Sunday, September 11, 2011

Old Kilbeggan Distillery, Co Westmeath

The word whiskey descends from the Irish words "Uisce Beatha", which translate direcly as "Water of Life". Due to the similarities between the Irish language and Scots Gaelic, the Scots use the variation "whisky" for their national spirit. Currently, Scotland supports about 90 distilleries, while Ireland has just a mere 4, albeit each producing several whiskies. Only one company remains independant, Cooley Whiskey, which has resurrected the Kilbeggan Whiskey brand and invested in the Old Kilbeggan Distillery.

The town of Kilbeggan is located a few minutes off the M4 motorway between Dublin & Galway, on the old N6 road. It's just over an hour from Dublin, and it's well worth making a detour to visit the charming Old Kilbeggan Distillery. Located on the main street of Kilbeggan, the distillery is housed in an old set of whitewashed buildings. Daily guided, multilingual tours are available, or alternatively, it is possible to take a self-guided tour and explore the distillery at your leisure (This was our chosen option at €7.00 each).

Clutching the sheets of paper which comprised our guide, we set off to explore. The guide takes you through a sequence of numbered features scattered amongst the gigantic copper tuns (vats) and massive toothed gear wheels of the original water-powered machinery. Outside, the local river is dammed to provide a steady flow to the water wheel, and it is pretty amazing to think how the smooth-flowing small river  powers the rotating iron gears and cogs that run throughout the building.
Stitch and Bear - Chimney at the Old Kilbeggan Distillery
Chimney at the Old Kilbeggan Distillery
Stitch and Bear - Old gears at the Old Kilbeggan Distillery
Gears from the water wheel at the Old Kilbeggan Distillery
The leaflet was full of straightforward facts and numbers, as well as providing some amusing insights into how the workers "acquired" the benefits of working in a whiskey distillery. Some of these perks were highly guarded secrets such as the pipe which ran from underneath the spirit receivers connected to the stills. From this, the workers could tap their own supply of the clear unaged spirit that would eventually become whiskey. Outside in the yard, it is possible to see copper stills which would have been used to distill the whiskey from a wash to a clear spirit ready for casking. Unfortunately, the stills on display are not the originals, which were sold for copper scrap in the 1960s, but they are old, coming from B. Daly's Distillery, Tullamore. Spent wash, which was not distilled into sprits but still contained alcohol, was dumped into the river where it had the effect of temporarily knocking out the fish, until they were washed downstream and literally sobered up.


Stitch and Bear - Copper still at the Old Kilbeggan Distillery
Copper still at the Old Kilbeggan Distillery
There are rules and regulations which govern the production of Irish whiskey. They are relatively simple - whiskey must be distilled and aged in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. The contained spirits must be distilled to an ABV of less than 94.8% from a yeast-fermented mash of cereal grains and lastly, the whiskey must be aged for at least three years in wooden casks. Thus, any distillery will have large amounts of wooden casks laid down at any given time containing whiskey that is maturing and aging.
Stitch and Bear - Commemorative whiskey casks at the Old Kilbeggan Distillery
Commemorative whiskey casks at the Old Kilbeggan Distillery
The last portion of our tour including a little tasting of Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey in the little bar. The standard Kilbeggan whiskey is a smooth, sweet spirit with a malty finish. Other more matured versions are also available, and we took home a bottle of 8 year old Greenore Single Grain Irish Whiskey. It's made from maize/corn and aged for 8 years in first fill ex-bourbon casks. Like it's relation, it's a sweet whiskey, with tastes of vanilla and caramel and is a lovely whiskey to drink neat.
Stitch and Bear - Tasting Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey at the Old Kilbeggan Distillery
Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey at the Old Kilbeggan Distillery
The Old Kilbeggan Distillery is a wonderful location to visit. It hasn't been glossed and polished to within an inch of its life. Instead, it's been bought back to working condition and the factory is allowed to sing its own song. The air in the yards is fragrant with alcohol aromas and it's not hard to imagine the hustle and bustle that once filled the buildings.

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