This article was first published in the Evening Echo ahead of a tasting of historic Cork whiskeys by the local branch of the Irish Whiskey Society.
One of the strangest aspects of memory is how we can be transported back in time by our senses. The smell of vinyl, the cup of tea your parents make – you close your eyes and you are back in a moment from decades before.
This Thursday night, whiskey aficionados are being offered the chance to sample of piece of Cork’s proud distilling tradition when the local branch of the Irish Whiskey Society are hosting a taste of our distilling heritage.
And there is an incredible heritage there – both in the landscape of the city, the distillers, the salesmen and the people who drank it, from the ordinary joe to heads of state.
Take proud Corkonian Jack Lynch. He was famously a man of the people. There is a great story in Frank Dunlop’s book, Yes Taoiseach, about when Jack was on a campaign tour with the rather aloof Erskine Childers in Cork. Crowds cheered the bus as it moved along, and Jack waved to his people, while Childers sat there. Finally Lynch grew tired of Childers’ chilly demeanour, and said ‘Wave Erskine, Wave’. ‘But Jack’ the then president said, ‘I don’t know them’.
Dunlop’s book also details Jack’s love of whiskey, specifically the iconic everyman brand of Paddy. Lynch used to say of an evening that they would ‘get past Tipperary’, referring to the map of Ireland on the bottle, using Tipp as a marker for the evening’s quota. As Carol Quinn, chief archivist with Irish Distillers Ltd in Midleton points out, that map was crucial in an Ireland that did not have 100% literacy; people who couldn’t read the then name of the tipple, which was Cork Distilleries Company Old Irish Whiskey, could simply point to the bottle on the shelf and ask for a measure of ‘map of Ireland whiskey’.
It was another charismatic Corkman who changed the name. In 1882, a young Patrick J. O’Flaherty joined the Cork Distilleries Company as a travelling salesman. Paddy Flaherty, as he became more commonly known, was born in Cork in 1850, the eldest son of Daniel J O ‘Flaherty and his wife Anne M.B. Long. He attended the day school at which his father taught, at 7 Maylor Street, in the centre of Cork city. Paddy was presumably influenced by his mother’s family, who were publicans, as he decided to join the Cork Distilleries Company as a rep in December 1882 at a salary of £150 a year. One year into his job he moved to a house on the Blackrock Road, which he named after his favourite song ‘Carraigdhoun’.
Paddy covered an area stretching from Youghal to Mallow selling the rather unwieldy named ‘Cork Distilleries Company Old Irish Whiskey’. Paddy was a great salesman – in an age long before marketing or PR, he understood how to work the media. When he was going to a town or village to promote the drink, he would send word ahead that he was coming, then arrive to cheering crowds, as where Paddy went, whiskey was sure to flow. His salubriousness came at a cost to the company – his expenses were always well over the staff allowance, but Paddy was so good at his job that they let him do what he did best – foster a love of whiskey in people.
His fame grew to such an extent that the drink he was promoting became simply known as Paddy, and so upon his retirement, the Cork Distilleries Company bought the trademark from him.
As for Jack Lynch, his lasting monument comes in the shape of a bronze statue seated in the mall of Blackpool Shopping Centre, where he sits all day, reading the Cork Examiner. It seems fitting that a whiskey drinker like himself be located there – Blackpool was a hub of distilling at one time, and although much of that was in decline when Jack was born in 1917 in Shandon, he would have grown up surrounded by the culture of distilling and coopering. A stone’s throw from where Jack sits in the shopping centre was one of the great distilleries of Cork – Hewitt’s Watercourse Distillery.
You’d have to look hard to find any evidence of its presence today, but if you look carefully the next time you visit the New Furniture Centre, you will notice part of the old wall and barred windows of the distillery.
Hewitt’s was not the only distillery in the area – if you ever visit a little close of houses off Thomas Davis Street named Distillery Close, you will see in one corned of the square there is an old stone wall and arch. This is all that remains of The Green Distillery, which was founded in 1796.
Back towards town there was Daly’s of John Street, started in 1807, the cooperage of which boasted the talents of one Seamus Murphy, legendary Cork sculptor. Apart from St Dominick’s Distillery at Crosse’s Green, nearly all of Cork’s distilling industry was on the northside: On the North Mall there was Wise’s, one of the first distilleries in Cork, while back out towards Mallow there was the Kilnap distillery, and closer to town the Spring Lane distillery. This was operated by former Lord Mayor and Freeman Of Cork, French Huguenot Sir Anthony Perrier.
Perrier was a man of vision – while all distillers at that time used the classic pot still – known for its fat belly and swan neck – Perrier patented an updated version, which he hoped would be more efficient than the pot version, used for a thousand years since pilgrim Irish monks borrowed the idea from the Moors. Moorish alchemists had used it to distill essential oils – but the monks ingeniously used it to distill a weak ale into something far more flavoursome. Casking it for winter, they realized that the wood and ageing added to the flavours, and so whiskey was born.
But Perrier’s vision of a new still was not perfect, and the invention did not take off. A Scottish man named Robert Stein modified the plans for his own version, but it was not until a Calais born and Trnity educated Irishman named Aeneas Coffey, whose family had their roots in Barryroe in west Cork, saw the potential.
He designed his own column still, patented it and changed the world of distilling forever. Coffey knew plenty about stills – as an excise man for the British rulers, he had travelled up and down the country smashing legal and illegal stills for years, often risking life and limb to do so. He had been beaten, stabbed and had his skull fractured on different occasions. So he was not a man who gave up easily.
He perfected his invention, which was cleaner and more efficient than the pot stills, and then tried to sell it to distillers. But the Irish, ever slow to embrace technology and eschew tradition, pooh-poohed his work.
There was even a campaign of slander against the alcohol produced by the Coffey still, as it is still known – distillers called it ‘silent spirit’ as it ‘had no tongue to speak of from whence it came’. They said the purer alcohol produced by the still had zero flavor, and was therefore not to be trusted, and some even claimed the liquor it produced was made from refuse. Undeterred, Coffey too his invention to Scotland, and the canny Scots instantly was the potential. They used the cleaner, cheaper alcohol to soften their peaty, heathery whiskey, and so the great Scottish blends were born. Their lighter flavor gave them global appeal, and Ireland lost their edge.
Back in Ireland, the industry was heading for a steady decline – there were economic factors, such as the imperial taxes we faced, the Famine, the struggles for freedom, the economic war, Prohibition and changing drinking habits.
But another Corkman also helped to change the fortunes of distilling across Ireland; the Apostle of Temperance, Fr Theobald Mathew. The Cork Capuchin Friar used his charisma and zeal to turn people from the demon drink, claiming it ruined lives. But the impact on the brewing and distilling trades, including coopers, delivery men, publicans etc, suffered from the Total Abstinence Movement.
Walter Thomas Meyler, a Dublin tea and wine merchant, published a pamphlet some years after Fr Mathew’s death in 1856. In it he wrote, “His disciples spread the monomania like a simona over the land. Brewers, grocers and country shopkeepers were paralyzed, thousands fled the country and their creditors. About one hundred distilleries and breweries had to close down, their owners and workers reduce to destitution.”
The glory days of independent distilling were ending. Consolidation led to the creation of the Cork Distilleries Company, and the gradual closure of the facilities. Hewitt’s was leveled to make way for the Mallow road out of the city, the others have almost completely disappeared. But on Thursday night, you can taste a piece of Cork history, and be regaled by the stories of Cork’s long forgotten whiskey brands and distilleries. We may have lost many of our iconic distilleries, but their spirit, like our own, lives on.
Taste Cork Distilleries Co. Old Irish Pure Pot Still Whisky as available in Cork over 100 years ago; sample discontinued expressions like Hewitt’s Irish Whiskey and a rare 10 year old Paddy expression from the late 1950s/early 1960s.
Those in attendance will also get to sample a dram of Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy and be one of the first to enjoy the 30th Anniversary Edition of Midleton Very Rare – the very first to bear the signature of Master Distiller Brian Nation.
A Taste of Cork’s Whiskey History at the Porterhouse, Sheares Street, hosted by Cork Whiskey Society.
Date: Thursday, September 25th
Time: Doors open: 7:30pm (please wait in the bar before this time so we can set up the room)
Tasting begins: 8:00pm sharp
Reserve and pay for your place at https://v1.bookwhen.com/iwscork.
Photos from the event: