The below is taken from The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom by Alfred Barnard first published in 1887.
Brusna Distillery, Kilbeggan.
EARLY the next day we left our little boycotted hotel at Tullamore, and proceeded to Kilbeggan, a drive of some eight miles. Our “turn out” would have afforded much amusement to some of our English friends, could they have seen us riding to our avocations that morning. The car, which looked like a large wine-case on wheels, was springless and sadly in need of a coat of paint; the horse was but a framework for a new edition, his tail being but a relic of the past, consisting of the stump and about half a dozen long hairs. Upon our remarking on the condition of the poor creature’s caudal appendage, our jarvey exclaimed, “Shure yer honour, its a bit out of repair now, but its been a foine tail in its day.” On nearing the bridge over the canal we came upon a crowd of persons evidently enjoying themselves, and remembering our experiences of the previous day, we bade our driver stop for a few minutes that we might witness the fun. To the music of a fiddle and a banjo, two Irish lads, regular “broths of boys,” were dancing and shouting, and at times their movements were so infectious that some of the crowd joined in with them. An Irishman is always ready to fall into a jig, and the sound of music will generally set him off. Even our steed commenced prancing, and the six hairs in his tail were violently agitated, and kept swishing after the flies that, perhaps, were joining in he dance on his lean flanks. But we had business before us, and soon parted from the revellers, having first parted with some silver, being unable to refuse the blarney appeals of these rustic musicians.
After leaving Tullamore the road lay through a pastoral country, and finely-wooded estates. Within three miles of Kilbeggan we came to Durrow Abbey, the seat of the Earl of Norbury, whose ancestor was the notorious hanging Irish judge of the same name. The late Earl was murdered in the Park, in the open day, by a yet undiscovered assassin, and since then the noble mansion has scarcely ever been inhabited by the family. We drove through the thickly-wooded demesne, and soon came to the picturesque ruins of the Abbey, founded by St. Columb in 546, and the Church of Durrow, both of which adjoin the grounds of the mansion. They are situated in a most secluded spot, and the graveyard attached contains many ancient monuments, and a curiously sculptured cross, with scriptural devices thereon, which is supposed to have been brought from Iona by St. Columb, and is of a different kind of stone to any found in the neighbourhood. Near the church is a holy well dedicated to that saint. In 1186 Hugh de Lacey, while superintending the erection of a castle on the ruins of the Abbey, was killed by one of the labourers, a pious Catholic, who, indignant at the profanation of the sacred spot, struck off his master’s head while he was stooping down to give directions.
We returned to the high road by another way, through the private grounds and along the edge of slopes, whose verdant soil was covered with the richest carpet of variegated mosses and wild flowers, canopied here and there with the spreading branches of luxuriant trees, everywhere inviting us to shelter and repose. You cannot travel many miles in this locality without passing some holy emblem or little chapel by the wayside, for the peasants hereabouts are fast and firm Catholics; and we have even seen, in some of the little hotels where we stayed, crucifixes and coloured pictures in the lobbies and passages.
A few miles further on we came to Kilbeggan, made interesting by Charles Lever, the novelist, who resided here, and many of the scenes and characters in his books are drawn from the district; notably “Con Cregan” and “Knight of Gwynne.” The town is a famous and historic old place, situated about 45 miles from Dublin, on the coach road between that city and Galway. At the end of its main street, overlooking the Brusna Distillery, we came to the church, which stands in a picturesque graveyard crowded with curious old tombs. This ancient edifice occupies the site of a monastery founded by St. Brecan, the contemporary of St. Columb, in the year 600; which, falling into decay, was rebuilt in the eleventh century by the family of Dalton, who dedicated it to the Blessed Virgin, and placed therein a band of Cistercian monks. After its dissolution, the monastery and its possessions were granted to the Lambart family, when a part of the monastery was enlarged, and a square tower added to it, and the building transformed into a parish church. As we descended the hill to the Distillery, our driver pointed out the place where, during the disturbances of ’98, a party of the insurgents were defeated, after an obstinate resistance, by Colonel Blake, at the head of his Northumberland Militia; some of the rebels were hung in the town, and the others sent away as prisoners. The notable “Brothers Shears,” who figured in the Dublin disturbances, and were afterwards executed at Newgate, came from Kilbeggan. Drving along, an extensive view presented itself: for several miles the valley of the Brosna displayed a very ocean of billowy hills, softly folded one upon another, with here and there plantations, pasture lands, and cultivated fields, through which the river flowed, looking like a silver ribbon - the whole a typical picture of the Emerald Isle. The Brosna is one of the feeders to the Grand Canal, a branch of which comes up to the town. We crossed this river, to reach the Distillery, by an old stone bridge, from the centre of which we obtained a good view of the establishment we had come to visit. In the Distillery grounds the river divides itself into two streams, forming a pretty little island of about an acre in extent, which has been utilized by one of the partners, and added to the grounds attached to his private residence.
A rustic bridge has been thrown across to the island, which is laid out in lawns, flower beds, and shady walks, and has in its centre a handsome stone fountain, always playing, supplied with water from the upper reaches of the river. Along the valley in olden times many smugglers were wont to locate, who gave a great deal of trouble to the Excise officers. At Mabrista, a secluded nook near the Distillery, formerly lived one “Mooney,” who carried on his nefarious practices under the very nose of the revenue people. On one occasion a raid was about to be made upon him; Mooney, seeing in the distance the officers coming, called out to his wife to hide the three kegs of whisky in the garret. The ready-witted woman placed them in the middle of the floor, and then brought up her feather bed, which she ripped open, and completely covered the kegs. After searching all the rest of the house, the captain of the party entered the garret, and seeing nothing but a huge heap of feathers, called to his men that there was nothing in the d—d old cockloft but feathers, and it was useless to spoil their clothes by removing them.
The Brusna Distillery is said to be the oldest in Ireland, having been founded in the year 1750. It covers nearly five acres of ground, and the adjoining lands extending for half-a-mile on the river side, are also owned by John Edward and James H. Locke. Both these young men are practical distillers, and it is owing to their enterprise that the business has increased and the output been more than doubled during the last ten years. To do this they have, from time to time, made considerable additions to the old work - adding new machinery and modern appliances, still retaining, where practicable, the ancient ones, so as not to interfere with their old-fashioned Pot Stills, Mashing Vessels, and method of drying malt. The establishment, which is entirely enclosed, has a frontage to the main road of 150 feet, and entered by an archway, the clerks’ and Excise offices being built therein. It stands on the banks of the river from which it derives its name, and the water for both driving and mashing comes from that stream. There is such an abundant and continuous supply, that at the time of our visit Messrs. Locke & Co. were arranging to use it for an electric light power in the premises. Having plenty of time, we first rambled through the old place with the partners, and afterwards commenced our duties by inspecting the Maltings, which are all built opposite the Distillery proper. They are light and well-ventilated buildings of five floors, capable of holding 10,000 barrels of corn. When we were there the yard at the back was crowded with farmers’ carts, laden with barley put up in home-made flax sacks of a primitive shape and nearly 6 feet in length. After inspection by the corn-buyer, the barley is hoisted to the different floors and there spread out to a depth of 3 feet, from whence, as required, it is made to fall through traps on to the Malting Floors below, each of which possesses a stone Steep. The firm make all their own malt, being of opinion that they can manufacture a finer quality than can be purchased.
We next ascended a staircase, and found ourselves on a level with the Kiln floors, both laid with wire cloth and heated by open furnaces. On leaving the Kilns, we entered the Dry Malt Stores, consisting of a three-storied stone building with slated roof, capable of storing 4,000 barrels. We then proceeded to the Raw Grain Warehouses, which will hold 15,000 barrels of barley, to which is attached a Drying Corn Kiln, floored with Worcester perforated tiles, which seem to be in great favour with the Irish distillers. After having seen all that was of interest on this side of the way, we resumed the path from which we had deviated when we left the Distillery and entered the Mill building, a solid looking structure, containing six pairs of Mill Stones and a powerful set of Malt Rollers. Following our guide, we came to the Grist Room, a lofty chamber, 130 feet long, to which the grist is delivered by elevators. Previous to reaching the Mash House, we inspected the Brewing Tanks, which are each fitted with attemperating coils, and placed at an elevation to command the Mash Tun. In the Brewing House we observed two Mash Tuns, each with a capacity of 12,000 gallons, fitted with a double-action stirring gear; the two Underbacks of timber, which hold 5,000 gallons each, are placed on the paved floor of the house, and were made on the premises. Pursuing our investigations, we next visited the Tun Room, a large apartment, containing eight Washbacks, each holding from 10,000 to 14,000 gallons, also constructed by Messrs. Locke’s workmen. After inspecting the Coolers, we crossed over to the Still House, a venerable building, whose outward appearance is altogether different from those we have recently visited. The first object which arrested our attention was the Wash Charger, a cast-iorn vessel, placed on a gallery, holding 17,000 gallons; next the four old Pot Stills (by Miller & Co., Dublin), comprising a Wash Still, holding 10,320 gallons and 8,436 gallons; a Spirit Still, 6,170 gallons, and another 6,080 gallons. In these Stills are the revolving chains; we looked inside one that had served them for years, which was bright as a copper kettle. We have had frequent occasion to remark in the course of our lengthened that certain fads or customs were in use at some of the Distilleries, perhaps not very important in themselves, yet they give a character to the Whisky. Here, for instance, the same method of distillation is adopted that was used by the founders of the Distillery.
Proceeding up a few steps, we came to the Can-pit Room, situated at the rear of the Still House, which contains, besides the Safe, a Low-wines and Feints Charger, also a Feint and Spirit Receiver, holding respectively 8,000 and 4,000 gallons. Adjacent is the Spirit Store, containing the usual Spirit Vat and Casking apparatus; also a duty-paid Spirit Store, which usually contains from 25 to 30 puncheons of spirits of various ages to suit the requirements of local customers.
Passing through the quadrangle, we reached the two large Bonded Stores, excellent buildings, well ventilated, and which contained at the time of our visit over 2,000 casks of Whisky. A short distance from these Warehouses there is a large detached building, six stories high, which, until recently, was used for making the “patent oatmeal,” but the increasing demand for their “make” led Messrs. Locke & Co. to abandon that business, and it is now used for Corn Stores.
Returning by another way, we passed the Spent Wash Tanks, one of them, a metal vessel, holding 14,000 gallons, erected by Ross and Walpole, of Dublin; also two new Worm Tubs, by Strong and Sons, of Dublin; one of them is on a high stone archway, the other covers the roof of the Still House. Here also we saw the Boiler House, containing a steam boiler, 32 feet long by 8 feet diameter, a Carpenters’ Shop, Smithy, and Cask Shed. In the yard there is stabling for ten horses, a Cart Shed, and several cattle byres.
Seventy men are employed on the premises, the aged and infirm always being pensioned off or assisted. The make is “Old Pot Still,” and principally sold in Dublin, England, and the Colonies. It is both a self and a blending Whisky, and the annual output (1885-1886) was 157,200 gallons. The plant is, however, capable of making over 200,000 gallons.
Messrs. Reidy and Byrne are the chief Excise officers.
“POTEEN, GOOD LUCK TO YE, DEAR.““They talk of the Romans of ould,Whom, they say, in their own times were frisky;But, trust me, to keep out the could,The Romans at home here like whisky.Shure, it warms both the head and the heart,Its the soul of all readin’ and writin’,It teaches both science and art,And disposes for love or for fightin’.Oh! poteen, good luck to ye, dear.“CHARLES LEVER.