Kilbeggan Distillery The story of how community spirit kept a village’s distilling tradition alive

January 01, 2020 The Kilbeggan Distillery in Co Westmeath brings to mind the old riddle – what came first, the chicken or the egg?

Did the village make the distillery or did the distillery make the village? The truth is that the fortunes of the two have been inextricably linked for over 250 years ago. The distillery fuelled the local economy for generations yet it was the people that pulled it back from the brink on more than one occasion.

The local area is synonymous with whiskey-making, according to Global Brand Ambassador for Kilbeggan Whiskey, John Cashman. An abundant supply of barley and turf plus its riverside location made it an obvious place to make whiskey.

“In 1757, Matthius McManus applied and secured a licence permitting him to distil alcohol in Kilbeggan,” John explains. “Now, seven years prior to that in the parliamentary papers of the day, there was a gentleman getting married and he was from the village of Kilbeggan. He was getting married and he put down his profession as distiller.”

The fact that this declaration was made in official papers suggests that legal distilling was already happening in 1750 but there is no evidence of a licence. Yet even the existing 1757 licence gives Kilbeggan Distillery an unrivalled provenance.

“No other whiskey distillery anywhere around the world has a licence that predates 1757.”

The distillery was taken over by the Codd family in 1798 before being sold to John Locke in the 1840’s. It was during the Locke family’s tenure that the bond between the people and the distillery was really forged and tempered.

“It was really under the stewardship and the guidance of the Locke family that the distillery flourished,” says John. “Throughout the years, we have all these different instances of the local community coming together to ensure the survival of the distillery because it wasn’t plain sailing.”

The distillery almost closed down in 1866, when the boiler blew up and the Locke family couldn’t afford to replace it. However, the locals held collections to pay for a replacement boiler. It was presented to the Locke family with a letter that spoke of the community’s “deep debt of gratitude for maintaining in our midst a manufacture which affords such extensive employment to our poor, and exercises so favourable an influence on the prosperity of the town.”

The people also came to the rescue when a fire broke out in the distillery in 1878. Locals broke down the warehouse doors to release thousands of casks onto the street, saving the stock and the facility from total destruction.

“The Lockes were very good employers,” explains John.

“We have employment records from the turn of the 19th century and there were over 100 people working in the distillery. People working there were well taken care of - they generally had animals at home, as was common at the time, and they were allowed bring spent grains home to feed their animals. Those who had cattle were allowed to graze their cattle on the Locke’s pastures around the distillery.”

However, even the most supportive community couldn’t protect it from the wider crisis that was facing the Irish whiskey industry.

Prohibition in the United States in the 1920s and the trade war with the British Empire in the 1930s destroyed Ireland’s biggest export markets. The growing Irish Temperance Movement also impacted on domestic consumption. Meanwhile, Scottish whisky was being produced quicker and more efficiently using blends and new column still production techniques, and challenging Irish whiskey’s market dominance.

It was a perfect storm that eventually led to collapse of the Irish Whiskey industry and the closure of the Locke Distillery in 1958. Even as it closed down, those who inherited this historic site kept the spirit of hope alive.

“When Locke’s closed, an amazing thing happened,” explains John. “Everyone who owned the distillery over the next 40 years kept the licence and kept the licence alive. So they paid for a distilling licence and yet no distilling was happening on site. So this licence was never extinguished.”

Subsequent owners of the site included a farmer, a Mercedes dealership and Powerscreen Engineering, each passing the licence to the other like a ceremonial torch.

In 1982, the local community formed the Kilbeggan Preservation and Development Association, started fundraising and set about restoring the distillery and reviving the town’s whiskey heritage. They took over part of the distillery, renovated the building and its iconic waterwheel, opened a museum and started doing tours.

The community breathed life into the Kilbeggan Distillery against the odds and the arrival of a new player in the Irish whiskey industry would complete the resurrection of this iconic site.

“The Cooley Distillery was founded by John Teeling in 1987 and they needed warehousing and some old established brands. John approached the owner of Powerscreen Engineering and he agreed to sell the distillery to John. The local community kept the museum side of it but John took ownership of the warehousing and the workings of the distillery, which is really what he wanted.”

Old Kilbeggan brands like Tyrconnell and Lockes whiskey were revived and a new Kilbeggan blend was released, becoming one of the fastest growing Irish whiskeys. Plans were put in place to add a working distillery to the museum on site.

“John had always had a dream that one day he would start distilling again in Kilbeggan,” adds John. “In 2007, when we celebrated the 250th anniversary of that licence, we started distilling again.”

Initially, the first distillation was done in Cooley and the second distillation took place in Kilbeggan but a new boutique distillery was installed in 2010. The 1600 litre pot still the new distillery used was the oldest working pot still in the world, adding to the sense of history.

“What we wanted to do was to put in a distillery of the same size and scale as it would have been in the 1840s when the Lockes took over.”

With Irish whiskey on the crest of a wave at the moment, the distillery is now producing new additions to the Kilbeggan range like the Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye and the Kilbeggan Single Grain.

Whiskey drinkers are now talking about Kilbeggan again and the distillery is providing employment, business and opportunities for the locals. The wider world is once again hearing the story of a village defined by a distillery and a distillery defined by the community that supported it.

This unique relationship is commemorated on every bottle of Kilbeggan with an image of a handshake, commemorating the bond between the local people and the distillery.

“We don’t forget the history and the heritage of the place, not only the part that we have played in the community but that the community have played in the survival of our distillery,” adds John.