*Sincere thanks to Kilbeggan and Savona Communications for the sample.
So…Kilbeggan. Believe it or not, here we have another distillery with a long up and down history. Actually, Kilbeggan’s long up and down history is one of the longest histories in all of whiskey distillery history-dom. Its history is also, as far as distillery histories go, a steadfastly Irish one. A man named Matthias McManus founded a licensed distillery on the Kilbeggan site in 1757. McManus’ son took over for the father, but was later actually executed by the Crown for his part in the Society of United Irishman and the lead-up to the 1798 Irish Rebellion. In 1797, the McManus family sold a large stake in the distillery to the Codd family. While the Codd family experienced early success in the whiskey trade, a popular temperance movement begun in the late 1830’s slowed the distillery’s progress. In 1843, a man named John Locke purchased the now-failing business from the Codd family, and renamed the site the Locke Brusna Distillery. Locke is credited with righting the proverbial ship, but the greatest expansion and success came at the hands of Locke’s wife, Mary Anne Locke, who took over the business when her husband died. Mrs. Locke was reportedly a formidable business person, creating trade deals and upping exports of a whiskey that quickly gained the reputation of consistent high quality. Under her guidance, production more than doubled in less than three decades. Irish whiskey’s popularity was soaring in the last quarter of the 1800’s, and thanks to Mary Locke, Kilbeggan shared in those glory days. And then Irish whiskey ran headlong into a multi-faceted mess that nearly wiped out the industry for good.
Some of the mess had been brewing for a long time. Ireland’s whiskey industry was firmly rooted in tradition. Irish distillers generally recognized and cherished the quality of whiskey made from malted and unmalted barley and produced in pot stills. And while it was produced in Ireland, they considered the grain whiskey made in Coffey stills to be inferior. The Scots on the other hand, were pretty excited about Coffey stills and grain whisky and by the end of the 1800’s, Coffey stills and grain whisky were helping blended Scotch eat up some of Irish whiskey’s market share. In the early 1900’s both Irish and Scottish distillers turned to the Crown to settle the argument of what type of stills could distill whiskey. The Crown decided that whiskey could be produced in either Coffey stills or pot stills. This was a blow Irish distillers, but bigger challenges were looming.
Beginning in 1914, World War I made exporting very difficult. Two years later when the Irish Uprising began, many distilleries were damaged or “repurposed.” The Irish Civil War followed, and after that, a fierce trade war with the UK weakened Irish whiskey even further. Prohibition was the final nail in the coffin, effectively wiping out a large chunk of the industry’s biggest export market. After Prohibition, many distilleries held on for dear life over the next several decades, but it was a losing battle. According to Alfred Barnard’s The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, there were 28 distillery’s in Ireland in 1887. By the early 1970’s, there were only two.
Back at Kilbeggan, Mary Locke’s sons had been given control of the distillery in the early 1900’s, and when they both passed away in the 1920’s, ownership was passed to Mary Locke’s granddaughters, Florence and Mary Hope. These two sisters inherited a distillery at a time when no one really wanted to inherit a distillery, and after 20 years of struggle, they decided to sell the business. A Swiss syndicate’s effort to buy the distillery resulted in an almost unbelievable debacle that’s worthy of its own post. Suffice it to say that a corrupt politician named Quirke was involved as were sneaky Russians and criminals, and there were public trials and the whole thing nearly shook the Irish government to its core. The distillery itself limped along and kept making whiskey through it all, but by 1954, customers had fled the brand and the shaky management and finances forced it to close.
The Locke Brusna/Kilbeggan distillery had been a very important part of the Kilbeggan community. Rather than abandon the site and let it fall into complete ruin, a group of locals kept up both the distilling license and the distillery equipment. By the early 80’s, the distillery had been turned into a museum. In the late 80’s, John Teeling converted an old industrial alcohol plant in Cooley into a whiskey distillery, and purchased the Kilbeggan site. Over the next couple of decades, Teeling’s Cooley distillery helped revitalize the Irish whiskey category. The old Kilbeggan plant was also pressed back into service, and starting in 2007, began producing spirit again as a smaller, boutique distillery. Teeling sold Cooley to Beam Inc. in 2011, and then in the beginning of 2014, Beam was purchased by Suntory. Today, Kilbeggan serves as the symbolic home of Beam Suntory’s Irish Whiskey family, with the former Cooley line of whiskeys now falling under the umbrella of the Kilbeggan Distilling Company.
Until recently, one of the more interesting whiskeys in Cooley’s line-up was the Greenore 8 Year Old single grain. Beam or Beam Suntory has opted to ditch the Greenore name and place its single grain whiskey under the more familiar Kilbeggan name. Even more recently, they decided to drop the age statement and replaced the 8 year old with this one, the Kilbeggan Single Grain Irish Whiskey. The whiskey was created as a tribute to the town of Kilbeggan, as a way to celebrate the distillery’s and the town’s history and passion for whiskey-making. It’s a no-age-statement whiskey distilled from 94% corn and 6% malted barley that’s been matured in ex-bourbon barrels, and then finished in a combination of ex-bourbon barrels and ex-fortified wine barrels.
The funny thing is, though, that the Kilbeggan distillery is only outfitted with pot stills and certainly doesn’t have the capacity to produce the amount needed for this type of broadly distributed, entry-level expression. So this Kilbeggan expression that honors Kilbeggan’s distilling past isn’t actually made in Kilbeggan. Furthermore, after reading up on all this history, there seems a bit of irony in honoring the town and the distillery by releasing a Coffey still distilled single grain whiskey, the very type of whiskey Irish distillers had little respect for in the 1800’s and one that ended up contributing to the downfall of Irish industry in general. But whatever, marketing is marketing. Drawing a bit more attention to the town of Kilbeggan and its long history and association with whiskey is not a bad thing. Although, It would be nice to see the official “literature” paying more attention to the contributions of the Locke women throughout its history. Right. Enough rambling, on to the whiskey…
The Nose: A light-hearted nose that’s compromised and buried a bit by some initial solvent-y notes. When you get past that, there’s fresh grain, malt syrup, vanilla wafers, and a little honey. Subtler notes of mixed fruit jelly and juicy, dark red grapes. Smooth and sanded oak that’s just a little sharp, and hints of cinnamon, vanilla bean, and toasted coconut round things out.
The Palate: More sugared than the nose, but also a little more substantial. There’s both malt syrup and vanilla syrup, along with more honey and light brown sugar. The fruit notes are more citrus-y on the palate. A little bittersweet chocolate and salted nuttiness adds depth. Like the nose, the oak is young and sharp, fairly tannic and grippy, but it does manage to show some restraint. Spice notes of cinnamon, ginger, vanilla bean and black pepper lead to the finish.
The Finish: Honey and cereal milk quickly give way to a lingering wave of grippy oak and those spices from the palate.
Thoughts: Years ago, I was an unexpected fan of the Greenore 8 Year Old. I found that one a pleasant, sweet but balanced, easy drinking single grain. I do find some of that same appeal in the Kilbeggan Single Grain, though it comes across as younger and sharper edged. There is a youthful heat to contend with, but once past that it’s a fairly balanced, straightforward whiskey. It’s hard to say what influence the finishing in wine casks has had, perhaps that slightly more complex fruit on the nose. This is fine over ice, but for me works better in cocktails. All in all, a decent young whiskey that, at around $25-$30, is a good value and provides an interesting alternative to the usual Irish blends.
- “1916 Rising and the Decline of Irish Whiskey.” Irish Whiskey Museum, 24 Mar. 2016.
Barnard, Alfred. The Whisky distilleries of the United Kingdom. Birlinn, 2008.
- “Irish whiskey.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Oct. 2017.
- “Kilbeggan Distillery.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Oct. 2017.
- Minnick, Fred. Whiskey women: the untold story of how women saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey. Potomac Books, 2013.
- “The History of Irish Whiskey.” Potstill.
- “The Kilbeggan Distillery Experience – Kilbeggan.” The Irish Whiskey Trail.
- “The Kilbeggan Distilling Company – Our Heritage.” Kilbeggan Distillery Company.
- “The Whiskey.” Kilbeggan.