Irish Whiskey Pt. 5: The Lore of the River Boyne // Slane Distillery

My visit to Slane Distillery, Boann Distillery, and Alfred Barnard's visit to Wm Jameson's Marrowbone Lane along with the story of the Salmon of Knowledge.

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Show Notes

In my quest to dig into Irish whiskey history, this may be one of my favorite episodes yet. We start off with one of the great legends of Ireland - a legend tied to the area I was traveling through, the Boyne River Valley. I get to visit Slane Distillery, taste their whiskey and head over to Boann to learn the experimental side of that distillery and more legends. Meanwhile, I dig deep into the 17th century, when Irish uisce beatha was gaining a great reputation in London, until a Dutch upstart stole the show. All this and a beheading and rebellion - this week on Whiskey Lore.



Alone on the banks of the River Boyne, a poet named Finnegas stood, pole in hand, hoping to snag his long awaited prize. For seven years Finnegas stood in this very spot, waiting to capture the jewel of these waters. A creature whose power was so profound, it could change the very course of his life.

Born in the well of Segais (Sag-ish) or Well of Wisdom on the River Boyne, this creature was bestowed with a great gift. It had gained its strange power after eating a stray nut that had fallen from a hazel tree. This tree, it was said, was the first life form created and within its branches, it held all the knowledge of the universe. By being the first to taste a nut from this tree, all of this knowledge was passed into the creature that consumed it. 

The creature was a great speckled salmon and somehow it had eluded the hooks of many a fisherman. But Finnegas was persistent. He knew that the lucky person who caught this fish and had the first taste of it, would be endowed with the very gift of knowledge that the fish had gained from the tree. 

Suddenly, he felt his line tug. Could it be, he thought? He wrestled back and forth as his line whipped and snapped in the air. And that is when he saw the glorious sight. From out of the water, the great salmon of knowledge appeared on the end of his line. 

After wrestling it to the shore, the joy of the moment ran through him. His seven year quest was at an end. His prize lay before him. He called upon his obedient apprentice, a fair haired young man named Demne Máel (DEVnyuh MALL) to light a fire and to prepare the salmon for his master. Finnegas asked his faithful apprentice to take care and to not sample the salmon himself. 

As the young man turned the salmon on a spit above the fire, he noticed a blister forming on the great fish. Wanting the meal to be perfect for his master, he laid his thumb on the blister to pop it, the oils within snapped forth as the skin was broken, scalding the finger. Without thinking, he threw his throbbing thumb into his mouth. 

When the young man took the prepared fish to Finnegas, the poet noticed a strange glean in the young man's eyes. He asked the young man straight away, did you defy me and eat of this fish? Scared and uncertain of the repercussions, he denied that he had consumed any portion of the fish. But when Finnegas pressed him further, he gave in and plead to his master to forgive him, for he had scaled his thumb in preparation of the fish and had inadvertently tasted the great salmon. Knowing his opportunity was lost, Finnegas pushed the salmon over to his apprentice and instructed him to consume the rest of it. Knowing the power he held, Finnegas gave the young man a new name Fionn (finn) and the young man would go on to become a great warrior with his own son writing the tales of his exploits. And from the day when he scalded his thumb on the great fish, the man they called Finn McCool would simply stick his “thumb of knowledge” in his mouth to call upon all of the knowledge of the universe.

Ireland is full of great mythology and the story of the salmon of knowledge is one I heard referenced over and over during my travels, especially while at Slane Castle and during my later stop at Boann Distillery, both located in the Boyne River Valley. But there is also a “Salmon of Knowledge” statue in Belfast. As I researched and dug further into the story, that is when I learned about the “Thumb of Knowledge,” which made me chuckle. If only I had known that story when I was a youth - I might have been able to used it as a retort when my mother told me to stop sucking my thumb! Although I’m sure that wasn’t the point of the story.

As for my trip around Ireland, I was still on day 2 of my 24 day journey and I was amazed at how rich the stories and experiences already had been. As Alex and I walked from Slane Castle over to the horse stables that housed the distillery, we met back up with Gary who was about to take me on a tour of the distillery and introduce me to their master distiller Dr. GARE-OAD CAH - ull Gearóid Cahill. Having worked for almost 20 years with Diageo, attaining the position - head of science - I knew this would be my first great chance to dig into what made Irish whiskey production unique from the rest of the world. Here he not only distilled single malt, but also Irish pot still whiskey, and grain whiskey from column stills. As he described the process, I noticed he mentioned the use of both a mash tun and lauter tun. This confused me, I had not seen a lauter tun before and wondered why two vessels would be needed for doing what seemed like the same job. He suggested it had to do with the distillation of Irish Pot Still whiskey and the use of unmalted barley. I left it at that, figuring I’d be able to dig in deeper during my travels to learn more. This was a new concept and I needed some time to absorb it and hear different opinions. 

After showing me the pot stills, which were silent at that moment, and getting a photo taken next to them, he described all the work they had to do to drop these massive vessels into this historic building. He said, no one wanted to go to jail for damaging a historic facility. It really makes you appreciate what these distilleries go through when building in these celebrated structures. 

Then I got to view something the tours don’t really get to - the column stills. What I found fascinating is how short these coffey stills were. He said that there was a rule that no structure in the area could be built taller than the castle, so they basically built two column stills but split them into three pieces each. The flow of the liquid would thus need to travel in the shape of an M to complete a cycle through one of those columns. 

Alex rejoined us for the completion of the tour and I had deconstructed tasting of their blend - something I highly suggest visitors take part in. It really gives you a good sense of the building blocks that make their flagship whiskey taste so good. One element is aged in new barrels or virgin oak as they are described on this side of the Atlantic. Another is aged in ex-bourbon barrels - mostly if not all Jack Daniel’s barrels thanks to their relationship with Brown-Forman, and another in a sherry cask. The fourth sample was the blend of all three of these in the flagship whiskey. He also let me taste their travel retail blend that had the sherry element elevated, it was marvelous.

He told me that what they are distilling right now at Slane, hasn’t made it into the current blends, but it will slowly find its way in, over time. Another exceptional tour and I still had one more to visit on this day. 

As I head over to Boann in Drogheda, let’s check in again with my 19th century counterpart Alfred Barnard in Dublin as he visits the distillery started by the Teeling’s ancestor Walter Teeling and at that time under the ownership of William Jameson & Co. And we’ll return once more to the River Boyne to learn of an epic battle that sealed the fate of Catholic kings in England. 

Marrowbone Lane

THE next day we devoted to a visit to Marrowbone Lane Distillery, which is situated in the suburbs of Dublin, close by the beautiful Grand Canal, which from this point presents a straight vista of water, with overhanging trees, nearly a mile in extent, until the whole is lost in a background of foliage and hills. On the other side there is a fine view of Dublin and the Wicklow Mountains, with the celebrated chimney shaft of the Ballycorus Lead Mines, which has a flue running up the side of the mountain a mile in length, the upcast of which stands out like a skeleton giant, and forms a prominent feature in the view. Here, also, is Katty Gallaher’s Hill, of local romantic history; she, waiting for her lover who never came, was transformed into a hill, and remains an everlasting picture of blighted hope. This hill now forms the boundary of the Lead Works, which extend over about 70 acres.

Marrowbone Lane is not far from the scene of the rising under T. A. Emmet in 1803, and an ancestor of the present proprietor was dining in his house - now used as the offices of the Distillery - when it commenced, and heard the first shots, and cries of the wounded; and it was on that day that Lord Kilwaden was dragged from his carriage and murdered in the streets. A desperate battle afterwards ensued, and Emmet was taken prisoner; and this gifted and eloquent orator, who pleaded his own and his country’s cause with such fervour and pathos, that he drew tears from the eyes of the judges, was executed in Thomas Street, on the very spot where the battle had been fought. 

The water used in the Marrowbone Lane Distillery comes from the Vartry, and the high level of the Grand Canal. The former a lively, dashing little river, rises from the southern base of the Great Sugar Loaf, a mountain 1,650 feet above the level of the sea, opposite to which is the Small Sugar Loaf, and the lovely valley lying between the two is called the “sweetest valley” in Ireland. From the summit of these mountains is to be viewed one of the finest panoramic views in Europe, embracing the lovely and thickly-wooded Dargle, and inland scenes of surpassing beauty; Bray, Dalkey, and all the coast places, including “the Charming City” itself; whilst the sea view takes in Howth, Ireland’s Eye, and an infinite expanse of ocean. The river Vartry flows through the high moorland district which stretches from the Sugar Loaf to Roundwood, and in its progress over mossy falls and between banks of heather, it receives all the smaller mountain streams, till it falls over a ledge of rock into the Devil’s Glen, through which it brawls over rocky beds, rushing and foaming among the huge boulders that impede its progress, adding materially to the beauty of that wild romantic spot. The celebrated Guinness’s Stout is brewed from the Vartry water, and Messrs. Wm. Jameson & Co.’s Whisky is made from the same source. On analysis it has been found that the Vartry water possesses special powers for dissolving vegetable matter, whilst it retains all the vegetable aroma so necessary for extracting the virtues from the malt.

The ancestors of the present firm purchased this Distillery about the year 1779; it was then a very small undertaking, making less than 30,000 gallons yearly, but as the product grew in reputation, so the buildings increased. To meet the demand for their Whisky, the present spirited proprietors enlarged the work and increased the plant at an outlay of £100,000, and the buildings now cover upwards of fourteen acres of ground. The following is a brief description of this extensive Distillery: At the very top of the buildings there is a fine green Corn Loft, light and airy, capable of holding 30,000 barrels; the two Kilns, with wire flooring are so arranged that the green corn comes in by upper doors, raised 12 feet from the floor, whilst a second series of doors, on a level with the Kiln floor, enable the dried grain to be conveyed direct into the two dry Corn Lofts.

When the corn in this department is quite cooled, it is sent by elevators and screws into the grinding Mill, which turns out 150 tons of ground corn every twenty-four hours. Before passing to the Mill, the grain goes through the cleaning apparatus, in the hoppers of which are placed strong magnets, 3 feet long, which attract and retain metal objects, &c., and there is an elastic contrivance which most ingeniously sweeps these objects from the magnets into a bag at the side, and we were surprised to see how soon it was filled with bits of nail, steel, &c., which had been subtracted from the grain. These foreign objects, if allowed to remain, not only injure the Mills, but totally destroy the flavour of the Whisky; it is well known to Distillers that an inch or two of steel would spoil a whole mash. In the Mash House are to be seen two Mash Tuns said to be the largest in the United Kingdom, each having a capacity of upwards of 100,000 gallons. From these vessels the liquor passes into two large Underbacks; from thence it is pumped by three-throw pumps through the Morton’s Refrigerator into the thirteen Washbacks, or fermenting vessels, some of which contain 100,000 imperial gallons; in fact, two or three of them are large enough to hold a two-storied villa, with a garden path round it included. From these Washbacks the fermented worts are pumped into a Wash Charger out on the roof, and therefore above the level of the Stills; thence they run into the Wash Still in the usual course. There are four Old Pot Stills - no other kind being in use - with a capacity of 18,000, 12,000, 11,000, and 9,000 gallons respectively. From the Spirit Still the perfected spirit descends into an enormous Vat in the Spirit Stores, which holds 19,076 gallons. There are nine Bonded Warehouses, capable of storing 35,000 casks; they contained at the time of our visit 21,000. The Warehouses are not only well ventilated, but are particularly dry, both important adjuncts to the preservation and maturation of the spirit. 

The Cooperage of this Distillery is on a large scale, and is quite a work of itself, covering nearly an acre of ground, and employing thirty men in making, repairing, hooping, and cleansing the casks. 

Throughout the premises there is a complete system of fire-extinguishing apparatus; in all departments are iron mains, to which are attached leathern hose, by which means a fire can be almost immediately extinguished, the delay of attaching hoses being completely avoided.

Carpenters’, Painters’, Engineers’, and Smithy Shops are all to be found on the works. The Stables, &c., are situated in a large square yard, about the size of a cavalry barrack, comprising fourteen stalls with harness room, two hospitals, and coach house; there are also fine lofts for feeding stores, capable of containing twelve months’ consumption. Two hundred persons are employed in the various departments of the Distillery.

The make is known as “Dublin Whisky,” and the annual output is about 900,000 gallons; it is principally shipped to Melbourne, Sydney, Dominion of Canada, British India, The United States, West India, &c.


Returning to the history of Irish whiskey, when we think about the early 17th century, the utterances of the word whiskey would still be far off in the future, yet its forerunner uisce beatha was growing in reputation. It was said that Sir Walter Raleigh himself took 32 gallons of the spirit with him on his journey to the new world. The Irish form of the spirit was considered some of the best made. Even ladies in polite society were said to enjoy the pleasures of the Irish form of the spirit. Likely, the monopoly or patent system helped legitimize the water of life, thus encouraging its spread across the British isles. 

But all of that would change during the reign of King Charles I when Ireland, Scotland, and England fought various clashes over sovereignty and religion in the Wars of The Three Kingdoms. England would become unstable and devolve into two  Civil Wars. The results of which were the beheading of King Charles and the rising influence of Oliver Cromwell, a staunch anti-Catholic. 

His Puritan beliefs saw the Church of England’s use of idols as barely tolerable, but the Catholics' devotion to the pope, in his eyes, left all protestants exposed to the whims of a man rather than the Bible. His anger toward them was further exacerbated during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, when in 1641, an Ulster Catholic politician named Phelim O’Neill started a rebellion, to stop the aggressive planting of English and Scottish citizens on Irish Catholic lands. The rebellion turned excessively bloody leaving little need for propagandists in England to embellish upon the treachery. 

As Cromwell was freed of King Charles I and the civil wars, he set his sights on the Irish Confederate Catholics, who had just signed a pact with his English parliamentary enemies, the royalists. He sailed unopposed into Dublin, laid siege 

the walled stronghold of Drogheda, and when it was conquered, he ordered that any man who held a weapon in defense of the town be put to death. 

Reports across Ireland spread word that the massacre included women, children, and clergy - although historians still argue the merits of that claim. But in the port town of Wexford, Cromwell would lose control of his troops and in the ensuing chaos soldiers and civilians alike parished, including 300 citizens who drowned trying to escape the burning city. Bloody treachery by both sides would stain their reputations with Cromwell ultimately gaining control of the island. 

Parliament’s Act of settlement in 1652 condemned the rebels of ‘41 to death including Phelim O’Neill  and forced all landowning Catholics from their homes throughout the island to Connacht and areas west of the Shannon. Seeking to punish the royalists, he would also remove the old corrupt patient system of monopolies, leaving the distilling world caught in a vacuum.

When Cromwell died and his son Richard failed to secure a power base, a fully restored parliament set terms and invited Charles I’s exiled son to take the throne. Charles II solved the distilling issue by levying a tax of four pence for every proof gallon of spirits distilled, a tax system he had seen first hand during his exile in the Netherlands. Instituted by the Dutch in 1606, the English would copy the action in 1661 and it would spread to Ireland a year later.

Yet its impact on the Emerald Isle would be minimal. With registration voluntary, why would anyone feel compelled to shell out the money for a tax they could simply ignore? And many of the local magistrates were also landlords. The tenant’s were usually cash poor, so uisce beatha was supplemented when payments fell short. It would be a century before this weakness in the law would be addressed.


As for Irish Catholics, the death of Charles II in 1685 must have sent a glimmer of hope that the oppressive schemes of the Stuarts might be coming to an end. His successor, James II was Catholic and a possible vessel for change. But with the horrors of the religious uprisings lingering in the minds of the politicians, it wouldn’t be long before James' claim to the throne would be challenged by his own daughter Mary, a protestent, and her husband William of Orange. When confronted with William’s armed forces, James' army abandoned him. He fled to France to regroup. 

In the meantime, Parliament embraced William and Mary and handed the couple the vacated throne. But James wasn’t going to go down without a fight. In 1689, he had raised enough supporters to take on the Williamite forces. He would first lay siege to the Ulster town of Derry, but would ultimately fail in his attempt to starve the citizens out. And in Drogheda, at what became known as the Battle of the Boyne, the James’ Jacobites would be overwhelmed by William’s superior forces. The failures would forever end the Catholics claim to the British throne.

And for Catholics in Ireland, things went from bad to worse, as aggressive laws were passed restricting them from living in cities, holding government offices, becoming lawyers,  and even owning land. 

As for Irish uisce beatha, William’s Dutch heritage would provide the spirit a new rival for London society’s affections. A distillate with similar roots to uisce beatha had been distilled for centuries in the Netherlands. Made of distilled corn, rye, and malted barley, this clear spirit would be married with distilled juniper berries creating a spirit called Genever. As William increased trade between England and his homeland, the spirit was revised for London’s tastes and the experiment became a raving success. The resulting London Dry Gin was so affordable and so easy to produce, French brandy was all but forgotten in all but the upper classes, and uisce beatha pushed to the background as the poorer classes became hooked on gin, leading to an 18th century filled with parliamentary laws specifically trying to contain the Gin Craze.



“As the rain came down, pouring through a gaping wound, pelting the women and children.” Bullet the Blue Sky seemed like an appropriate song to be listening to after leaving Slane Castle, with its ties to the band U2 - and even more so when the skies opened up and I saw my first major Irish downpour. 

As I arrived at my next destination. I knew my appointment at Boann Distillery wasn’t for another 15 minutes but when I saw a break in the rain, I decided to hurry my way into the distillery. 

While the building’s shape was unusual for its purpose, there was no doubting what went on behind the glass. In the window shown through 3 beautiful Italian copper pot stills. The building reminded me of another distillery I’d seen about a year before - the Ironroot Republic Distillery in Denison, Texas. Built in an old RV dealership, it gave you a moment's pause as you might expect a car salesman to be walking in your direction when you walked through the door. 

As I walked in, I decided to snap a picture of the stills across the way, when I suddenly noticed someone photobombing me - a cute little bulldog had found its way into the corner of my photo and as I pulled my eyes away from the phone, I saw her making her way, tongue wagging through the air and body waddling, towards me. Not far behind, her owner, the head distiller Michael Walsh apologized and introduced himself. No problem, I said, but I’m usually used to greeters being a little bit taller. 

He let me know he was in the middle of something. And he turned to point to one of the rooms above the distillery, saying that Sally-Anne Cooney, the daughter of the founder, and the person I had been conversing with through email, would be down to meet me in a moment. In moments she made her way down to meet me and it didn’t take long for us to be engaged in conversation. She confirmed to me that this building had in fact once held a dealership. 

I asked her about a plaque I had seen while wandering around the showroom that featured Boann’s logo and the Colorado Talnua Distillery’s logo. She told me how the two distilleries had decided to do an experiment by both distilling the same mash bill and single pot still style, using the same casks, and both aging 5 years, just to see how the spirits would distill and mature on either side of the Atlantic.

And experimentation seemed a hallmark of this distillery. She told me about a special project they had done with historian Fionan O’Connor where he researched historic Irish single pot still mash bills and they produced 10 of them. The goal was not only to show how versatile single pot still whiskey could be, but also to show why changing the rules of single pot still could lead to an incredibly diverse spirit that could go beyond the current specifications.

If you are new to the concept of Irish single pot still whiskey - know first of all, that it has nothing to do with how many stills are being used in the process. The word “single” denotes the number of distilleries used to distill the liquid, not the number of stills.

Another thing to know about Irish single pot still is that the current rules require at least 30% of the mashbill must be malted barley and at least 30% unmalted barley. In addition, up to 5% can be some other type of grain like oats, rye, or wheat. The remaining part of the mash bill can be filled out only with additional malted or unmalted barley in any ratio over 30%.

The problem with this rule is that it was created when a company called Irish Distillers Limited ruled all of Irish whiskey. When the Irish whiskey industry consolidated in the 20th century, Irish Distillers was the last company standing, making Jameson, Bushmills, Powers, and any other brand that stated it was Irish whiskey. Because their formula was this 30/30/5 mash bill, that is what became the rule. So when you drink Redbreast or the Spots, you’re drinking a whiskey that follows those rules.

Yet, what Fionnán O’Connor found during his research for a doctoral thesis is that records showed distillers during the heyday of Irish whiskey in the 19th century were distilling with much higher percentages of other grains. In some cases, up to 30% oats were found in these recipes and wheat and rye were also present in higher percentages. He worked with Michael at Boann to complete 10 of those historic mash bills. 


The project made such an impression on the advisory committee of the Irish Whiskey Association that they gave a thumbs up to the rule change. Distillers across Ireland now wait for it to cross another hurdle or two before it can become official. 

They were doing other experiments as well, including making a 50/50 rye and malted barley mashbill and a 100% rye mashbill. In a way, this surprised me because rye and oats are not easy grains to work with, but all in the name of stretching the definition of what Irish whiskey can be.

I was a bit curious about the name Boann and asked Sally Anne what it meant.

She told me that it was to pay homage to the Boyne River Valley region that is visible outside the showroom windows of the distillery. Boann was an Irish goddess who approached a magical well surrounded by nine magical hazel trees. The hazelnuts that would fall from the tree were filled with wisdom and the salmon in the well were imbued with knowledge of the world. Against her husband wishes, Boann challenged the well by walking around it counterclockwise, stirring up its waters and which overflowed, thrusting her down the river where she lost an arm, a leg, and ultimately, her life. Her lasting legacy was said to be the creation of the River Boyne, the same river I had seen earlier in the day at Slane Castle, the same was the home of the Salmon of Knowledge, and the same that witnessed the death knell of Catholic rule in England. 

When Michael came back over, I asked him about his background. He said he had been a distiller at Dingle Distillery before arriving at Boann. I told him that was the only distillery I had been to in Ireland before this trip and that my guide there was fantastic. We jumped down memory lane for a little bit and then as we walked toward the equipment he said “since you know the process, this shouldn’t take long to show you.” I think it was a good hour later before the impromptu Q&A session came to a close as he asked me, would you like to try some new make?

In our next episode, I’ll fill you in on some more of the details I learned about this distillery by talking to Michael. We’ll meet the Cooney family patriarch and learn where their whiskey brand The Whistler got its name. 

Alfred Barnard will continue his 1886 visit to Dublin distilleries. I’ll tell the story of a malt tax that sent a town into a riot and helped two different islands create whiskey empires.  And I’ll come face to face with a modern Irish whiskey legend and the most fascinating bottle of whiskey I’d ever seen - filled with a 19th century potion, the likes of which I doubt I will ever taste again. 

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

If you can’t get enough whiskey history, make sure to check out my other podcast Whiskey Lore: The Interviews, where I turn the tables and let distillers, historians, authors, and distillery founders tell their stories. And this week, we’re going to take a unique look at Kentucky’s whiskey industry, by talking to the design firm that in 1909 created one of the most iconic whiskey distillery designs in the world.

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Thanks for listening! I’m your host Drew Hannush and until next time, cheers and slainte mhath!

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