Distillery Focus

Kilbeggan's spirits rising

Iorwerth Griffiths looks at the latest developments as Cooley's distilling experiment comes of age
By Iorweth Griffiths
The 19th of March, 2007 was a momentous day in the history of Irish whiskey. A famous old distillery that had been silent distilled again.

That distillery was the Cooley-owned Old Kilbeggan Distillery and now the spirit that was distilled on that day and since is about to become Irish whiskey.

In those three years a lot has happened at Kilbeggan and there are interesting plans afoot for its future.

Firstly, the fabric of the building has been given some TLC. Cooley has employed a stonemason in a full-time capacity to restore and upgrade the stonework without compromising the history that permeates every inch of the place.

Changes have also happened on the distilling side. In 2007 the all-malt low wines came from the Cooley Distillery in County Louth and were put through the one still that had been installed at Kilbeggan. The still is probably the oldest operating pot-still in the world.

Curiously shaped by modern standards and having a capacity of 2000 litres, it was built in 1802 by Millar & Sons, Dublin for the old Tullamore Distillery and was used there until the 1890s when its stills were upgraded. It was rescued by Cooley from the silent Tullamore Distillery and refurbished by Forsyth’s in Glasgow. It’s similar in shape to the one used at Kilbeggan in the 1780s and in fact sits in the very same spot.

For the first two years the low wines from Cooley were given a second distillation in this old pot and stocks of would-be double distilled malt whiskey were laid down.

In 2008 a significant change took place with the installation of a second still. This was a new still made by Forsyth’s but made as a near copy of the first still though slightly bigger at 3,000 litres. This was to retain authenticity and to make sure that the character of the distillate from the first pot is not dramatically altered.

The low wines continue to come from Cooley. This is partly because of the size of the pot-stills. Being relatively small, they would take some time to go through a whole wash and wash, being a type of beer, will go bad, unlike low wines.
As the low wines now go through two stills at Kilbeggan this makes the resulting spirit triple distilled. This is a first for Cooley having only made double distilled malt whiskey at its County Louth plant.

This is the other reason why its low wines rather than wash that make the trip to Kilbeggan. It gives Cooley the chance to experiment with triple distillation but on a small scale. This experimental and innovative attitude has always been a Cooley hallmark and is a big part of what the future holds for the Old Kilbeggan Distillery.

In the meantime significant stocks – around 250,000 bottles –of Kilbeggan double and triple distilled spirit have been laid down in the old warehouses. Most is maturing in ex-Bourbon wood while the first batch was placed in quarter casks.

The progress of this spirit has, naturally, been monitored by Cooley master blender Noel Sweeney and his team. Light and fragrant, Cooley has high hopes for it and the triple distilled spirit has an even lighter character.

But you don’t have to take their word for it, you can also follow the progress of this spirit as Cooley has released the “Spirit of Kilbeggan” –three 6cl test tubes at one month, one year and two years old. They are currently available in the visitors’ centre at Kilbeggan or via the Celtic Whiskey Shop in Dublin.

This spirit is now about to become whiskey. The eagerly anticipated first batch release will be in April 2010. This will be Kilbeggan Distillery Reserve Malt Whiskey and will be double distilled malt from quarter casks. The terminology is itself interesting because, having been distilled in two separate distilleries, it cannot be called a single malt. But neither is it a blended, or vatted, malt as that would mean a marriage of malts made at different distilleries. Another Cooley first!

This bottling will be relatively small and initially only be available at the visitors’ centre and then in selected outlets. Once the triple distilled malt comes online it is expected that it will get distributed to a wider audience.

At the same time the blended Kilbeggan – currently made at Cooley – will be re-packaged. It is hoped that over time the malt component for this blend will be from Kilbeggan itself.

The future plans however, are truly exciting. Currently working with Cooley at Kilbeggan is Alex Chasco, a brewer from Oregon, USA. This is an area with a highly innovative and exciting brewing scene and it is this innovation that Cooley are hoping to tap into.

The plan is to experiment with the effect of different mashbills. More importantly for Irish whiskey fans is that Cooley has the mashbills from the old days of the distillery – when pot-stills like those in use at Kilbeggan today were operating.

This means that we can look forward to pure potstill Irish whiskey made according to the old recipes the like of which have not been experienced for a long time. Such whiskeys had not only malted and unmalted barley in the mash but had other grains such as oats in there as well. Exciting times.

The restoration of distilling at Kilbeggan is the pet project of Cooley chairman John Teeling. However, not content with simply distilling and maturing on site, the future plans would see the old equipment upgraded sympathetically so that the whole process from the mashing would take place there making it a fully functional distillery once again. There is also talk of restoring an old copper column still to enable small batches of grain whiskey to be made on site.

The vision, however, is bold –experimental and innovative small batch whiskeys inspired to some extent by work at Buffalo Trace in the US.

Cooley as ever is at the forefront of Irish whiskey’s history and also its future.

Just as the company has conserved the history of the building but also making it fit for future purpose, so it is looking back to old pure potstill recipes but also looking forward with new experimentations and innovations.

From being silent the Old Kilbeggan Distillery is now at the forefront of innovation in Irish whiskey.


Spirit of Kilbeggan tasting notes



One Month Old

ABV: 65.5%
Colour: Merest hint of pale straw Nose:Very estery, pear drops.
Palate: Fruity and sweetish.
Finish: Very fiery, sweet and fruity.

One Year Old

ABV: 62.7%
Colour: Straw.
Nose: Fruity – apples and pears, creamy and cereal notes.
Palate: Sweet and fruity.
Finish: Hot and fiery, clean and sweet.

Two Years Old

ABV: 60.3%
Colour: Light gold.
Nose: Fruitiness is more balanced by honey and creaminess, pears, but also more tropical notes. Some almond and vanilla as the cask begins to make its presence felt.
Palate: Remains sweet and fruity but some almond nuttiness.
Finish: Less fiery, sweetness increasing, dry and fruity.


History



The Old Kilbeggan Distillery is the oldest continually licensed distillery in the world. The distillery was set up by the McManus family in 1759. The Locke’s owned it for more than 100 years but unfortunately it closed in 1959 after a long struggle to stay afloat. However the local community kept the distilling licence going and preserved the building and much of its contents. Cooley Distillery became the owners in 1988 maturing its whiskey in the old warehouses while the silent distillery operated as a tourist attraction. Also, the brand names of Locke’s and Kilbeggan appeared once again. But 250 years after the establishment of the distillery and 54 years to the day distilling ceased – The Old Kilbeggan Distillery was making whiskey again.