Mr Peter Roe bought Thomas Street Distillery, Dublin, and set up in business in 1757, but in 1832 his descendent George Roe took over the business and gave the distillery his own name, George Roe & Co. Having inherited another distillery, George bought up other property to expand operations with other warehouses and his own maltings. HIs two nephews, George and Henry, carried on the business and did a fairly good job of keeping things ticking over, if the fact that Henry donated £250,000 to restore the nearby Christ Church Cathedral is anything to go by.
When Alfred Barnard visited Thomas Street in the 1880s on his Distilleries of Britain and Ireland tour (that exhaustive predecessor to Whiskey Burn by pony & trap, amongst other means of transport), he thought it the biggest distillery in the world, and it probably was. The Roes had 8 gigantic pot stills, on 17 acres, with 200 staff producing over 2 million gallons, twice that of Jameson across the Liffey at the time. It was one of those distilleries that was made to last a thousand years. It didn’t, evidently. So, what happened?
Decline and Fall
What happened was mirrored across the distilling landscape of Ireland, as all but a handful of distilleries slid down the same spiral towards the inevitable mothballs and eventual demolition balls. Competition from the cheaper Scottish blends proved too harsh, that ‘noble experiment’ of Prohibition cancelled out the important US markets, and there was the instability following the Irish War of Independence. Roe & Co. didn’t even make it as far as the Great Depression that did for so many other Irish businesses. Thomas Street Distillery closed for good in 1926, many of the buildings were pulled down, and the site was eventually bought up by Guinness (now owned by Diageo) in 1948.
All that remains today is the distillery windmill - aka St. Patrick’s tower, built in 1857, once the tallest smock windmill in Europe, and also a large, ancient pear tree that stands next to the tower. Planted in 1850, it is said to be Ireland’s oldest fruit-bearing tree. It still produces pears; the head distiller from a nearby distillery told me he gets a few off it most years.
Diageo Back in the Frame
In 2014, Diageo swapped (yes - swapped!) Bushmills for the remaining 50% share in Jose Cuervo’s tequila company Don Julio (they already owned the other 50%), thus throwing in the towel as far as Irish whiskey was concerned - apparently for good. But it wasn’t to be so. Diageo’s interest resurfaced a few years later with the announcement of plans to re-enter the fray. It raised a few eyebrows at the time, but the plans could only be seen as a good sign. Since one of the biggest drinks companies in the world was prepared to invest €25 million in a start-up Irish distillery, it demonstrated a pretty confident outlook in the category in general.
Diageo opted to use an old Guinness power station just across from the brewery, built in 1948 on Thomas Street near the site of Roe’s original plant. The distillery opened on 21st June, 2019, so becoming distillery No. 4 on what has now become a veritable Liberties Whiskey Trail.
The power house, closed since the 1990s, is a redoubtable, art-deco, triple-chimney, sturdy block of a building, with some of the enormous, original machines left in situ. Far better than building a new designer still house and visitors’ centre, it gives Roe & Co. a sense of place, of identity, as if, in a way, it has always been here. It is a beefy, sturdy, don’t-mess-with-me sort of building, and at first sight it looks as if anything could come out of the doors here - whiskey, cast iron, fire engines, whathaveyou …
A Distillery Reborn
I join one of the visitor experience tours that takes us round this most industrial, functional, but very stylishly renovated space. We are informed that olympia barley from Athy is milled on site and mashed in a 3-tonne mash tun, fermented to a 8.3% wash in a 14,000-litre wooden washback - the traditional wood is said to give the wash a fruitier style that suits a long fermentation - 100+ hours in this case, for the maximum of fresh fruit esters.
Roe’s triple stills sit by the front windows, you can see them from the street as you go past. The wash still is particularly striking, with its peculiarly high boil ball that I’m told was salvaged from part of an 1860s Galway gin still. That must make it the oldest working still in the world, in part at least. That part has apparently done the rounds of 5 distilleries in its working life, having been even used as a plant pot at one stage, and you have to say it looks no worse for wear.
Our group is treated to an interesting olfactory experience in the stylish 106 Room around the pear-shaped table, with the basic smells that can be found in whiskey. There are a few books on the shelves around us; I spot a copy of Whiskey Burn up there too – proving that these people have taste. The 106 Room is so named because it was prototype 106, no less, that master blender Carolyn settled on as the one for Roe’s initial release, in collaboration with colleagues from the bar trade. A whiskey that would shine through cocktails was the aim, and the 45% prototype No. 106, was the one they settled on. It must have been quite an evening.
The tours are engaging for experts, curious tipplers and novices alike. One of our group asks the guide at what point they add the flavourings to the whiskey. “No, no”, she says, “there’s nothing added”. But that’s not to say you can’t add whiskey to other things, is it? Next door, or rather across the glass walkway that overlooks the production area, is a kind of taste workshop where we all don pinafores and are instructed by our guide in the art of mixing cocktails. Tastes such as sweet, sour, umami, and so on are selected, with lemonade and I forget what else, but it is all very interesting. I admit I have no idea how to mix or what to put into a cocktail, but the end result turns out to be pretty drinkable, though I say it myself.
Head distiller Lora meets me for a chat in the designer bar that looks out onto the industrial machinery of the power station - the past - with the brand-new distillery - the present and future - that I have just been through at my back. Lora’s engaging enthusiasm and excitement at the once-in-a-career-time opportunity she has been given in this wonderful, iconic building in the heart of Dublin’s ‘golden triangle’ of whisky making comes through as she speaks. She heads an all-female distilling team that could produce anything up to half a million LPA per year, and by the looks of the set-up here I think they won’t have any trouble doing that.
What Lora and her colleagues are producing is all destined for the pleasantly designed Roe & Co. bottles. Look carefully and you’ll notice that the sides of the bottle are tapered, to represent the sloping sides of the windmill. The whisky, as mentioned before, is designed to be drunk both neat and as a sound basis for cocktails, with vanilla notes from the bourbon refill cask, and fruity notes from the long fermentation with, in particular, notes of, you guessed it - pear.
The pear tree logo appears on the Roe & Co. bottles, representing growth, fruitfulness, continuity over the ages, and don’t miss the embossed pear on the base, symbolising the foundations of the modern distillery - or maybe that’s taking it a bit too far. But it is incredible to think that back in 1926 the tree was already over seventy years old when the Roes were distilling the last drops of their historical pot still whiskey, before finally closing the door for the last time and turning out the lights.
Perhaps the Roes might never have dreamed it, but in the nearby power house, after getting on for a century, the lights are most definitely back on.