It’s no secret that we’re pretty big on whiskey here in Ireland. Uisce Beatha, the Irish for whiskey, means ‘water of life’, which says it all really. People claim that Ireland is the birthplace of whiskey and while I’m no expert on the matter, I’ll go along with that. Just don’t bring up the subject if there are any Scots in your company, ok!
Regardless of where it originated, if you’re looking to do a whiskey tour in Ireland, you certainly won’t be short on options. If you’re a fan of old school, start where it all began at the Kilbeggan Distillery in Westmeath. There’s no better place to learn about the history of whiskey, the process of distillation and of course to sample some of the finished product.
Located in the town of Kilbeggan, on the Brosna River, Kilbeggan Distillery is the oldest licensed distillery in Ireland. It was established in 1757, when Matthew MacManus obtained a license to produce whiskey.
In 1843 the Locke family took over the distillery and business flourished. The family ran the distillery until production ceased in 1954. It was subsequently closed in 1957.
The closure was the result of many contributing factors. The distillery had endured decades of difficulties due to prohibition in America, the economic depression of the 1920s and 30s, trade war with the British Empire, the Irish war of Independence and two world wars.
As a result there was little, if anything, to invest back into the business and it suffered due to lack of modernisation. Then in April 1952, the Irish government introduced a massive hike in excise duties and this was the final nail in the coffin. It was the beginning of the end for Locke’s distillery.
Reopening of the Distillery
Thankfully, in 1982, a group of locals formed the Kilbeggan Preservation and Development Association and raised funds for restoration. The distillery was reopened to the public as a museum.
Then, in 1988 the distillery was purchased by Cooley Distillery, along with the licence to produce whiskey under the Kilbeggan and Locke’s Whiskey brands. This was possible because each owner of the distillery since its closure had continued to pay the annual licence fee.
On 19th March 2007, 250 years after the first licence was granted, distillation once again started at the distillery. Now small batch whiskeys are made at Kilbeggan, while the larger scale production takes place at Cooley Distillery in Louth.
Both the Cooley and Killbeggan distilleries are now part of Beam Suntory.
Tours at Kilbeggan Distillery
The tour at Kilbeggan Distillery is a great mix of old and new. It’s one part museum and one part boutique distillery, so you get to see how the whiskey used to be produced as well as how it’s done now, albeit on a smaller scale.
At this point I should probably disclose that I’m not a big fan of whiskey (shush, keep that quiet!) but that doesn’t even matter. You’ll still really enjoy the tour even if a drop has never touched your lips.
On the first part of the tour you are taken back in time to the traditional method of producing whiskey. The building and most of the machinery on display remains as it was prior to the closure in the 50s, so you’re getting a really authentic experience.
The 19th century waterwheel is one of the most iconic features of the town and the distillery. It has been restored to its former glory. Back in the day, the Brosna river was diverted so its force could be used to turn the wheel and power the distillery.
The distillery could also be powered by a steam engine, which can be seen on the tour and is still in working condition. The engine was manufactured in Scotland and dates back to 1887. It was rarely used due to the cost but if water levels were insufficient or the wheel needed repair, it provided essential backup.
Unfortunately the original copper pot stills used for distillation were removed and sold for scrap in the 1960s or early 70s. The three stills which you can see outside today are from Tullamore. They would have been heated by fires lit underneath.
One of the less enticing things we learned on the tour was that at the end of the day the workers sometimes used to take a hot bath in the brewing vats. That’s certainly one way of adding additional flavour I guess. Thankfully it’s no longer a feature of the current process!
After going through the old process for production and distillation, our guide took us across the courtyard to where the current production of small batch whiskey takes place. We were taken to the mashing and fermentation area upstairs, learning about how the process goes from grain to wash.
Afterwards, the wash which is about 7% alcohol is double distilled downstairs. It’s first distilled in a larger wash still and then in a smaller spirit still.
Although whiskey has only been distilled on site at Kilbeggan again since 2007, there is still a link to days of old. The smaller spirit still that’s used in the distillation is over 180 years old. It’s the oldest working pot still producing whiskey in the world today.
These days, Kilbeggan Distillery produces around 400 litres per day.
Taste testing at Kilbeggan Distillery
Of course a tour isn’t complete without sampling the finished product. To finish off you get to taste three different whiskeys. If you’re the designated driver or just not a fan of whiskey, you may have to be content with a sniff test instead!
I did take a sip of each whiskey but again, wouldn’t be my cuppa tea! On the other hand, I am rather found of the odd Irish Coffee or two.
Bar and gift shop
And luckily they serve a perfect Irish Coffee in the bar! I treated myself after the tour and can confirm they’re very delicious. So if whiskey is not your thing, that might be a better way to give it a go. There is also a gift shop with a large range of whiskeys, as well as lots of other products for sale.
Did you know….
- New casks are never used in the production of Irish whiskey. The casks used would have previously held sherry, bourbon or similar. The wood used in the casks, as well as the previous content, add a unique flavour to each whiskey. The casks are also charred inside which colours the whiskey.
- By law, all Irish whiskey must be allowed to mature for a minimum of 3 years and 1 day. Otherwise it can’t legally be called Whiskey.
Visiting Kilbeggan Distillery
The Kilbeggan Distillery is just about an hours drive from Dublin city centre. It’s also an easy stop off if you’re if you’re travelling between Dublin and Galway on the M6. You just might have to treat the sober driver to a pint when you reach your destination!
At the time of our visit we paid €15 for the tour, which included the whiskey tasting. You also get to take one of the little tasting glasses home as a souvenir of your visit.
Things to Do Nearby