By Richard Thomas
Rising hand-in-glove with the popularity of whiskey is whiskey tourism, and Ireland is no exception. Yet as new destinations sprout up on the Emerald Isle’s whiskey trail, one of its must-see fixtures will remain Kilbeggan.
It’s not the seat of any of today’s famous brand. Indeed, the whiskey now in a typical bottle of Kilbeggan whiskey comes mostly from the Cooley Distillery rather than Kilbeggan’s own pot stills. Instead, what Kilbeggan offers is the most authentically historic of Ireland’s distillery experiences.
Kilbeggan received its license from the British crown in 1757 and much of the existing building dates to the 19th Century, from the stewardship of one John Locke, who took over in 1843. Production ceased in the mid-1950s and the distillery closed, until the community reopened it as a museum in the 1980s. Shortly thereafter, John Cooley (who opened the Cooley Distillery in 1987) expressed interest in reviving the Kilbeggan and Locke brands of Irish whiskey and in making them at the old distillery, although it would be two decades before that vision became a reality.
Distilling In The Museum
On paper, that ought to mean a tour in what is as much a working distillery as it is a museum, but in reality a visit at Kilbeggan has the feel of urban exploration in a sprawling cluster of conjoined, abandoned barns. It’s rustic, a bit dingy, and screams authenticity.
The heart of the old distillery is clustered around the working water wheel on the River Brusna, which might be a swollen, rushing torrent if you are there during a rainy week (as many weeks are in Ireland). The interior is aged wood, from the mash tuns to the floor boards, interlaced with ancient, but still-working drive machinery powered by the river. Alongside this is a Victorian era steam engine, which turned out to be a boondoggle that was hardly used. For lovers of historic industry, Kilbeggan is a golden experience.
Yet Kilbeggan is also a working distillery, but even in that it’s historic. The copper pots date to the early 1800s, and are the oldest working pot stills in the country. Other old distilling equipment lies disused on other parts of the grounds, including Tullamore Dew’s old stills (which they would dearly love to get back!).
At no time does one get the highly polished feel of a tour in one of the big industrial distilleries, such as New Midleton, or the manicured experience of a Woodford Reserve. The working distillery has the feel of what an Irishman or Briton would call a glorified shed project, paralleling the luxurious ruin that is the museum half of the experience. Kilbeggan is substance given such primacy that it has a charming, rustic style all its own.
Traveling The Trail
The town of Kilbeggan is approximately 60 miles (92 km) west of Dublin. The trip is made entirely on modern highways and roads, making a day trip in a rental car a very easy possibility for those who want to avoid bus tours. The distillery is located in the center of town and virtually impossible to miss, with ample parking around back. As an added plus, the Pantry Restaurant is part of the distillery, and while I did not eat there myself, it has received high marks from reviewers on the usual travel sites.