Locke's Distillery - Kilbeggan
1757 - 2009
The 18th century saw a huge increase in the number of distilleries operating in Ireland. While there were many illicit stills operating in the Irish Midlands, the new government regulations and controls led some to go down the legal route. One of these was the McManus family who started distilling at the Old Kilbeggan Distillery in 1757. Unfortunate circumstances would hamper the McManus link with the distillery. Matthias’s son, John McManus, manager of the distillery, was also a member of the United Irishmen who rose in rebellion against English rule and was executed in Mullingar for his part in the local uprising.
In 1794, the Codd family, long associated with the local malting trade, took a stake in the Old Kilbeggan Distillery. They doubled the capacity of the distillery in the first few years of their ownership. At that time, the number of legally registered Irish distilleries reduced dramatically due to increased taxes and government control. Those who remained in business increased in size to meet the continued demand for whiskey by the middle classes. Thankfully, these punitive tax laws were repealed in 1820’s leading to a new lease of life for the Old Kilbeggan Distillery. Significant capital investment expanded the distillery to take advantage of the more favourable operating environment.
The boom times for Irish whiskey had ended by the early 1840’s and the Old Kilbeggan Distillery had fallen into a state of disrepair. It was at this time that the Locke family arrived in Kilbeggan. John Locke, having come from failed whiskey ventures in Tullamore and Monasterevin, bought the assets of the Old Kilbeggan Distillery from the Codds in 1843. The next 50 years proved to be extremely successful for the Irish whiskey industry and for Locke’s Distillery in Kilbeggan, with a very strong export trade to the United Kingdom and Commonwealth markets.
However, as for most Irish distillers at the time, the Locke’s did not adopt patent still distillation, preferring to remain with the traditional, but slow and costly, pot still method. In addition to fierce competition from Scottish blended whiskies, Locke’s suffered the treble blow of the Irish War of Independence, US Prohibition and the loss of UK and Commonwealth markets due to a trade war with Great Britain. When Prohibition was over, the damaged Irish whiskey industry could not produce the volumes needed by the reawakened US market. The Scotch whisky industry using the patent still could easily meet the increased demand with their new blended whisky. Sales of Scotch boomed at the expense of Irish.
The Locke family battled to stay above water and managed to keep the distillery going longer than most other distillers in Ireland during these times. Despite the best efforts of John Locke’s two grand-daughters, Florence Eccles and Mary Hope Johnston, nicknamed "Flo" and "Sweet", the distillery ceased production in 1954 and eventually closed in 1957.
New life was breathed into the Kilbeggan Distillery however in 1988, when Cooley acquired the Old Kilbeggan Distillery and its brands, with the aim of using the old warehouses to mature whiskey as well as to restore the distillery and its brands to their former glory. Another vital step in the rejuvenation of the Old Kilbeggan Distillery took place in 2007. To celebrate 250 years of existence on the same site, from 1757 to 2007, steps were taken to recommence distilling. An ancient pot still that was last used in the 19th century was painstakingly refurbished and fired up on the 19th March 2007, 54 years to the day when distilling stopped.
The old Kilbeggan Distillery is now open daily for tours and should most definitely be included as part of every whiskey journey in Ireland. Please refer to our separate Kilbeggan Distillery webpage or the excellent www.kilbegganwhiskey.com website for more information on these distillery tours.
If you have any information, photos or know of any old bottles from the Locke's Distillery in Kileggan, 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
Locke's Distillery - A History - by Andrew Bielenberg