Irish Whiskey Pt. 8: The Smallest Distillery In Ireland // Killowen Distillery

Into Northern Ireland, I leave one of the largest distilleries for one of the smallest. Yet both holding strong reputations.

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Show Notes

Join me as I leave Ireland for my first trip to Northern Ireland and go from one of the largest distilleries to one of the smallest.

Yet, even though it is small, its head distiller Brendan Carty is earning a stellar reputation as the leader of what he calls Ireland's protest distillery...Killowen.

And meanwhile, Alfred Barnard leaves Dublin and heads west across 19th century Ireland.

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After a somewhat drizzly day, the sun was shining and I was excited for my first trip into Northern Ireland. It was only day three and I’d already had amazing visits to five of Ireland’s distilleries, including the one I had just left, John Teeling’s Great Northern. 

The visit was more than I could have hoped for - meeting John and Brian, experiencing the blending room and Brian’s techniques, tasting two whiskeys from centuries past, the tour, and the camaraderie. Brian’s Scottish background was a nice bridge into this Irish journey, because it gave me perspective. After traveling to 40 plus distilleries in Scotland and only being at the beginning of my Irish journey, it helped me ground in some of the differences.

I didn’t get to talk too much history with John, but he graciously offered to talk with me exclusively at his office in Dublin at the end of my journey. Instead, our lunch took on a leisurely business feel to it. We sat in the conference room and he introduced me to his guest, Tony, whose start-up whiskey brand has the curious name of Foxes Bow. And it’s not just the brand name - the label was filled with hot pink and black, with a modern art design on the sides - not quite your standard brown, green, or historic looking label and that is the way founders Tony and Alice want it. What was great about this lunch, is that it added another dimension to my visit. Here was a client, talking through what they needed in terms of help from Great Northern - a real peak behind the curtain. How many of the other distillers that I would meet on this trip, sat right here while dreaming of seeing that first bottle with their brand on it. 

The goal for Foxes Bow is to eventually open a distillery in Limerick, the whiskey itself is designed to attract a younger and more female market. Tony gifted me a bottle to take with me and what drew me in was the use of rye and sherry casks - two influences that are near and dear to my whiskey heart. When I left, I thought, there is no way I’m going to work my way through this entire bottle, since I’d have plenty of samples over the next 40 distillery visits. 

Originally I hoped to see Cooley Distillery, the one that started it all for John, but it is owned by Beam Suntory now and mainly an industrialized distillery. No worries though. My ultimate goal with this trip was to create a travel guide to the distilleries that everyone could visit. For me, distillery stops like Great Northern and Cooley would just add to my overall education. 

And honestly, I didn’t have time. I thought about driving around the small peninsula where Cooley was to take in the sights along the coast road, but lunch had ended at 2 and I needed to be at my next stop Killowen by 3. 

As I crossed the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, I remembered how concerned I was about what I would need to do to get between the countries. I was in Scotland when all of the Brexit negotiations were going on and Northern Ireland was a big question. They wanted to keep the borders free between Ireland and Northern Ireland - but in reality, you are now going from Europe to the United Kingdom. And now the radio was filled with stories about the political party Sinn Fein party having won a major election victory and being in control for the first time in a century  - a party that has fought for unification of the two Ireland’s for a century. I had no idea what I was in for.

But honestly, I hadn’t noticed the change in speeds from kilometers per hour to miles per hour, I might never have realized I cross the border. That was easy!

But now I had another problem. How fast was I going? My stupid rental car only had kilometers and not miles per hour! At least, back when my family lived in Michigan near the Canadian border, cars came with both sets of speeds on them. In fact, my own Nissan is that way. I soon found myself trying to remember equivalents as best as I could - and where possible, my Google Maps would clue me into how fast I was going.

Unfortunately, motorways are pretty much the same everywhere - roads to get you from point A to point B without much focus on scenery. You could see Ireland off in the distance, but I needed to get to my next destination. But for all I thought I’d missed, taking this particular path, after turning south at the town of Newry, the drive along the Carlingford Lough was beautiful. Along the other side the lush green hills popped out the water. That is exactly where I would have been driving, had I gone to Cooley.

But I had to keep my eyes on the road too. The lorrie in front of me seemed to be in love with stomping on his breaks. Two seconds gazing off into the distance and I might be planted in the back of a truck filled with crisps. 

Yes, crisps and lorries. I really enjoy getting into the cultural and language differences on a trip. I tend to use words like flat for apartment, lift for elevator, and so on while over here. Only once did someone comment on it - one of my hosts said - do you think I wouldn’t know what a truck was? I laughed but was a little uneasy at that moment. I thought, have I been insulting people by using their language? I decided to ask. He said, know it was fine, he wasn’t insulted, he just thought it was curious that I was taking in the localisms. 

I think the other reason I do it is because, when I was in Scotland, sometimes people would chuckle when I would say “gas” - “it’s not gas, they would say, it is a liquid.” Point taken. 

When I reached the turnoff for the Killowen Distillery, I immediately realized this was not going to be a highly visited distillery. For the couple of miles I traveled on the little single track road, I found few spots to pull over to let cars by. Luckily, I didn’t need to pass anyone on the way up.

The view was gorgeous - it's just like you would picture the Irish countryside. I saw the small white building to the right and pulled the car into one of the three or so slots available. Immediately an energetic, friendly face headed toward my car. It was Brenden Carty - a man whose name I would hear on this trip as frequently as John Teeling and Fin-on O’Connor.

For a man who is just now seeing his first whiskeys reach the critical three year mark, he is already a legend and has the respect of his peers for his enthusiasm and drive towards rediscovering the lost techniques of distilling while moving the language of Irish spirits forward.

Upon meeting him, that passion showed right through. And I couldn’t have planned seeing two ends of the distilling spectrum any better. In a single day, I went from the mass production or Great Northern, to a white shed that houses two custom made Portugues alembic stills, and worm tubs. Talk about old school. These were only the fourth set of flame fired pot stills I’d seen - the others at Mount Vernon in Virginia, Barrel House in Kentucky, and H. Clark, now Company Distilling south of Nashville. The lyne arms on the stills were longer than standard Portugues still, again to increase copper contact for a cleaner spirit - something I’d heard talked about at Boann just a day before.

Brenden invited me over to see what he was doing outside the door. That is where he introduced me to the first of several concepts I had never seen in person. It is pretty much industry standard to malt barley to create the enzymes that can aid in converting starches to sugar - but here, Brendan was malting oats and doing it with peat - or what he says the Irish call turf. The smells of the smoke coming from the outdoor malter were amazing.

Brendan said he was an architect before being inspired to join in the art of distilling after heading to Dublin and taking part in some of Finon O’Conner’s whiskey tastings. Hearing about the lack of quality in Irish whiskey, its diversion from history, and what it should be, he decided it was time to build what he calls his protest distillery.

While other distilleries are trying to bring back history through labels and stories, here we are getting a peek into what may be the closest thing to how the majority of Irish distillers worked back in the 19th century. Sure there were the 28 larger distilleries that Alfred Barnard documented in his book, but that misses out on the majority of the thousand or so distillers that were surviving and turning their excess grains into whiskey to preserve their crops, satisfy their thirst, or get around the excise man. 

And so it only makes sense that one of the spirits Brendan embraces is Poitin, the Irish spirit that split off from legal whiskey, then called Parliament whiskey - or some might refer to it as Irish moonshine. It split off, thanks to those taxes I’ve talked about in past episodes and will be talking about further in the next few episodes. It is amazing how taxes and governments have shaped the spirits we drink today. 

While Brendan’s poitin is the legal kind, I bumped into the discussion of illegal poitin over and over during my trip - especially on the west coast and up in Donegal. In 2008, the European Union would recognize Irish poitin with a Geographically Indicative Status as a native product of Ireland - just like you can’t call something bourbon unless it comes from the United States, or Scotch unless it comes from Scotland - if it says poitin, it is Irish distilled. Now there are a few purists who, just like with moonshine in the United States, argue that poitin by its very nature, must be made illegally to earn its title - but to me, it's a labeling law, not a concept law. 

We walked through his small warehouse and talked through the barrels he was using. I sampled several of Brenden’s spirits, including some oat and barley whiskeys, rum aged in PX and peated casks - like a whiskey, and even a blending experiment he did with some Bushmills and Caol Ila that he extra aged in a PX cask and a rum cask. It seems nothing is off limits for this creative spirit. The last item we tasted was an oat whiskey that also contained some rye. The custard flavor from the oats joined with the vanilla from the ex-bourbon cask and some floral notes from the rye in the mash bill and the additional pinot noir casks used in the aging. Amazing stuff. 

An endless ball of energy, he apologized that he had to be off to Dublin for a meeting. I thanked him for a fascinating hour and hopped back in the car, ready to establish my home base for the next few days in a town I’d long wanted to see first hand - Belfast.  

As I make my way toward Northern Ireland’s capital city and my AirBnB, let's check in with Alfred Barnard, as he makes his way out of Dublin for the first time and moves west across 19th century Ireland.

Mon-as-tere-van Distillery

We left Dublin by an early train, which enabled us to spend five or six hours at Monasterevan Distillery on our way to Tullamore. It was a delightful day, and we were quite glad to quit for a time the busy haunts of men, and all their ways and works, and exchange them for green fields, flowering banks, and nature’s wild beauty.

After leaving the suburbs of the “Charmin’ City,” our way lay through scenes of gentle beauty, intermingled here and there with wooded knolls and plantations. Afterwards for many miles it was less interesting. As we approached our destination, the extensive woodlands of Moore Abbey, which cover the greater part of the hill lying to the south of Monasterevan came into view, and we were soon in the midst of pastoral scenes and pictures of country life, which filled us with admiration. Moore Abbey is the seat of the Marquis of Drogheda, and it is the most interesting feature in the scenery for many miles. The noble mansion is a modern structure built on the site of an old celebrated Franciscan Abbey. It stands near the town, and on the banks of the Barrow, which runs for two miles through the park. The demesne stretches up to the boundary walls of the Distillery, and in some places the stately trees thereon overshadow the buildings; indeed, the thick woods, sloping verdure, and running streams in the park add much to the picturesque appearance of the Distillery. The town takes its name from Moore Abbey, a monastery founded by St. Abben, who granted it the privilege of “Sanctuary.” History informs us that in the seventh century, on his festival day (Dec. 22nd), St. Evin, a successor of St. Abben, placed therein a number of monks from South Munster, and brought with him a consecrated bell, which was used by the tribe of the Eoganachts to swear upon on solemn trials, and which was held in such high veneration that it was always in the charge of an hereditary chief. At the general suppression of monasteries Moore Abbey was granted to Lord Dudley, and afterwards it came into the family of the present Marquis.

Having somewhat digressed, for which we apologize, we now return to the object of our journey. Reaching the station, we walked through the town and had no difficulty in finding the object of our visit. The Distillery, which is its most striking feature, covers ten acres of ground, and has a frontage to the main road of 293 feet. We entered by a picturesque ivy-covered stone archway, and found ourselves inside an oblong quadrangle, with several innercourts issuing therefrom. After making ourselves known to Mr. Cassidy, we proceeded to his private office to obtain the necessary information as to the foundation of the works, and found by investigation, that the Distillery was built by the grandfather of the present proprietor in the year 1784, and a few years after was partly burnt down and rebuilt again, since which time many additions have been made. The old buildings are very picturesque, and the newer ones have been erected in a style to harmonise with the earlier portions of the works. The water used for brewing purposes comes from the celebrated “White Springs” of Borradera, famed for its purity and sparkling appearance. A tributary of the Barrow which runs through the grounds has been diverted into a natural pond behind the Maltings, and in its bed are laid the cooling pipes. Under the guidance of Mr. Cassidy, we commenced our tour of the establishment at the corn buyers’ office, which is approached from the high road and adjoins the Distillery offices. It is a stone-paved apartment, where the barley is sampled and, if purchased from the farmer, is parcelled, numbered, and the price and quantity registered in a book. The road which extends along the front of, and runs through the works, is called “Dublin Street,” and twice a week in the season it is thronged with farmers and others, and, when we were there, presented quite the animated appearance of “Mark Lane” on a small scale, the roadway from end to end being strewn with corn. The stray fowls and ducks come over here from the village, and have a high time of it after the market is over. When the corn is delivered to the receiving Warehouse, the checking clerk compares it with the sample, sees every sack weighed, and makes out the credit note for the farmer, who exchanges some for cash in the Distillery office. From the scales the sacks are emptied into the wells of the Elevators, and then lifted to the Corn Stores.

Before visiting these, we passed through a doorway into the water tower at the back, where there is a large water-wheel that works the elevators, etc.

The Corn Store building, which holds 3,000 barrels, is five stories high, 60 feet long and 48 feet wide, lofty and well lighted. On these floors workmen were busy distributing the corn as it arrived from the shoots of the elevator. Leaving this department, we passed through the two Kilns, neat buildings, each 32 feet high and 42 feet square, floored with Worcester perforated tiles, underneath which are the old-fashioned open furnaces. At the time of our visit a number of little lads, without shoes and stockings, were busy pricking the holes of the tiles to unstop them, a process which has to be repeated three times a year to secure perfect ventilation. From the Kilns the dried grain is dropped through shoots into the Elevator and conveyed to the several dried Corn Lofts which adjoin this building, where it is spread out to the depth of 5 feet, and when required sent direct to the Mill. To the latter place we next bent our steps and were shown three pairs of Mill-stones and a set of Malt Rollers. The grist and ground malt descend from their respective hoppers into the Meal-room below which contains the Copper House, a tower-like building 80 feet square.

Following the process, we inspected the heating tanks and then passed into the Mash-house. It is a building quite unique in style and design, and certainly unlike any other Mash-house in the kingdom. It is constructed in the shape of a bee-hive, and at one time, during the erection of its conical roof, the workmen all left, fearing it would fall upon them before the key-stone was placed. The interior of this singular building is painted white and picked out in bright scarlet of chaste design. The Mash-tun, is the only vessel in the house, except the Underback or Worts Tank below the paved floor. Mounting half-a-dozen steps, we promenaded the gallery round the top of the Mash-tun, 5 feet wide, and took a peep at the inside of this large vessel. A powerful three-throw Pump delivers the worts from the Underback to the Coolers above, and also those laid in the bed of the pond. We next visited the Tun-room, a lofty gallery which stands on a hewn stone foundation, the roof of which is appropriated entirely to the Coolers already referred to. Ranged along the wall are six large timber Washbacks, each capable of holding 24,000 gallons. After fermentation has ceased in these vessels, the liquor, which is now called wash, is pumped up to the Wash Charger holding 26,000 gallons by a single Pump, from whence it runs by gravitation into the Wash Still. On emerging from this house, our attention was called to the great elevation and size of the water tank, which supplies all the water-power of the establishment. We entered the Still-house by the eastern end and found ourselves in a fine building, roofed with corrugated iron 55 feet high and 50 feet square. On one side are placed the Old Pot Stills, comprising a Wash Still 26,000 gallons content, and a Spirit Still 5,600 gallons content. The Worm Tub, connected with these Stills, is placed on pillars 50 feet high in the court-yard, and contains 250 tons of water; from the Worm the spirit runs through the Safe into the Spirit Receiver in the Can-pit Room; here also are the Low-wines and Feints Receivers and Chargers. From the Receiver the pure spirit, which has undergone two distillations, is pumped into the three Spirit Vats, placed in the Spirit Store, where we followed it. We found the workmen busy racking off the spirit into casks; when filled, they are weighed and marked under the superintendence of the Excise, and then sent to the duty-free Warehouse.

At the suggestion of Mr. Cassidy we visited some of the Warehouses, of which there are seventeen in all, containing, at the time of our visit, 7,210 casks of Whisky. They are all built of stone, dry and well ventilated, and are built round a courtyard, having together a frontage in the quadrangle of 800 feet. 

Returning to the general offices by another way, we inspected the Carpenters’, Smiths’ and Engineers’ Shops, Sheds, and Cart Houses; these last are roofed with corrugated iron. We next visited the Stables, which are very extensive, and contained thirty horses of a superior class, Mr. Cassidy being celebrated throughout the district for his fine breed of horses. The establishment is lighted throughout with gas, the proprietor having some time since erected a gasometer and built gas-works on the property. Within the boundary-walls of the Distillery there is a commodious house for the brewer and other officials. The proprietor’s residence, a two-storied mansion, built in the Italian style, is within sight of the Distillery. It stands in a small park, bounded by pretty plantations, attached to which there is a grass farm.

Monasterevan is a very compact Distillery, and is easily worked. From the manager down to the smallest boy, every employ

The Whisky manufactured is of exactly the same character as the celebrated Dublin make, and the annual output is 203,000.

We tasted some of the “make,” six years old, and considered it a fat, creamy Whisky, suitable both for blending and to use as a self spirit. Mr. Cassidy sells all he makes in the locality, except about 40,000 gallons to Messrs. Twiss and Browning for export, and a few thousand gallons to a Bristol firm. Three Excise officers are in attendance at the Distillery, Mr. J. Ryan being the chief.

Having completed our inspection of the Distillery and Corn Stores, we proceeded, in company with Mr. Cassidy, to the Maltings, which are situated near the railway station. They are built of stone, in one range of over 200 feet square, and hold 4,000 barrels of corn, whilst the Kiln at the end gives a handsome finish to the whole.


It was Tuesday evening and I was eying my GPS, trying to make sure I executed all of my left and right turns properly as I got into the first busy district of my journey - the east side of Belfast. Here I would have one of my only steady home bases to work from during the entire trip. The plan was to spend Wednesday on the Ard Peninsula at Echlinville and Copeland, then Thursday - which just so happened to be my birthday - at nearby Hinch and Rademon Estate, the home of Shortcross gin and whiskey - then I had the lucky timing to be invited to a launch party for McConnell’s newest Irish Whiskey. Then Friday, I would meet up with McConnell’s brand ambassador Sarah Kennedy, whom I’d interviewed for the Whiskey Lore Interviews podcast some time back, and take that promised stroll around town, learning about Belfast’s distilling past and hunting for the sites of the old McConnell’s warehouses.

I parked the car in front of a row of brick townhouses and met my host Mark at the door. I was glad I wasn’t going to have to make this trip with my bags too often. My room was on the third floor overlooking the street. The windows were open, as I was again getting used to a world without air conditioning. But it wasn’t warm at all - so it was working out well for me. Mark came by the room to check on me and to make sure I was settled in. I told him about my adventure of visiting all of the distilleries of Ireland, he said he enjoyed whiskey but didn’t know a lot about it. I had about 15 mini-bottles filled and I realized I was falling behind in doing my tastings. I decided to crack open the Foxes Bow and offer my host a glass. I wasn’t too worried about the quality of this new brand, it had come from Great Northern, so it was under top notch management. The liquid didn’t disappoint. The herbal hits of rye made me feel at home and the fruity sherry notes put a smile on my face, knowing I was back in a land of sherry finished whiskeys. But if I thought my experience of this bottle was a nice reminder of those great Scotch whiskeys I have on my shelf at home - the next distillery on my list was about to shift me from enjoying the familiar nuances in the Foxes Bow, to wondering if maybe I had found a whiskey that I actually liked better than one of my favorite scotches.

My adventure continues next week.

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 keep up with the visuals from my journey across Ireland by following Whiskey Lore on Instagram and Facebook. And make sure you’re subscribed to this podcast because the Irish journey continues over the next two weeks with visits to two distilleries on the Ard Peninsula in Northern Ireland, a trip on to America, and Alfred visits Tullamore.


  • Alfred Barnard "The Distilleries of Great Britain"

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