the fact that in a world where some people abhor it, we are bringing some of our older stock to the party in the guise of a delicious blend of refill-port barrel malt, first fill Bourbon malt and first fill Bourbon grain.

“Our second expression is the reverse of our first, in that it has a crazily high malt content, as opposed to grain. It has allowed us to play around in another category, as the ‘sipper’ to our current ‘drinker’, so I would say expect big, expect wonderful and definitely keep an eye out for weird!”

George Roe and the Thomas Street Distillery

Words: Gavin D. Smith

Although the stills of their Dublin distilleries have long been silent, the names of Jameson and Powers remain familiar all over the world. Not so that of Roe & Co, whose Dublin distillery was once twice the size of John Jameson’s Bow Street facility.

According to a Diageo spokesperson, “Roe & Co is steeped in Dublin’s rich distilling history. It is named in honour of George Roe, the once world-famous whiskey maker and the driving force behind the golden era of Irish whiskey during the 19th century…The new St. James’s Gate distillery will be situated just a stone’s throw from the spot where the George Roe and Co Distillery once stood and will begin production in the first half of 2019.”

Going back to the origins of the Roe story, Peter Roe bought a modest distillery in the heart of Dublin’s distilling and brewing district on the north side of Thomas Street, south of the River Liffey, in 1757. His son, Richard, went on to run on the business from 1766 to 1794. Near neighbours were the Guinness brewery and the distilleries of William Jameson and John Power. Relative success meant that the premises were expanded to front South Earl Street. Meanwhile, one Nicholas Roe, whose relationship to Peter and Richard is unclear, established the nearby Pimlico distillery in 1784. By 1832 George Roe had inherited both operations, combining them into one larger distillery.

Previous laws which had restricted still sizes and made profitable trading difficult, had been superseded by the Excise Act of 1823, which encouraged large-scale distilling, and in 1831, George Roe leased another distillery at Mount Brown, to the west of the Guinness brewery, using the site for maltings and warehousing. Around 1840, another distillery in Mount Brown, this time in Bonham Street, was also added to Roe’s portfolio.

By 1862, he had undoubtedly established a prosperous and substantial business which was inherited that year by his sons, George and Henry, who carried on his good work and were able to expand the family’s whiskey interests. In the process they became wealthy men, as evidenced by the fact that in 1878 Henry gifted the sum of £250,000 – more than £2.2 million today – to help restore Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral. Both Henry and his brother ultimately were knighted, such was their standing in Victorian Britain.

At that time, Dublin was the beating heart of the Irish whiskey industry, noted for the high quality of its spirit. The city boasted six distilleries around this time, with the ‘Big Four’ of John Jameson, William Jameson, John Power and George Roe dominating the trade, with a combined annual capacity of more than 22.5 million litres of whiskey.

The writings of that great distillery chronicler Alfred Barnard always serve as invaluable records of the whisky-making scene in Great Britain during the mid-1880s, and his account of spending time at Roe’s Thomas Street Distillery is particularly illuminating.
Roe’s was the world’s largest distillery in terms of potential output, and Barnard wrote, “The Still Houses contain eight pot stills – there are no patent stills on the premises – holding from 12,000 [54,100 litres] to 20,000 gallons [91,000 litres] respectively.

“The works at Thomas Street cover in all 17 acres, and extend to the Quay, crossing two streets in their progress, and it is possible to enter the buildings on the left-hand entrance in Thomas Street, and by means of bridges and gangways to keep almost under cover till you find yourself again at Thomas Street, having completed the circuit of this fine work.

“The whisky is Dublin pot still of the finest quality. The annual output has reached in some seasons the enormous quantity of nearly 2,000,000 gallons. Like that of the other Dublin distilleries, however, it has been reduced considerably during the past few seasons. The whisky is shipped to all parts of the world, and is well known and appreciated everywhere.”

Despite such a glowing report, however, Roe’s began to feel the effects of the growing popularity of blended Scotch whisky during the last two decades of the 19th century, as the industry in Scotland expanded dramatically and exports boomed.

Previously, ‘Irish’ had accounted for around 70 per cent of the global market for whisky, and two out of every three bottles sold in London were Irish.

As blended Scotch whisky encroached on those statistics, 1891 saw George Roe & Co amalgamate with the Dublin Distilling Company – previously known as William Jameson’s Marrowbone Lane Distillery – and the Dublin Whiskey Company, based in modern premises on Jones Road. The new company was christened the Dublin Distillers Company Ltd., but it failed to thrive in the harsh economic climate of the 1920s.

Not only was blended Scotch a threat, but the US market was hit by Prohibition between 1920 and 1933 and exports to the British mainland were blocked during the war of independence and subsequent civil war, which lasted from 1919 to 1923.

The Dublin Distillers Company Ltd. had over-produced spirit to a significant degree during the first two decades of the century, and two of its distilleries closed in 1923, with Roe’s Thomas Street Distillery falling silent three years later, though it took some 20 years to dispose of all the stocks of whiskey.

The Thomas Street site was cleared and mostly redeveloped; today there are very few remnants of the distillery, with the exception of one rather distinctive structure.

This is the 150-feet-high St Patrick’s Tower, a smock windmill dating from 1757, the year in which the Roe family first began distilling in Thomas Street. Although it stood in the middle of the distillery site it had no connection with its operation, but with a copper-clad cupola bearing the figure of St Patrick it remains a prominent Dublin landmark, pinpointing the site where the word’s biggest distillery once stood.
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