A Lost Midlands Treasure – Old Birr Distillery
Although the Birr Distillery was in operation for nearly 85 years, not much is known about its history. It was by all accounts a substantial distillery once upon a time, with a reported annual output of 200,000 gallons.
Birr Distillery was built in 1805 by brothers, R & J Wallace, close to Newbridge Street on the River Cam-Cor (meaning ‘crooked weir’). When visited by Alfred Barnard in 1886, a British brewing and distilling historian, he only devoted one page to his visit to the Birr Distillery, leaving us with only some brief snippets of information about the distillery.
He described the site as an ‘extensive complex that comprised a malting floor, kiln and mill, mash tun, still room, spirit store and bonded warehouse’. He reported that the building was made of limestone, that it was approached by carriage along the river, and that an impressive stone archway, draped in ivy lead up to the distillery.
He noted how the building was split into two sections, with two main grain warehouses and two drying kilns positioned across the bank of the Camcor River. Interestingly there were only two pot stills in the Still House, which would presumably be the sign of only a double distillation process. He noted that were 13 bonded warehouses which contained 3,000 casks and there were 40 men employed.
In 1889 a devastating fire engulfed the distillery that lead to its closure. It is recorded that a not so diligent worker fell asleep while on duty and the friction caused by the millstone ignited the surrounds.
As the fire spread, casks exploded and there are local reports stating ‘the whiskey flowed in a flaming mass down the Camcor River, turning it into a great swirling and flaming Christmas pudding’. Oh what a sight that must have been!
What happened to the distillery and the founding brothers is to this day unknown. The granaries, kiln and warehouses located on the other side of the river survived the fire however and remained derelict for a number of years. In the 1990’s a family from the UK bought the site of the distillery with the main remaining granary and kiln, and converted the middle floor to a summer home. Some of the other buildings have been converted into apartments and offices over the years.
If you would like to learn more about the history of some of the old distilleries of the Midlands, we highly recommend reading The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom by Alfred Barnard or The Lost Distilleries of Ireland by Brian Townsend. Some fascinating Midlands Whiskey history to be discovered in both books. Sláinte!