Nicholas Devereux Bishop's Water Distillery – Wexford
1827 – c. 1914
Throughout the 19th century there were two types of whiskey distilled in Ireland. Legal whiskey, often referred to as Parliament whiskey and favoured by the moneyed classes and poitin (potcheen), the illegal spirit widely distilled in many parts of rural Ireland, which was much cheaper. Conflicts, often violent, between poitin distillers and the law of the land, i.e. the excise men, are well documented and many of those stories are now part of Irish folklore. However, Bishop’s Water, a fully licensed distillery in Wexford, can lay claim to probably being the only legal distillery where the owner was shot dead by an excise man.
Customs & Excise, up until very recently, were always present in every Irish distillery and effectively had ultimate control over what could and could not be done. The Bishop's Water incident happened in 1830 and was an ominous start for this small distillery, which was started in 1827 by a group of local businessmen including Michael C. Harvey and Nicholas Devereux. The two men were talking business and inspecting the grounds, accompanied by an excise man, who was carrying a loaded shotgun, not an unusual practice in a distillery where birds were constantly attracted by the easy supply of grain. The excise man saw something flying overhead, swung his shotgun upwards and in so doing, shot M.C. Harvey through the heart. The inquest determined that the shooting had been entirely accidental, however the accident was big news at the time and must have gone some way towards reinforcing the general view, still very much held in Ireland today, that you never mess with a man from customs.
The distillery was advertised for sale in 1836 and it must have been shortly after that Nicholas Devereux took over full control, because he is firmly associated with it from about 1833. The Devereux family, was one of Ireland’s better known and wealthiest families. The Devereux became the most powerful of the first Norman settlers in Wexford, their name taken from the town of Evreux in Normandy, France, from where they had first come to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. By the 19th century, the Devereux were the merchant princes of Wexford. Richard Devereux, brother of Nicholas, owned the largest fleet of sailing ships in Ireland and brought the first cargo of Indian corn to Wexford during the Famine and another brother, John Thomas, was MP for Wexford Borough in the 1840s and 50s.
Bishop’s Water was one of Ireland’s smallest distilleries, yet throughout its nearly 90 years in existence, would have appeared to have been very successful. By 1886, when Barnard visited the Distillery, it employed 70 men, extended over six acres and was built of fine Wexford stone. The distillery was conveniently built on the slope of a hill and had been designed to make the most of the natural advantages of gravitation. It had two entrances, one on Talbot Street and one on King Street (now renamed Distillery Street). The barley was delivered by local farmers often down the river Slaney in “cots”, small local boats common to the area at the time, to large stores on the Quay, where it was dried in adjoining kilns, before being carted to the distillery. The most impressive feature of the distillery was the Worm Tub (a large tank containing a coiled pipe called the “worm”, filled with circulating cold water, used for cooling and condensing alcohol vapours.) It was 20 feet high, 90 feet long and the 6ft thick walls were built of stone and concrete. It was the size of a town reservoir, the only one of its kind in Ireland, with a stone staircase leading to a fine “promenade” at the top, from where Barnard was able to admire the local harbour and shipping fleet.
The distillery operated with 3 old pot stills, with a capacity of 18,000, 11,000 and 9,000 gallons and the distillery produced triple distilled Old Pot Still Whisky. Unusually, one of the Spirit Store was underground, cut out of limestone rock and was said to be as dry as bone. There were nine warehouses, distributed about the courtyard, capable of holding up to 5,000 casks, although they only held just over 3,000 casks at the time of Barnard’s visit. Power came from a 30 horse power engine and a large water wheel.
Nicholas Devereux died in 1840, and was succeeded by his son Richard. His daughter Mary Anne Theresa, continued in the family distilling tradition, as she married John Locke, son of the founder of Locke’s Distillery. She in turn became active in the running of the Kilbeggan Distillery.
Bishop’s Water distillery supplied their whisky to Wexford and surrounding counties but also exported to London, Liverpool and Bristol. Although successful, even with the harbour of Wexford facilitating exports, their output, at 110,000 gallons annually, was far too small to compete with the larger Irish Distilleries in the ever more difficult trading conditions of the early 20th century. The company ceased distilling in 1914. Some believe the company had gone bankrupt, but the story is also told locally that the Devereux were known to be compassionate and as World War I began, they decided that grain should be used for food rather than distilling. This was apparently not the first time, the distillery having ceased production in 1847, during the Irish famine, for the same reasons. Nobody thought the war would last as long as it did and whether they intended to fire up the stills again at the end of the war, is not known. By then trading conditions had seriously worsened anyway, with American Prohibition starting in 1919 and Irish civil war imminent. Wexford’s famous Pierce foundry then took over the site and filled the immense worm tub with rubbish from their works. They established a bicycle factory for about 10 years, but it wasn’t a success. Pierce’s bicycles are remembered for another reason however. Michael Collins' (negotiator of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and Commander-in-Chief of Free State Army until 1922) favourite mode of transport was a Pierce bicycle.
Interestingly, an old letter from the distillery manager, Frank Owens, to his brother in 1899 shows how valuable the Bishop's Water well was to the local community. He writes: We have been badly in need of water in the town for the last week. The reservoir ran dry. There are people coming to the Distillery from all parts to draw barrels of water from our spring that makes the good whiskey! It's to be hoped they won't exhaust our supply of water for the coming season, or it will be very sad. We can manage without the water in Ireland, but I don't know how we'd get on without the whiskey!
The main distillery buildings were demolished in the 1940’s and 50’s and Pierce’s built housing along the street front. Today, the entrance gate and part of the old distillery wall remain bearing the name “Casa Rio” above. The distillery offices have survived, now a private house known as “Distillery House”. The fantastic worm tub is the only major structure to have survived demolition, the walls and massive stone buttresses still intact, now overgrown with vegetation and part of the back garden of the private residence known as “The old Distillery”. Pictures and advertising posters from the old distillery can still be found in James Brown’s pub and the Gaelic Bar, both on Distillery Road. Unfortunately no known full bottles of the whiskey are known to have survived.
Although Bishop’s Water is the only distillery still vaguely remembered in Wexford, when it opened in 1827, it was not the only distillery operating in the County. Interestingly, in 1818, distilling also commenced in the small village of Forge in County Wexford, the distillery being owned by Andrew Jameson, a son of John Jameson. He wasn’t to achieve the success of the John Jameson and William Jameson Distilleries in Dublin and despite reporting an output of 50,594 gallons in 1830, the distillery had closed down by 1837. However, family fame continued in a different way, as Andrew Jameson’s daughter Annie, was Guglielmo Marconi’s mother. It is one of the reasons Marconi based so much of his early radio work in Ireland, very much helped by Jameson family money.
Nicholas Devereux Distillery - Distillery Road, Wexford
With many thanks to James Brown's Pub, the Gaelic Bar, Eamonn Murphy in Wexford and especially to Paul Evans and his wife for use of their material.
If you have any information, photos or know of any old bottles from the Nicholas Devereux Distillery in Wexford, 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