Finally! A distillery tour that got me up close and personal with the process of making whiskey!
After years of leaving Irish distilleries (and breweries) feeling pleased but not quite satisfied, I thought the new industry standard equaled a tour of well-preserved artifacts displayed in the order they were used in the distilling process… and if I was extremely lucky, I’d get to see some bottles rush by on a conveyor with stainless steel vats standing tall in the background… then I’d eek in a quick tasting before being released into the gift shop.
Last week, I arrived in Kilbeggan expecting the same we-used-to-make-whiskey-here song and dance. However, after buying my ticket I was neither herded into a group nor forced to watch an audio-visual presentation. What? No waiting for the DVD player to restart? No tour guide reciting a list of rules? This place was already getting my attention.
The person at reception handed over a few papers loaded with information and pointed to the three doors I needed to remember… one led to a red staircase and the old distillery… one went to the restrooms and the new distillery… and one opened into the tasting room where my admission ticket would score a sample.
The Old Distillery
From there, I felt like I was given an all-access pass to the distillery. The waterwheel that once powered all the mechanisms still worked. Had it not been undergoing reconstruction this season, it would still be turning some of the old equipment. Meanwhile, the 1800s steam engine that was used for backup still gets powered up every year or so.
The old pumps and chutes and gears and pipes and barrels were all there for me to explore. Truth be told, I wasn’t entirely faithful to reading along with the handouts and certainly missed many interesting tidbits, but I was enthralled with the Steam Punk look of the old building and its machinery.
The New Distillery
Crossing the courtyard, I wandered around the new distillery (which is still in a section of old building). It was a smaller, boutique operation that held on to its history… mash fermented in wooden barrels, aged buckets surrounded one of the copper stills collecting excess water drops, and even the modern equipment was made to look old.
On the upper level, a distillery worker happily broke from his post stirring malted grain and water to answer my questions. I even popped my head into one of the giant barrels where the yeast was eating away at the sugars in the grain… and I’m not exaggerating — my head was IN the barrel and my nose was filled with the rich smell of steeped wheat.
The Tasting Room
The tasting room was set up like an old country pub. The cozy bar even had a door to the street allowing anyone to stop in for a drink. The staff inside loved chatting about whiskey and the local area, and they were keen to get my reaction to the whiskey sample included with admission. What impressed me most… I felt welcome to spend as much time as I liked in the sampling room with no pressure to buy or move on to the gift shop (although they had plenty of whiskey for sale right there).
Back for the VIP Tour with Brian
I had a feeling that a place so open and inviting on their general admission ticket, probably had something extra special for their VIP tours. I was taken on a private tour of the Distillery with Brian. Brian had been the distillery manager since the 1970s, and although semi-retired, he still popped in to do tours.
The perfect tour guide, he managed to conjure the wit and charm I’d expect, but his knowledge was unmatched. Yes, he knew what every piece of machinery did, but he could also explain how adjustments in each step of the process would change the properties of the whiskey. He’s also talked to many of the old-timers from Kilbeggan and was eager to keep their stories of the distillery alive… which included few ghost stories.
He also introduced us to Andrina, Ireland’s youngest and only female distiller. My only regret was not asking Andrina more questions while with her — she didn’t become Ireland’s only woman distiller without a story to tell.
The VIP tour ended with a sampling of several whiskeys and a bit of a chat with Brian… a perfect ending.
My most important bit of advice — take the VIP tour. You could ask if there’s a guide available when you arrive, but it’s best to call or email ahead to to avoid disappointment (I called in the morning, and Brian came in to give the tour in the afternoon). There’s no minimum number of people for the VIP experience, so it’s perfect for a carload making their way from Dublin to Galway. If your group is greater than ten, they have special group offerings and a larger tasting room on hand.
The The Kilbeggan Distillery Experience is located in the village of Kilbeggan which is right off the motorway between Dublin and Galway. The onsite restaurant serves fantastic meals… just be ready for large servings and save room for the Kilbeggan whiskey ice cream (they were serving it with Wexford strawberries). YUM!
Info for Visitors: