The Big Four, Reloaded – How Distilling in Dublin Peaked, Crashed and Returned to Stay
“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” asked once American mathematician Edward Lorenz, a chaos theory pioneer and coiner of the term “Butterfly effect.” Extrapolating this principle to the history of drinks, one could ask, does a tiny insect’s journey from America to France set off the first golden age of Irish whiskey?
The infamous insect, known as phylloxera or American grape louse reached Europe in the mid 19th century and devastated the vineyards of France and other neighbouring countries, but also, the plantings destined for Cognac and other brandies. By the 1880’s brandy lovers both sides of the Atlantic could barely find a drop and Irish whiskey experienced accelerated growth.
Of course this wasn’t the only factor that propelled the spirit to stardom at the time, but it does give some perspective on how seemingly unconnected events can represent major opportunities (or threats) for a whole industry.
The First “Big Four” Dublin Distilleries
“Belfast, Cork and Derry became major centres of production but Dublin eclipsed them all, not only for the scale of its distilleries but for their reputation”, recalls Peter Mulryan in the pages of The Whiskeys of Ireland.
By 1887, when British brewing and distilling historian Alfred Barnard published his highly valued account of the industry in the book “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom” (of which Ireland was a part of at the time), Dublin was a global whiskey hub with six working distilleries in the city: Bow Street Distillery, John’s Lane Distillery (John Power & Sons), Thomas Street Distillery, Marrowbone Lane Distillery, Jones Road Distillery (D.W.D. Distillery), and the Phoenix Park Distillery.
From these, a quartet became known as Dublin’s “Big Four”, John Jameson & Son of Bow Street, John Power & Son of John’s Lane, George Roe & Co. of Thomas Street, and William Jameson & Co. of Marrowbone Lane, which according to research by author of potstill.de and collector Thomas Schubert, “had a combined output of 5 Million Gallons per year, compared to an average of below 100,000 gallons at their fellow distilleries in Scotland. ”
The reasons behind the end of the first golden age of Irish whiskey are varied; war, prohibition, independence and failure to implement innovations all played their part and by the end of 1975, the production of Irish whiskey had left Dublin completely, when Irish Distillers moved production to Midleton, Co. Cork.
The Big Four, Vol 2
By the time the Teeling Whiskey Co opened its doors in the summer of 2015, 125 years had passed since a distillery had done so in the fair city. But it only took about two years for the second distillery in this new era to pop up in Dublin. The Pearse Lyons Distillery opened its doors on August 2017, barely a short stroll away from Teeling.
Walk from one to the other and you’ll see the site for Roe & Co located within a former power station on St. James Gate, which is scheduled to open on 2019. The brand is already in the market and celebrating the first anniversary of its launch this March 2018.
Also with a D8 address, The Dublin Liberties Distillery, is scheduled to open later this year but it’s already scoring big with two product ranges on shelves: The Dubliner and The Dublin Liberties. Besides these, they’ve recently teamed up with Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon, owners of the multi award-winning Dead Rabbit Bar in NYC, to launch The Dead Rabbit Irish Whiskey.
This Time Around it’s Corporate
If the first wave of Dublin distilling was personal, this time around big global companies want in. John Teeling said it recently, “Irish whiskey has gone completely global“, and just as bottles are going out, international investors are coming. Every one of the aforementioned nü-big four has secured a partnership with or is owned by a major international drinks company.
Last June, Teeling Whiskey sold a minority stake to Bacardi, and while it was announced that founders Jack and Stephen Teeling will continue to run the business, the deal resulted in securing the highly coveted distribution channels of the global brand. The deal’s bill? almost €5 million.
Pearse Lyons is a different case, as its namesake owner and founder also founded the more established American company Alltech which is worth no less than €1.9 billion. One of the richest men in Ireland, Dr. Lyons has invested approximately €10.5 million so far in the new, state of the art distillery now welcoming visitors in the site of the Old St. James Church.
Roe & Co and its coming soon distillery at the St. James Gate’s old power station also has a heavyweight backer: the brand is part of Diageo’s portfolio and the total investment the international drinks giant has destined for this project equals €25 million to be spread over the course of three years.
The Dublin Liberties Distillery is not without its own international boost as Quintessential Brands Irish Whiskey, the company that owns the brand, secured a €18.3 million investment from the Stock Spirits Group which was announced last summer (and which is part of a larger investment of €28 million). The bill came for the acquisition of 25% of the Irish company by the leading spirits business from Central and Eastern Europe.
In a much more connected world, having the mindset and the muscle to bring Irish whiskey into markets consolidated and new will be the key to long-lasting success of these new big four and the ones to follow. But if history shares a lesson it’s never to take success for granted and always keep evolving.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.