Phoenix Park Distillery – Dublin
1878 - 1921
The Phoenix Park Distillery has the distinction of being the only Irish distillery ever built and owned by a Scottish company, the Distillers’ Company Limited. It was this major whisky company’s first ever investment outside of Scotland or England. The original buildings had been a spinning mill and were converted in 1878 to a distillery by the company at a cost of between £30,000 and £40,000. The reason behind DCL’s investment in Ireland was simple, as a prospectus issued on behalf of the company at the time explained: ‘The demand for Irish whiskey is practically unlimited at present....There are considerably over one hundred whisky distilleries in Scotland, in Ireland not twenty, while the demand for Dublin whiskey is estimated at more than five-fold that for Scotch at present.....It is a very important fact that the quality and reputation of Dublin-made whiskey is at present, in general, equivalent to a premium of one shilling per gallon, or an additional 25 percent over whiskey made in other parts of Ireland’ .
The Phoenix Park was at the time the most extensive public park in the United Kingdom, (it is still the largest enclosed park in Europe) and the new distillery adopted as its emblem, the 50ft Corinthian pillar surmounted with a figure of a Phoenix in her burning nest, erected in the Park in 1747 and still there today. The distillery was located on the edge of the Park, in the small and quaint village of Chapelizod (now a part of Dublin), four miles outside Dublin city centre, along the banks of the river Liffey, which Barnard described as 'a beautiful clear stream and quite unlike the Liffey at Dublin City'.
Phoenix Park was the smallest of all the distilleries owned by DCL at the time, yet thanks to the ingenious installation of labour saving machinery and devices, was its most modern and efficient. Remarkably, there was no steam power on the premises, all the motive power being supplied by a huge water-wheel, spanning the width of the river Liffey. Measuring 70 feet in breadth and 18 feet in diameter, it was said to be the largest in the United Kingdom. The water-wheel even supplied the motive power for an Ellwell-Parker dynamo, which supplied lights for the newly installed incandescent lamps, extremely modern appliances for the time, which critically, reduced the risk of fire in the distillery.
When Barnard visited in 1886, the distillery extended to 5 acres, and new maltings were being built at the time over an additional acre. The Still House contained four Pot Stills, holding 5,000, 11,000, 12,000 and 18,000 gallons respectively, all heated by furnaces. There were 6 bonded warehouses on site, holding in total 16,000 casks and the usual workshops – racking store, cooperage, smithy and carpenters - adjoined the distillery. A steam tramway ran past the works, giving easy access to Dublin – an essential asset, as most of the whiskey was destined for export to London and the British colonies. Interestingly, the Distillers’ Company called their make, Dublin Whisky, spelling it without the “e”, a spelling which other Dublin distilleries were adopting to differentiate themselves, not from Scottish whiskies, but from what they saw as the competition, the rural Irish distilleries. It's quite probable some of this Dublin Whisky may even have been blended with some of DCL’s grain whisky from Scotland, which a loophole in the law would have allowed them to sell as Pure Pot Still Dublin Whisky.
The distillery in 1886 employed 60 men and had an annual output of 350,000 gallons, much less than all the other Dublin distilleries, such as John Jameson or George Roe. It would appear to have been a successful concern and with the financial backing of DCL, should have survived longer than it did. However, DCL decided to close the distillery in 1921, due to the political upheaval in Ireland at the time and the commercial uncertainties which came with Ireland’s new found independence from Britain. Many Scottish people had moved to Chapelizod to work in the distillery and not that long ago one of Chapelizod's older residents remembered how she saw as a child the unemployed distillery workers lining the streets of this small village, with no hope of other work. The closure of Chapelizod Distillery also had a major impact on another Irishman, whose name is synonymous with Dublin. John Joyce, James Joyce’s father, was persuaded by a friend of his, Henry Alleyn, to buy £500 worth of shares in the distillery. John Joyce was then appointed secretary of the company, but was left bankrupt after its failure. In “Finnegan’s Wake”, James Joyce referred to ‘the still that was a mill’ and in his work “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, published in 1916, he referred to his father as ‘something in a distillery'. Through his father’s employment, James Joyce became very familiar with the village of Chapelizod and it featured in both his works “Finnegan’s Wake” and “Dubliners”.
Some time after the distillery’s closure, the buildings were taken over by the Dublin Port & Docks Company and were leased out from time to time. If careful management and modern equipment had prevented fire during the 43 years of the distillery’s working life, neglect proved to be fatal. In 1972 a fire damaged most of the distillery buildings, which were subsequently demolished in phases, including the chimney in the mid 1970’s. The site then changed ownership to Telecom Eireann and modern apartments and shops were built during the 1980's and 90’s. However, some of the original cottages built along the main street for the distillery workers remain and one of the houses bears the name “Distillery House”. Nobody knows what happened to the ‘largest water-wheel in the Kingdom’ – but the mill race is still there. Located behind some of the modern apartments are some of the metal supports and the original turbine, now covered in weeds. Local rumour also has it that tunnels ran from under the distillery into the park (possible warehouses?), but this fact would probably be impossible to verify now. There is also a building on main street known as the old granary, which would have been part of the original distillery complex.
Chapelizod is still a lovely green and leafy part of Dublin, but you won’t find any old memorabilia for DCL’s Phoenix Park Dublin whisky in any of the local pubs. Because it was destined for export only, the whisky never achieved commercial fame in Ireland. However, as a testament to this most forgotten of Dublin’s distilleries, a modern visitor to Chapelizod could settle down in a nice pub with a glass of Jameson and a copy of Finnegan’s Wake. James Joyce obviously was not completely turned off whiskey by his father’s misadventures – he was reputed to be so proud to share his initials with John Jameson that he had his wallet engraved with the initials “JJ” in the same typeface as the JJ logo and wrote 'the light music of whiskey falling into a glass - an agreeable interlude'. We couldn't agree more.
Phoenix Park Distillery, Main Street, Chapelizod, Dublin 20
If you have any information, photos or know of any old bottles from the Phoenix Park 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