R. & J. Wallace Distillery - Birr, Co. Offaly
1802 - 1889
Alfred Barnard obviously did not have a good day when he called to the Birr Distillery. He’d had a bad night in the local hotel, and his bad mood may have been compounded by the fact that it would appear he wasn’t offered the customary tasting of the distillery’s “make”, as, contrary to many of his other distillery visits, he makes no mention of doing so. Unfortunately, it means that he only devoted one page to his visit, leaving us with only the bare facts about this distillery. It also appears that at this stage of his journey, his artist companion (who was either a Mr. Walker or Mr. Boutall), had left Barnard to continue his journey alone, as no more of the fine distillery etchings, which appeared for each distillery visit prior to Birr, were published. Additionally, what makes information about Birr so sketchy is that it never achieved the export status of some of the better known Irish distilleries of the era and shortly after Barnard's visit, in 1889, it suffered a devastating fire, never to distil again.
The Birr Distillery was established in 1805, one of five distilleries operating in the County of Offaly, also known as the King’s County, at the time. By 1818 only two distilleries were being operated in the county, both located at Birr, which probably thrived thanks to a likely demand for whiskey from the large military barracks established in 1809 nearby. Both these distilleries operated with very small stills – 101 gallons – because of the still licence duty system introduced in 1780, which until the change in law in 1822, meant that excise duty was assessed on the basis of the number of charges put through the stills and distillers found it more advantageous to work with smaller stills. One of the Birr distilleries folded in the late 1840’s and two brothers, R. & J. Wallace, bought the remaining one on the banks of the river Camcor.
By 1886, Birr was a fine solid limestone distillery, located on the outskirts of the town. It was approached by a carriage drive along the river and a handsome stone archway, draped in ivy, gave access to the distillery itself. The distillery was split in two halves with the two principal grain warehouses and two drying kilns located on the opposite bank of the river. The Still House had only two old pot stills, indicating that they were operating a double distillation process, and the 13 bonded warehouses contained 3,000 casks. The distillery employed 40 men between the workings of the distillery itself and the cooperage, stables, engineers’ and carpenters’ workshops. The annual output was said to be 200,000 gallons, all pot still whiskey, produced from malt and grain, which was sold in Ireland, England and the British colonies.
In 1889 a serious fire occurred one night, when a millstone operator fell asleep, and friction set fire to the grist and dust. Fire spread throughout the distillery and the bonded warehouses, igniting and exploding casks. So much whiskey flowed down the river that reports declared ‘the whiskey flowed in a flaming mass down the Camcor River, turning it into a great swirling and flaming Christmas pudding’. Locals apparently made the most of this unforeseen Christmas bonus by lining along the town’s main bridge and scooping up bucket loads of river water.
What happened to the distillery, its owners or any surviving stocks is unknown. It is quite likely the maltings continued to be used for malting grain for breweries and other distillery buildings were demolished over the next 90 years to make way for housing. One of the large granaries was used by the Haisley bakery, who owned shops in Birr and other local towns, to house chickens during the late 1970’s-early 1980’s. In the early ‘90’s an English family, bought the site of the distillery with the main remaining granary and kiln, and converted the middle floor to a summer house. Some of the buildings on the other side of the river have survived too, now converted to apartments.
Of the 28 Irish distilleries Barnard visited, Birr is without doubt the one for which we have the least information and which has left the least imprint in Ireland's whiskey history. Yet, surprisingly, it is probably the one which is the most remarkably intact in its state of abandonment. Our visit to Birr proved to be a real surprise. We were lucky enough to be allowed into and explore the old granaries and remaining kiln (the roof has now sadly collapsed), the courtyard and two of the old chimneys. The granary was a whiskey historian’s dream. The evening sunlight was drifting through the many windows onto old floors and beams, pulleys and grain sacks, which looked as if they had been untouched since the last maltsters put down their shovels and rakes. The cobblestones in the courtyard are now overgrown with moss, but it was as if the ghosts of generations of distillery workers watched us passing through the ruins, keen to tell their tales of long ago and eager for us to remember their contribution to the heyday of distilling in Ireland. Amazing.
R. & J. Wallace Distillery, Birr, Co. Offaly
If you have any information, photos or know of any old bottles from the R. & J. Wallace Distillery in Birr, we'd love to hear from you, so please don't hesitate to contact us.
The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom by Alfred Barnard
The Lost Distilleries of Ireland by Brian Townsend
Offaly Historical and Archeological Society