Malcolm Brown Dundalk Distillery – Co. Louth
1800 to 1925
Dundalk Distillery is another one of those Irish distilleries that has lapsed into the realms of forgotten history. Yet, when Alfred Barnard visited in 1886, it had all the markings of a very successful distillery: a modern and large establishment, with an impressive output of both pot still and patent still whiskeys and an enviable location beside a major shipping port on the east coast of Ireland. Few people, least of all Barnard, could have foreseen that within 40 years this distillery would be closed and its name and whiskeys confined to a few pages in local history books.
The distillery was established in 1800 by Messrs James Gillichan and Peter Goodbey. In 1805, two Scotsmen, James Reid and Malcolm Brown were listed as the owners and by 1813 when Goodbey, Reid and Gillichan had died, the firm changed its name to Malcolm Brown and Co. It would continue trading under this name until its closure – by a different set of Scotsmen this time – in 1925.
The Dundalk Distillery was famous for whiskey, but also for a notable piece of architecture. In 1817 Malcolm Brown built a great chimney, said to be the tallest chimney in Ireland at the time. It was 24ft sq. at its base, 14ft sq. at the top and 162ft high. He built the chimney so high for economic reasons - at the time alcohol duty was calculated on the length of time a pot still was working, so by building a very high chimney, Brown could have the firing completed in as short a time as possible. The regulations were changed in 1823, when duty was calculated on the quantity of spirits distilled, and he thereafter christened the chimney “Brown’s Folly”. This chimney not only became the principal landmark within miles of Dundalk, but it was also used by sailors as a leading navigational aid for over 100 years. As history would have it, the famous chimney would disappear as dramatically as it was conceived.
In 1885, the distillery covered 10 acres in the centre of Dundalk town and employed over 150 men. It was, like all major Irish distilleries at the time, completely self sufficient, and interestingly, operated a patent still, in addition to the traditional four pot stills used in the triple distillation of the spirit. Even more notable, in an age when Irish whiskey was all about pot still production and firms boasted to be producing only pure pot still whiskeys, Malcolm Brown advertised themselves as producing both patent and pot still whiskies. This patent still, one of the largest and best in Ireland, was capable of producing 20,000 gallons a week, which should have ensured the continued success of Malcolm Brown as a competitive distillery. The entire distillery was operated with steam power and at the time of Barnard’s visit there were 9 bonded warehouses containing 7,000 casks, the oldest whiskies being 10 years of age. The whiskey was sold locally, but also exported to the ports of Dublin, Belfast, Liverpool and London. Amongst the workforce, 26 men were also full time firemen, the distillery having suffered a fire previously. The story is told that at the time of the fire, stock was taken into Distillery Lane to avoid an explosion. Some of the casks broke, and not wanting to see good alcohol go to waste, many passers-by began to drink the spillage, not realising the strength of the spirit. Many had to be rushed to the local infirmary, and one unfortunate soldier is reputed to have died from his over indulgence.
In 1912 the distillery was purchased by the Scottish company, DCL, who had already built the Phoenix Park Distillery in Dublin. It closed the distillery for a period and then focussed production efforts mainly on the manufacture of yeast, marketed under the brand name “Skylark Yeast”. Although successful, it wasn’t enough to save the distillery and it finally closed in November 1925. Smaller outlying buildings were sold off in various stages, while stores were put to various uses, including the storage of grass-seed. The tobacco company Carroll’s used the grain stores and maltings as bonded warehousing for many years but after they moved out, the buildings fell into disrepair. The famous chimney survived until 1933, when being deemed unsafe, a decision was made to bring it down. Layers of bricks were removed from one side of the base and replaced with timber supports soaked in paraffin, which when set alight, would ensure the chimney collapsed in the chosen direction. Photographers and newsreel cameramen from all over Ireland assembled to witness the fall of this great landmark, scheduled for 26 October 1933. “Brown’s Folly” lived up to its name however – it collapsed 12 hours early, in the middle of the night, to a thunderous roar. The bricks – half a million of them - were of such high quality that they were used to build local housing in nearby Seatown.
The local council bought the remaining granary and malting buildings in the 1980’s and in 1990. They were given a new lease of life as the County Museum, local Tourist Office and the Dundalk Library. The building now housing the library lost a storey during restoration but both buildings are still some of the finest buildings in Dundalk, both viewed from outside and within - the old beams and granite walls in the library make for particularly impressive surroundings. The County Museum is well worth a visit too, with 3 sections covering ancient Louth, historic Louth and Louth’s industrial heritage. Unfortunately for the whiskey historian or enthusiast, with the exception of a reprint of the Malcolm Brown advertisement and a video showing a cooper at work, there are no exhibits relating to the old distillery, which shows just how much this once important and successful distillery has lapsed into oblivion.
Distilling is still taking place however in County Louth, at the nearby Cooley Distillery, Ireland’s newest and only independent distillery. If you do intend to stop off in Dundalk, do check out the museum, pop your head into the library to admire the old stonework and take a stroll around the area, preferably in the direction of McEnteggart’s Pub – a lovely old fashioned Irish pub which, with its large impressive print of the Malcolm Brown Dundalk Distillery hanging over the fireplace, is one of the few remaining links to this old distillery.
Malcolm Brown's Distillery – Jocelyn Street, Dundalk, Co. Louth
If you have any information, photos or know of any old bottles from the Malcolm Brown Distillery, 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
Acknowledgements and many thanks to : Dundalk County Library and Museum