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Whispers from the Water Wheel - Pull up a stool for a hot toddy!

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Kilbeggan Distillery in County Westmeath - original pen and ink painting

In the green, rolling hills of County Westmeath, by the gentle banks of the River Brosna, there lies an old and very wise distillery known as Kilbeggan. It wasn't always called so, mind you.

In days gone by, it answered to Brusna Distillery and Locke’s Distillery, changing its name as a child might change a frock.

In the distant past, when the distillery was but a youngling, it operated with a 232-gallon still. John and William Codd, brothers in trade, took the helm in the 19th century, steering it through times both fair and foul. The auction of 1841, when the distillery, with its brew house and stills, malt house, and oat-meal mills, was listed, marked a chapter of change.

 

Then came John Locke in 1843, a man as sturdy and reliable as the oaks that lined the Brosna. He was as much a part of Kilbeggan as the stills and barrels. Under his watchful eye, the distillery flourished like a well-tended garden.

John Locke, a man of heart, cared for his employees, offering them cottages and warmth in the form of coal every winter.

A moment of solidarity, bright as any summer's day, shone in 1866. The steam boiler, a key cog in the distillery's wheel, faltered. But the townspeople, in a grand gesture of camaraderie, banded together to present a new boiler to John Locke.

 

This tale, as heartwarming as a fireside chat, is remembered to this day, as a plaque commemorating the deed.

Yet, as in any story worth its salt, trials arose. A fire in 1878 danced too boldly, causing much ado. But the people of Kilbeggan, as brave as any knights, saved what they could, rolling barrels of whiskey to safety.

Alfred Barnard, an English writer, visited in 1887, noting the distillery's growth and intentions to brighten its halls with electric light. The distillery, like a small kingdom, covered five acres and provided for many.

 

Transitioning into a limited stock company in 1893, Kilbeggan faced the tumultuous waves of the 20th century. Wars and trade disputes rocked its boat, but it sailed on, though not without hardship.

The years between 1924 and 1931 were quiet, as the distillery paused its song. John's sons, John and James, passed away, leaving the distillery to Locke’s granddaughters, who, despite challenges, held on with grace.

 

But in 1947, a twist in the tale! A fraudulent offer led to a scandal, touching even the high echelons of Irish politics.

The distillery, amidst this storm, continued its labors, though the weight of taxes and time pressed heavily upon it.

 

In 1962, a German businessman, Karl-Heinz Möller, took the reins, bringing change, but not of the kind the townsfolk hoped for. The distillery, once a place of warmth and spirit, transformed into a pigsty, much to the dismay of all.

The distillery, in the hands of Powerscreen, lay dormant until the Kilbeggan Preservation and Development Association, formed by the townspeople, breathed new life into it. The Cooley Distillery, taking over in 1987, began the journey of restoration.

In 2007, a year of celebration, distillation began anew, marking 250 years of a story rich with highs and lows. The occasion was graced by the descendants of the McManuses, the Codds, and the Lockes, families intertwined with the distillery's history like ivy on an old stone wall.

 

Among the revived equipment was a venerable 180-year-old pot still from the Old Tullamore Distillery, now the oldest working pot still in the world, whispering secrets of ages past as it distills.

By 2010, Kilbeggan had blossomed into a fully functioning distillery again, its heart beating with the rhythm of a mash tun and fermentation vats. It was not just a place of production but a repository of memories and traditions, reborn.

Today, Kilbeggan Distillery stands not merely as a monument to whiskey but as a testament to resilience and community spirit. With its restored 19th-century water wheel turning gently and a steam engine standing by, the distillery is a bridge between past and present.

 

So, dear reader, should you ever find yourself journeying near Kilbeggan, let curiosity guide you to this charming nook. Here, amidst the clinking of glasses and the murmur of the River Brosna, you'll not only taste whiskey but sip on stories centuries in the making.

For in every drop, lies the essence of Kilbeggan, a distillery with a tale as rich and warming as the spirit it lovingly crafts.