Irish Whiskey Pt. 13: Stories In Proof and Gallons // Rademon Estate Distillery

John Quincy Adams' obsession with weights and measures and the impact on Irish whiskey.

Show Notes

For distillers in the 18th Century, the challenge was not getting crushed by tax revenuers because of a lack of quality devices or understanding of what makes a gallon, something that changed often over the centuries.

Listen as I dig into the history of proof and measuring volume, while we get visits from Alfred Barnard, John Quincy Adams, and I continue my historic journey to all of Ireland and Northern Ireland's active distilleries (save Cooley) and reach the home of Shortcross Gin and Irish Whiskey.


It was a concept that had consumed him since his days at the court of Catherine The Great in Russia. For the well-traveled and astute American statesman John Quincy Adams, he saw utter chaos in the world of trade, thanks to every country having its own system of weights and measures. He couldn’t fathom why there wasn’t just one universal standard for all developed nations?

He teased his curiosity by using an apothecary scale and weights that he had brought from the U.S. to Moscow and began comparing his American knowledge to the Russian system. He immediately found flaws in tools the Russians were using. Then he expanded his experiments by comparing Russian and American systems to the English system and the newly developed metric system developed by Revolutionary French. He became so obsessed, his wife Louisa, who had traveled with him was getting frustrated. 

“Mr. Adams too often passed [the evening] alone studying weights and measures practically that he might write a work on them: no article however minute escaped his observation and to this object he devoted all his time.”

When Adams returned to the United States as Secretary of State under President James Monroe, he seemed to be the right man in the right place at the right time. His country was in measurement chaos with each state using its own system. And while congress had been given the mandate to come up with a system, plans created by Thomas Jefferson had been put aside due to France and England constantly tinkering with their own. If the United States was to establish standards, they should first look to France and England for guidance so the trading partners could be standardized.

But President Monroe, a former Secretary of State himself, decided it was time to act and so in his 1816 message to Congress, he pushed them to act on creating a system the country could embrace as a whole. The job appropriately fell to John Quincy Adams and the office of the Secretary of State.  

With a skeleton staff and an armful of duties thanks to the rush of activity created from Monroe’s world view, research would have to fill any additional waking moment Adams could access. He knew the importance of this task and wanted to give it all of his passion and attention. For a year and a half it consumed him. Exasperated, he wife Louisa wrote their son John saying,

“Your father [is] more deeply immersed in business than ever and less capable of participating in any domestic enjoyments…his whole mind is so intent on weights and measures that you would suppose his very existence depended on this report.”

Even with his duties as secretary and a full scale renovation of his home, he continued to pound away at the report, considering every possibility, even the potential shift to the metric system. When he finally presented his Report upon Weights and Measures to Congress in February 1821, his father wrote:

“Though I cannot say and perhaps shall never be able to say that I have read it, yet I have turned over Leaves of it enough to see that it is a Mass of historical, philosophical, chemical, mathematical and political knowledge which no Industry in this country but yours could have collected in so short a time.”

Yet, for all of his labor, John Quincy advised that no changes to the status quo occur, feeling that state enforcement of the standards would create a resistance among the states. He did, however, suggest that a unified system between the United States, France, and England would be the ideal outcome, with negotiations between each. He also suggested Congress could create a standard for the Union, but for legal reference.

Although his project resulted in no action, he was quite pleased with his work saying “I have no reason to expect that I shall ever be able to accomplish any literary labour more important to the best ends of human exertion, public utility, or upon which the remembrance of my children may dwell with more satisfaction.” 

His wife Louisa walked away with it with a very different feeling about the completion of the report. She wrote “Thank God we hear no more of Weights and Measures.”

By 1826, the British Empire would abandon their English units for the British Imperial system, six years later, the United States would develop its own United States customary system from the old English system, and France would hold onto the metric system. So Adams' and Jefferson’s dream of complete uniformity in the world’s weights and measures has never been fully realized. It got close in 1975 when Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act, but just like in 1821, there wasn’t enough passion behind it, to tip the scales.

Today, most of us take weights and measures for granted. Yet at the inception of the Industrial Revolution, volume and proof were still being determined by burning things and devising rudimentary calculations. And as the Crown’s revenuers raised taxes and became more aggressive at collection - both distillers and revenuers alike would need a sea change in the world of science to help bring weights and measures into a brave new world. 


While today we see variations in 700 and 750ml bottles based on the metric system, the first excise officers in Ireland were still dealing with inexact measurements established way back in the 15th century. With the very first tax being issued on Christmas Day 1661 at four pence per every proof gallon - Merry Christmas by the way - that gallon’s volume had gone through several changes in England, depending on the monarch. In 1497, Henry VII established the Winchester corn gallon at 272 in3 (some 31 in3 more than the modern US liquid gallon), followed by a slight increase by Elizabeth I in 1601. But even with a defined standard, there were still people challenging the measurement’s accuracy. In 1688, as science and innovation began to evolve, a dispute arose when revenue commissioners discovered the English standard wine gallon was being measured at a deficit of 7 cubic inches. This would be partially solved when William III would increase the size once again and codify it in 1697. 

But to add to the confusion, Ireland’s parliament had enacted its own standard for the Irish gallon in 1495, at 217 in3 of liquid, slightly smaller than the modern U.S gallon.  But because the original excise of 1661 was loosely applied in Ireland, this discrepancy didn’t cause much of a stir. But by the early 18th century, when the registration of stills came under stricter enforcement by London, what would become known as Parliament whiskey, was being standardized on the new Queen Anne wine gallon, which was established in 1707 and would would remain in force until the switch to Imperial measurements in the 1820s. Yet many illicit poitin distillers and smugglers would hold out continuing to use the old Irish gallon in their transactions.

Solving volume was an important step. But when it comes to whiskey, the volume of the container only tells half of the story. To determine the water to alcohol ratio of a spirit, a method of what is called proofing would be required. And while the gallon found its main challenge in approval through parliament, proofing would require the added obstacle of having to rely on not only an inventor, but an invention that could be lobbied through parliament.


For early revenuers, they were still relying on less than reliable techniques that had been developed in the 14th century. From seeing if cloth soaked in alcohol could be ignited, to adding a drop of oil in the liquid to see if the oil would sink a stronger spirit or float on a more watery spirit. The most famous test was the gunpowder test, where the spirit would be poured onto gunpowder and then applied a flame to see if it would ignite. A steady burn would mean it was above proof.

But none of these techniques gave a firm understanding of the accurate amount of water vs alcohol in the spirit. 

The path to the modern hydrometer goes all the way back to antiquity and a Greek philosopher named Archimedes, whose experiments on fluid displacement inspired future generations including Hypatia of Alexandria, a Greek mathematician who used the device to determine the weight of water. 

The name hydrometer would be coined by an Anglo-Irish scientist Robert Boyle. Boyle’s father, was the 1st Earl of Cork, and he had come to County Waterford during the Tudor Plantations and met and married Catherine Fenton, the daughter of the Secretary of State for Ireland Sir Geoffrey Fenton.. Robert would go on to become one of the fathers of modern chemistry and while he would introduce the instrument to the Royal Society, its use in spirits would have to wait.

Not long after the establishment of Queen Anne’s English wine gallon standard, the Parliament began raising the duty for spirits - first to 7d per gallon in 1715 and then to 8d in 1717. Since its inception in 1661, the job of the government gauger was to measure the stills capacity, the volume of materials used, and resulting yields. But after a report on the efficiency of the excise in 1718, gaugers were required to track the usage of wash and low wines along with work in progress volumes of raw materials. It was believed this could make the amount of finished product predictable - and because of that, accurate measurements by gaugers became imperative to the distiller. 

Stumbling into this world came an engine maker from London named John Clarke. Working at the York Building Waterworks, he was approached by a surveyor of the excise who was working at the distillery next door. He asked John if he might have a solution to the issue of determining alcohol content in spirit. It is from this that the first hydrometer specifically for determining alcohol content in whiskey came into the picture.

Improving on the concepts of Archimedes, Hypatia, and Boyle, Clarke’s device was brought to the attention of Dr. J.T. DeSaguliers, who introduced it to the Royal Society in 1729 and touted its potential over other proofing techniques. Clarke’s hydrometer was an instant success. It could determine proof or whether a spirit was over or under proof. But even with its soaring sales, Clarke’s invention would not gain sanction as an official tool of the excise until 41 years after his death in 1746. Competitors would come to market over the next few decades, including an Irish designed hydrometer made by Hyat and Saunders. There would also be challenges to its accuracy. Still, Clarke’s invention would hold its own and dominate the market for the remainder of the century.  

But the end of the Clarke dynasty would coincide with the ratification of the Acts of Irish Union in 1800. With a United Kingdom established, an excise supervisor with duties at the Dublin Port put out a pamphlet in 1802 showing the weaknesses of the Clarke hydrometer and its competitors. He requested the House of Commons fund a competition to develop a new hydrometer. 

An ad was placed in various newspapers around the British Isles. Headline: Hydrometers. Aug 30, 1802. The commissioners of excise having received directions from the Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners are to make a report to their Lordships of such Hydrometers, or Instruments for ascertaining the strength of “spiritous liquors…hereby give notice that they are ready to receive offers of any such instruments in order to make experiments of their accuracy and convenience for use. By Order of the Board, Adam Pearson, Secretary. 

In reality, the answer to their problem was right in their own organization. An excise officer named Bartholomew Sikes had already been working on such a device and sent his invention post haste. Within months the hydrometer went under rigorous testing. Not only was it accurate, but it also was easy to use, required no training or use of a scale, and was easily read. Sikes won the competition hands down and immediately petitioned the Treasury to contract both him and his device into the distant future. But Bartholomew would never see the money or success of the device. He died two months later. Mary Sikes, his daughter would eventually gain the rights of production for her nephew and son-in-law Robert Bates to manufacture the device. But unlike Robert Boyle and John Clarke’s contributions, Bartholomew would see his name carry on, as an Act of Parliament would make the Sikes Hydrometer the standard hydrometer of the United Kingdom from 1816 until 1980. Thanks to his fine invention, the Irish Acts of Union, and the standardization of the gallon, the Emerald Isle would see exports of Irish whiskey grow to over a million gallons by 1803.

Now before I continue on my own journey around Northern Ireland with a visit to Rademon Estates, the home of Shortcross - its time to check in with my 1886 companion Alfred Barnard as he makes his way to the west coast. 

Nun’s Island

IT was very early when we started from Tullamore for Galway. The morning was one of enchanting loveliness, and, as it afterwards turned out, too bright to last. Insects on leaf and flower were busy in the coolness of the morning, the rivulets rippled musically along amid the creepers and ferns, and the brilliant sun threw his rays on the many-hued foliage of the trees, the whole presenting a rare picture of summer beauty.

We were travelling through the so-called discontented country, but could see no signs of agitators; the peasantry that we noticed at the railway stations, or from the carriage windows, looked neither ferocious nor turbulent; on the contrary, they looked merry and contented amidst their poverty and distress. 

The genuine Irish peasant is full of gentleness and affection, and although sometimes indolent, is generous, frank, and hospitable. We have seen them pass suddenly from the wildest and most extravagant gaiety, to a brief melancholy that is very touching, at other times displaying an impetuous courage that nothing could arrest; and it is well known that they are passionately fond of their home and country. 

As we passed along, we could help noticing that their dwellings and little farm buildings were dreadfully out of repair and fast falling into decay, and it was quite evident that they were not let out on repairing leases. 

There was a motley crowd outside the principal stations as we passed along, and at one of these, where we changed carriages, we noticed a number of poor people, but no outward signs of a Nationalist amongst them; the many-vestured gossipers were happy enough telling stories and relating local scandal. The whole group composed a fertile study for lovers of the novel and picturesque. Most of them were dressed in garments which had evidently reposed in the obscurity of an old clothes’ shop. One man had an ancient ragged-tail coat, far too small for him, the cuffs reaching just below the elbows; another a frock coat, the tails of which touched the ground; and it was very amusing to see how proud he was of this latter feature. 

Our first stoppage was at Athlone, built on both sides of the river Shannon, a garrison town, and considered one of the most important military positions in the Kingdom. We next passed Ballinasloe, celebrated for its annual fair for cattle, sheep, and horses, to which buyers from all parts of the Kingdom and the Continent resort. 

At Athenry we broke our journey for an hour to visit this old place, which was once a celebrated ecclesiastical city, but now a town of ruins. Whilst inspecting the remains of the old castle the weather changed, and we were glad to take shelter on the railway station. There is a branch line from Athenry to Tuam, and we regretted afterwards that we did not go up to see “the most splendid Catholic cathedral in Ireland.” 

Resuming our journey, in less than an hour we arrived at our destination. As you approach Galway, “City of the Tribes,” the general aspect is wild and gloomy, and the eye is seldom relieved by trees or landscape. On arriving at the hotel we changed our damp garments, and fortified ourselves with a draught from the Nun’s Island Stills to keep out the cold. 

Galway is situated most advantageously at the head of the Bay, and is built on both sides of a river issuing from Lough Corrib, which is crossed by two bridges. It is arranged on the plan of a Spanish town, many of the old houses being quadrangular, with an open court and arched gateway. In the Middle Ages Galway did a great trade with Spain, and many Spanish merchants settled there. Some of the houses they built still exist. We visited one of them, and found that it had been divided into small tenements, and was inhabited by several families.

Galway will always be memorable for the event which took place therein during 1493. James Fitzstephen Lynch was a wine merchant, and sent his only son to Spain with a purse of gold to purchase a cargo of wine. The son spent the money in riotous living, and purchased the wine on credit, bringing back with him in the ship the son of the wine-grower to visit his father and receive the money for the cargo. On the voyage young Lynch had the lad killed by his seamen, and swore them to secrecy with bribes. Some years afterwards, one of the seamen dying, disclosed to the father of Lynch, who was now a Judge, the history of the murder. Judge Lynch immediately had his son arrested and brought to trial, where he himself sentenced him to death. To prevent an intended rescue, this more than Roman father hanged his son from a window of his own house, under which we saw carved a skull and cross-bones in memory of the tragic event.

During the reign of Henry VIII. Galway supplied nearly the whole of the Kingdom with wine, for which purpose they had most extensive vaults at Athboy, the ruins of which, however, are still to be seen. The trade has declined, and the wine is no longer imported to Galway, but the manufacture of Whisky has now taken its place. Lough Corrib discharges its mighty volume of water through Galway in a foaming torrent, that would turn all the mills in Manchester. Alas! it is turned to little account, except for working the water-wheels of the Distillery and two or three flour-mills. This river is clear and rapid as the Rhone. It supplies all the water used in the works we were visiting, and about to describe.

The Nun’s Island Distillery was established at the beginning of the century, and is the only Distillery in Connaught. It was purchased from the Encumbered Estates Court in the year 1840, by the father of the present proprietor, who considerably enlarged and improved it. Prior to that date, from 1815 to the period mentioned, it belonged to the Joyce family. 

During Mr. Persse senior’s occupation, he turned the distillery into a woollen factory, and it quickly became noted for its excellent friezes, but when the trade for this article declined, and Mr. Persse’s lease of Newcastle Distillery expired, he restored the works at Nun’s Island to their original business, and carried on all his distillery operations there. 

The Distillery is planted on the centre of a small island, formed by the fork of the River Corrib, and is reached by a bridge from the main road. We entered by a stone gateway into a large triangular courtyard, round which are ranged a series of buildings. As you enter the yard the first object that strikes the eye is a large circular tank, elevated on stout iron columns, painted a bright scarlet, and which can be seen above the stone walls from the outside of the premises. 

We first visited the Maltings and Corn Stores, two lofty stone buildings on the right-hand side; five floors therein are devoted to the storage of corn and two for malting purposes, these latter have cement floors. Attached to this building, and up a few steps, is the Kiln, a lofty apartment, 40 feet square, whilst the Malt Deposit is at the rear of the general offices, and is an ingeniously constructed place, being almost hermetically sealed to prevent the action of the air. 

We then entered the Stone Loft, which is the top floor of the Mill building, where the malt and dried corn is pulverized through six pairs of stones, driven by a water-wheel. The ground floor of this building is used for taking in the barley from the farmer’s carts; also the mill machinery. Adjoining is the Grist Loft placed underneath the two Corn Lofts. 

We were then conducted to the Brew House, next door, an elegant building, and quite equal to any we have seen in Ireland. It contains two Mash Tuns, 27 feet in diameter and 8 feet deep, with the improved mashing gear driven by water power. Under the floor of this room are two Underbacks of a proportionate size, from which the worts are pumped up to the Coolers on the roof. Passing through a doorway on the right we came to the Back House, wherein are placed thirteen Washbacks, each holding about 18,000 gallons, and switched by machinery.

The Wash Charger is outside this building, and commands the Stills. It is a fine vessel and holds 16,000 gallons. Connected with the back House is the Still House, a neat and well-lighted building, which contains a Wash Still, holding 16,000 gallons, Spirit Still 10,000 gallons and a Low-wines Still 6,000 gallons; also five Receivers of various capacities, and the Safe and Sampling Safe. The Worm Tub is in the open, and consists of a metal tank, 42 feet long, 18 feet wide.

Retracing our steps we visited the Spirit Store, conveniently arranged, and which contains a Vat, which holds 12,000 gallons, and from thence to the five Warehouses which are distributed over the premises. At the time of our visit they contained 5,000 casks of Whisky. Adjoining the Maltings there is a capital Smithy, Joiners’ and Painters’ Shops, etc.; and, at the end of the yard, Cart Sheds, Stables, and Store Houses. On the left, as you enter the gateway, are the Offices for the Distillery and Excise officers, the former contain private rooms for the Principal and Manager, and general clerks’ offices.

For the prevention of fire, hose and pipes are laid all over the premises, there being an inexhaustible supply of water on all sides.

The make is called Galway Whisky, and the output is annually about 400,000 gallons.


A 15 minute drive, that is all that stood between me and my next distillery destination. Having just left Hinch, and driving a few more miles south on the road I’d taken out of Dublin, I followed my GPS down a winding back road with large waves of brush hiding what may be coming around the corner. Still, the road was wide enough that I didn’t feel overly nervous about lorries and busses coming from the opposite direction, plus no stone fences straddling the road, to worry about. 

When I reached my destination, the Rademon Estate, there was a large fence and gate and a car stopped in the entrance. Its owner was standing at the corner of the gate, talking through a box. It was a most unusual entry for a distillery, but after my experience at Slane, the historic nature of this property would soon become clear. 

I pulled in behind him. As he started walking back to his car, the large gates started to swing open. I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I should also check in, but decided to follow the other driver through the gate. I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be putting the proprietor in the same situation I had witnessed days earlier at Slane Castle when curious visitors kept popping through the gate.

Of all of the distilleries I put on my schedule, only a handful proved to be difficult to contact. This was one of them. So after several attempts to make contact, I finally gave in and decided to go online and schedule the regular tour. I had heard from a couple of people that this particular distillery gave off an heir of Fort Knox.

As I drove the single track road toward the distillery, I noticed an alligator to my left. Not a real one, mind you. But it did make me think. What’s a petrified alligator doing in Northern Ireland?  As the car in front of me turned to the right, everything opened up and I saw the large parking lot and distillery before me. I wandered in through the door, taking notice of the monument on the hill to my left and the distillery’s logo in the car park. As soon as I walked in, I got into a friendly conversation with the woman who was checking me in. I never did get her name. But enjoyed chatting about the distillery and experience before and after the tour. 

I had been so taken by the scenery on the way in, I hadn’t noticed what happened to the people who drove in ahead of me. But they appeared to be a part of a group. Each appeared to be a decade or two older than me and I couldn’t make out if they were local. Apparently one of them was a whiskey fan and the rest of them were tagging along for the ride.

Then, in walked David Boyd-Armstrong, the man who co-founded the distillery with his wife Fiona. To my surprise, he was the one giving us the tour - which ended up making the whole scenario work out. We stepped outside and he filled us in on how his wife’s family had taken over this vast estate in the early 2000s and after reading a book on the lost distilleries of Ireland, Fiona had tried to prompt her father to open a distillery on-site. It wouldn’t be until David and Fiona married some years later that they would act upon her instincts and would start producing gin as their first product.

But you could tell that whiskey was where David’s heart was. He was a smoky whiskey fan and had found interest in the Maryland rye whiskies back in the states. Rye appeared to be where he was placing his greatest focus as he chose a malted rye and malted barley mash bill for the distillery’s core release. 

He told the story of the monument and the man for whom it was erected. William Sharmin Crawford, the former landlord of the Estate. This was his summer home. Considered a Radical he made his mark as a politician fighting for tennant’s rights and their right to their voting by secret ballot. It was said he never evicted a tenant.  And even though he was Anglican in religious practice he helped stop the forced tithing of Roman Catholic tennants to the Anglican church. 

After standing outside and hearing more stories about the historic estate, and the efforts it took for Fiona’s family to restore it, we were officially introduced to the large logo in the parking lot. 

He said the name Shortcross had come from the nearby village Crossgar, which means Shortcross in the Irish language. The logo design was a recreation of the Short Cross penny from the era of Henry III. He mentioned that his white painted Shortcross car park logo was the only logo in Ireland that was visible from space. For some reason, I thought I had seen a spray painted parking lot somewhere else in Ireland, but I think I just have Ardbeg’s stapled in my memory. 

This would be one of the tougher distilleries for me to write about. I have to admit, I use photos as a crutch to help remind me of certain aspects of the distillery and this was the only distillery where I didn’t get to take pictures anywhere inside. I remember there being column stills and pot stills and David mentioned that he preferred double distillation. But for as much as I should have been cataloging the equipment, the one thing that sticks out in my brain is when I spotted a Nelson’s Greenbrier ex-Tennessee Whiskey barrel. I was used to seeing Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniels barrels, but this was the first smaller distillery barrel I’d found. David said he preferred Jack Daniel’s barrels because of the rye content over the wheated Nelson’s, but was happy to use them. 

After we toured the warehouse, we walked into the tasting room / visitor’s center and tasted their poitín as well as their Rye and Malt Irish Whiskey, both were quite good. I noticed one of the two ladies in the other group turning her nose to it. “I like wine” she said. 

Then one of the gentleman started relating a story about what happened after he read a book on the 100 whiskies you should try before you die. He thought, rather than going to the store and spending a fortune on bottles, why not just get in the car and start touring distilleries. A man after my own heart.

He said that over a 4 year period, he visited every distillery in Scotland with a visitor’s center. I can tell you, that is a pretty huge number of distilleries. At last count there were 144 distilleries in Scotland, but of course, not all of them have visitor’s centers.  I had the outlines of a similar journey planned and I was at around 100 distilleries on my list.

After the tasting concluded, I had a short chat with David, but he was in the middle of production and needed to get back to work. Alas, the trials of a small family distiller - work always beacons. 

I got in the car, jotted down some notes and then checked my email. I was about to make my way back to Belfast for the evening’s entertainment. Yes, I was finally going to make my way into the city. McConnell’s Irish Whiskey was doing a launch of their new Sherry Cask whiskey and I had been invited to attend. As I drove toward the gate, I looked to my right and there was that replica alligator. I kicked myself for a moment. I’d forgotten to ask what that was all about. Oh well, time to grab a bite and make my way to the train so I could ride into town. More on my visit, next time.

I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore. 

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life LLC

Production, stories, and research by Drew Hannush

And if you’re enjoying hearing about all the new distilleries in Ireland and Northern Ireland this season, and you’d like to draw up your own dream Irish whiskey distillery tour - grab a copy of my new book Whiskey Lore’s Travel Guide To Experiencing Irish Whiskey, it features all the information you need to plan and prepare for an incredible trip to the Emerald Isle, including travel tips, and full profiles of 27 distilleries and information on 24 more that are on the way. Just head to whiskey-lore.com/irishbook for a quick link to Amazon or ask your favorite bookseller or distillery to order you a copy.

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