Frank McNally has appeared for repeated approbation here at Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service. Not, of course, that the Magnificent Frank needs such trifles.
Today’s Irishman’s Diary, though, is a special treat.
Until the M6 was built, this was the cross-roads of the Dublin-Galway N6 (which took one down Bridge Street, and past the distillery) and the Nenagh-Dundalk N52. Now you turn off the motorway onto the Tullamore Road.
The gift wrapping for McNally’s offering is the Kilbeggan Distillery, in the County Westmeath. That was originally the Brusna Distillery (because it sits on the River Brosna, and has a water-mill — soon again to be functioning). The original licence is dated 1757; and so claims to be the oldest continually licensed distillery in the world. Let us remember that every bottle of Bushmills boasts a 1608 licence from James I to distil uisce beatha … in the territory of the Rowte (Rowte = rout, the area controlled by the private army of the MacQuillans), and that the Old Bushmills Distillery was recorded in 1743.
Malcolm will happily drink to either claim.
The original Brusna distillery was set up and owned by the McManus family, and control passed to the Codd family in 1794. The distillery manager was John McManus, who was also a colonel in the United Irishmen, and who ended his life, condemned for treason (and apparently for breaching the curfew), on the gallows at Mullingar in the aftermath of 1798.
In 1843 the distillery was taken over by John Locke and Sons, by which name it became better known until Locke’s closed down in 1959. That led to one of those typically Irish shenanigans: the assets — which amounted to the run-down property in Kilbeggan and some 60,000 gallons of mature whiskey — had been “acquired” in 1947 by The Transworld Trust, based in Switzerland. To nobody’s great surprise The Transworld Trust, and its £305,000 was a wide-boy operation. From the start Oliver J Flanagan was asking awkward questions. As McNally puts it succinctly:
A subsequent tribunal of inquiry found that Flanagan had over-egged the allegations, somewhat. Even so, a bad smell lingered. And the Locke’s scandal helped usher De Valera out of power after 16 years, to be replaced by the first inter-party government.
… which all sounds dismally familiar
Inside this wrapping, McNally rattles through a broad view of what went wrong for Irish whiskey. His account boils down to:
In 1830 a Dublin-born (the DNB prefers Dublin to the alternative of Calais) exciseman, Aeneas Coffey (left), came up with an alternative to the ancient alembic:
The Coffey still (a.k.a columnar still) consists of three interconnected towers equipped with perforated trays stacked at intervals of approximately 20 – 30 centimetres. Each tower has to inlets; one for the alcohol-containing liquid the other for pressurized steam. The ferment is fed through the top inlet and the steam from the bottom. As the liquid trickles down the steam rises and literally strips the alcohol from it at a high temperature and speed. The vaporized alcohol travels to the top of the tower and to the next tower to undergo the same process. The third tower usually shorter distils a smaller quantity, as the volume is now much smaller than at the beginning of the process.
At the end of the run, a highly purified (90 percent ABV) alcohol is obtained which is, regardless of the base material, tastes the same -colourless, and tasteless much like vodka or industrial food-grade alcohol. This alcohol consists mainly of ethyl alcohol and very little, lethal methyl alcohol.
The result was a lighter distillate, cheaper to produce. The Scots took up the invention: the Irish stuck with traditional methods, or as the DNB has it:
Initial production problems and the conservatism of Irish distillers meant that Coffey had little success in introducing his apparatus in Ireland, and in 1835 he moved his business to St Leonard’s Street, Bromley by Bow, Middlesex. From the 1840s his patent still gained in popularity, notably in Scotland. During his tour of 1887 Alfred Barnard found Coffey stills in all the major Scottish distilleries. Improved versions are widely used in the manufacture of grain whisky, gin, and other potable and industrial spirits.
The Volstead Act (the National Prohibition Act of 1919) implemented the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Instantly Irish whiskey lost its main export market.
Worse still, the Locke’s brand and others were so well known they was counterfeited for hooch. By 1928 whiskey production in the Free State was 36.6% down, to 560,000 barrels.
When prohibition was repealed in 1931, the reputational damage had been done.
Sales in Britain of all things distinctly “Irish” were damaged by the War of Independence.
In 1932 the incoming Fianna Fáil government of Éamon de Valera ramped up tariffs on imported goods, which in those days were mainly British exports. In retaliation Irish whiskey went AWOL across the British Empire.
4. Overpaid, over-sexed and over here
There should have been a reprieve when the GIs arrived, during the Second Unpleasantness.
Alas, thanks to a combination of the above factors, the American occupation developed a taste for Scotch, in McNally’s racey account:
Dev’s economic war with Britain was a disaster, and neutrality didn’t help much either. All those US troops stationed in the UK were a whisky marketer’s dream, bringing their newly acquired taste for Scotch home with them after the war.
… and a round finish
They are back distilling at Kilbeggan: production restarted in 2007, and will be on the market in a couple of years time.
Meanwhile the Cooley Distillery (now yet another subsidiary of the Jim Beam operation) in the County Louth will offer substitutes: Kilbeggan, Locke’s Blend and Locke’s Malt. The link with Kilbeggan, for the moment, is that the maturing process takes place in Locke’s old granite bond-store.