Dublin to Kilbeggan Distillery

FINALLY, I can say that I have finished writing my first ever book. It’s about Ireland and all my crazy adventures. It will take some time before it gets out into the world but will be later this year, but I feel accomplished, now I can say it’s all done. Although when writing the book, I quite often had to keep in mind this book was about travel, adventure, history and I couldn’t blabber on about whiskey as much as I wanted to. So I feel now is the perfect opportunity! Last summer I went on a series of cycles from Dublin to a distillery to discover new parts of Ireland and learn more about whiskey! My first adventure took me north to Slane Distillery This is the second of a series of blog posts about my adventures for whiskey.

I woke to a gorgeous looking day, waking up is always the most challenging part of my day, once I am up and awake, I can achieve anything. I had planned to be already awake to have an early start to my adventure, but my regular late nights serving drunks in the bar I work at prevented me from waking up once again. Once I woke, I cooked myself a big breakfast and then started my adventure with the aim to drink whiskey in the Kilbeggan distillery. I turned onto the canal that sits close to my house and I began my journey. 

I had never walked or cycled this part of the canal before despite it being right beside where I’ve been living for the last year. It’s good to explore places close by. The sun was out and it would seem that the whole of Ireland was out to enjoy the sunshine. Parents and their kids were out for a walk, jaunters were out on their jogs, the swans were out swimming enjoying the weather, and I was cycling along, my eyes were filled up with water as I had forgot to take hayfever tablets this made cycling a little more challenging. As I cycled, the surfaces got a lot rougher and google maps recommended that I got off the canal paths and cycle on backroads. So I cycled down country lanes, with no views as bushes and trees covered the roadside. I was trying to cycle one-handed, my other hand holding my phone using google maps to ensure I didn’t get lost.

Eventually, after half an hour of country lanes, I got back onto the smoothly paved canal path. I preferred the canal views to the country lanes, there was no fear of getting lost, and there was something about being close to the water that was relaxing. I came across a tourist sign for Leixlip baths. This was a Romanesque style bath. In 1793 while excavating land near the canal, workers discovered a hot spring, William Connolly of Leixlip Castle requested the Royal Canal Company to divert the spring water into a brick basin which was turned into a romanesque style bath with the plan to create a classical thermal spa with a hotel in the future. The spa was quite popular, but the hotel thermal spa vision never materialised.

As I pushed on, I passed through  Maynooth and through to Kilcock (sounds like an unnecessarily violent act), where I left the canal and jumped back onto the busy road, with my eyes still full of water from hayfever. I took a break here as I felt being able to see clearly would be a good idea if I wanted to cycle on roads. It turns out the flowers on the canal could of been the reason why my hayfever was so bad, and once I was away from the canal my hayfever disappeared.

As I cycled on entering county Meath, I saw lots of election posters pinned to signposts for the upcoming European elections, all with cheesy smiles and poses trying to get peoples attention and make them seem like they have a likeable personality. One of these with the surname Larkin was posed like the statue in Dublin of the great trade union leader James Larkin, and the poster screamed desperation. These cheesy looking poses wouldn’t make me want to vote for them!

Over the years, I have got a little obsessed with cycle adventures as I feel it is a different way of seeing the world. I seem to get weird looks when I tried to explain that slow travel is how everyone should travel. Why do people travel? To learn? To discover? To see the world? To do something you wouldn’t normally do? Slow travel does all of the above instead of getting a bus you can spend the day getting to see everything that you would miss when zooming past on public transport. Slow travel is the best way to see the world. In the beginning, I made these cycle journeys for the challenge now I seem to be doing it for simplicity, the idea that I have 50 miles to get from place A to place B, all the time in the world, where you get to learn and discover, just you and your thoughts, it feels so rewarding. You get to feel everything, my brain is fascinated, I never knew my brain could get so turned on. Some adventures are more challenging than others, but it isn’t about the bike, it is about the journey and about getting out of your comfort zone and changing your routines that we seem to hang onto.

I promised myself I wouldn’t wear myself out, that every 2 hours that I cycle, I would take an half-hour break to grab some food and take in the surroundings a little to enjoy my trip a little more. I took a break in a little town called Enfield. I sat on the side and watched the town take advantage of the weather, the town is quite far away from the coast, but that didn’t stop the women from putting on their bathing suits, topless men showing off their milky pale complexion and the inevitable sunburn they were all looking forward to. Once I was back on the road, the sun was beaming down on me and was wearing me out faster than usual. My only relief was the occasional gust of wind from cars passing. As I pushed on, I saw a sign saying Kilbeggan races 17th May which made me feel I was close, I wasn’t. In fact, it turns out Kilbeggan races isn’t even in Kilbeggan. However, I could already smell the whiskey!

Irish whiskey in the early 1800s was the largest spirit market in the United Kingdom. But the industry underwent a period of problems. After the temperance movement in the 1830s and the great famine in the 1840s, the demand for whiskey was reduced. Cork was home to several distilleries at the time, so in 1867, the North Mall distillery, The Green, The Watercourse, Daly’s and the Midleton distillery formed as one distillery to cut down the costs. After 52 years, Midleton distillery was the only distillery left to survive. Things got worse for Irish whiskey. After the Irish War of Independence, the civil war, a trade war with Britain and prohibition in the United States, Irish whiskey was at an all-time low with distilleries closing all over the country, and so the Irish distiller’s group was born. A merger between Cork Distillery Company, Jamesons and Powers was created in the Middleton distillery in 1966 to save Irish Whiskey. In the mid-1970s, there were only two distilleries Bushmills and Middleton. This time the merge was a success, and they managed to save Irish whiskey. In recent years Irish whiskey has gone through a resurgence and is currently the largest expanding spirit market in the world. Ireland has 36 operating working Irish distilleries, which is impressive, as in 2014 there were only eight working distilleries.

I was on the last leg of the journey passing small quirky towns that I would never usually get to see. As I was cycling through Tyrrellspass, I passed a small stone castle sitting on the side of the road. The small tower house is the only remaining part of the castle dating back to 1411. The castle has seen some terrible times seeing fighting from the Nine Years war of 1593 and the Cromwellian Invasion of 1650. It is now a restaurant that holds medieval banquets. Not long after the excitement of seeing a castle, I finally arrived at Kilbeggan, and it was finally time for whiskey. 

Kilbeggan distillery opened in 1757. While Bushmills is the oldest distillery in the world, Kilbeggan is the oldest continually licenced distillery in the world. The distillery sits next to the river Brosna where it still powers the mill. One of the earlier owners, John McManus, was a colonel in the United Irishmen during the 1798 rebellion and was executed in Mullingar for his part in the uprising. In 1843 John Locke bought the distillery at a reasonable price due to the decline of Irish whiskey. The Lock’s distillery and the distillery grew and became popular for many decades. Unfortunately, like many other distilleries, it started to struggle, and in 1947 they were forced to put their business for sale. An offer came in for £305,000 from a Swiss investor and an English businessman. They had no interest in the business itself only the 60,000 gallons of whiskey stock that they had hoped to sell on the black market in England, with the hope to double their investment. The issue was the quantity of whiskey was more than their export quota, so they needed to find a way of increasing the quota, so they gave Éamon De Valera (who was Taoiseach at the time) a swiss gold watch as a token of appreciation for increasing their quota. Management at the distillery got word of what was happening, and they tipped off an up and coming politician Oliver J. Flanagan to raise the issue in parliament. It became the talking point of the whole country, and the locks whiskey scandal became the talking point of the election in 1948, and Éamon De Valera party Fianna Fáil was voted out of power. The whiskey and the distillery brought down the government. As they couldn’t find a solution to their quota problem, the offer fell through and the distillery carried on their struggle until 1957 when they were forced to close. During the closure, proud locals kept paying the distillery fee so there would still be a distillery in their town with the hope that one day it would open again. In 1982, almost thirty years after closure, the building reopened as a whiskey distillery museum. In 1987 Cooley Distillery acquired Kilbeggan distillery’s assets, allowing Cooley to relaunch old whiskeys under the Kilbeggan and Locke’s brands. Today the distillery is back to its former glory and distilling in the old distillery once again.

A little after my visit to the distillery, I was sat with an extraordinary good pint of Guinness and a dram of Connemara (one of my favourite whiskeys made in the Kilbeggan distillery) in a quiet, quaint pub. The place was almost silent, apart from the one old man in the corner of the pub chuckling out loud while reading his newspaper (who would have known the Irish Independent could be so funny). There were only two other men who sat at the bar, both not feeling in the mood to speak to each other, and both slumped over their pints, staring into oblivion. Suddenly I got a phone call from work asking if I could come in, so I took the opportunity to leave the lively bar and jumped onto a bus back to Dublin. It was felt weird after cycling all day then getting on the bus and taking less than an hour and a half to get back. I arrived back in Dublin, and I was ready for a couple of hours at work remembering the taste of whiskey and the satisfaction of a great adventure, one of which had put me in an unusually good mood for a late shift behind the bar.

Happy St Patricks Day!!

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  1. Pingback: Connemara Swim
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