Alcohol production in the Kinsale area began as somewhat of a cottage industry. Beer, which was the cheapest and most widely consumed, enjoyed its golden age in the time of provision ships in the 17th and 18th centuries. Meanwhile, whiskey production evolved from a homemade spirit to become more popular from the late 18th century onwards.
Travel back 500 years and you will find Andrew Browne distilling whiskey, aquavitae as it was known then, on his farm ‘The Black Hills’, located on the high ground to the East of Kinsale. Browne was an official, known as a Burgess, and thus enjoyed a tax free trade in alcohol and malted barley. Upon his death in 1565 his will detailed extensive lands and property including ‘houses, an orchard, a cellar near Kinsale Quay, a brewing pan with its brand iron and a crock for making aquavitae’.
Many of Kinsale’s gentry ran brew houses. In 1633 William Thornton’s will describes his brew house as containing; ‘one furnace, two mashing vats, wort tubs (wort is the liquid extracted from the mashing of barley during the brewing of beer or whiskey) with other small barrels and brewing equipment. 20 empty barrels and a working keeve (fermentation vat).’
Kinsale become a walled town in the 14th century, defending its trade through it’s perfectly sheltered harbour and allowing taxes to be collected at the town gates. The 1657 beer was selling at two pounds per gallon and the tolls collected at the town gates included; ‘out of every bag of hops four pence, out of every barrel of beer one penny, out of every hogshead of wine six pence.’
In the famous Battle of Kinsale in 1601, whiskey once again plays its part in our history. The town was caught in a tense double-siege; 3,500 Spanish soldiers inside the walled town, 6,000 English soldiers on the high ground surrounding them and 7,000 Irish rebels in the countryside beyond surrounding the English.
The Irish and the Spanish were on the same side, thus the English were the vulnerable ‘meat in the sandwich’ between their two enemies. Sir George Carew, the English Lord President of Munster, was recorded sending ‘a bottle of aquavitae’ to Brian Og MacMahon, a sub Chieftain in the Irish camp, in a bid to loosen his tongue and gain information about an imminent Irish attack. The Irish attack was launched the very next day, on the dawn of Christmas Eve, to gain the element of surprise over the English. The English however were somehow ready, and thus won this pivotal battle in Irish history by outmanoeuvring the Irish on the open field in a matter of hours. A furious debate amongst Irish historians still remains; did Irish history turn on a bottle of whiskey?
After this battle the star shaped James and Charles Forts were built to further defend the harbour, which became an attractive provisioning port for English ships. Beer was a big part of this victualling trade. Many sailors in their employment contracts were promised ‘a gallon of beer a day’. Alcohol killed bacteria during their long voyages, so beer was much safer to drink than water. The British Navy Victualling Office was established in World’s End and employed brewers, maltsters, bakers, butchers, coopers, carpenters and blacksmiths. In the 1690’s Edward Hoare, in his capacity as naval victualler, operated a brew house with the capacity to produce 45 tons of beer per week, a potential annual output of 20,000 barrels!
In 1654 regulations for the sale of wine, aquavitae, beer and ale were passed against ‘drunkenness and debauchery’ in the pubs of Kinsale. Some of the names on these old pubs were evocative ; The Kinsale Arms, The Anchor, The Ship in Dock, The Strap & Block, The Three Jolly Sailors, The Black Horse, The Harp and The Liverpool Arms. Many innkeepers produced their own beer for sale on the premises. A fondness for rum also developed in Kinsale, neat or in punch, as it was widely drunk and sold by the New World ships which traded here.
For the upper class the drinks of choice were wine, brandy and claret. The Fitzgeralds of Desmond Castle had developed a lucrative wine trade with Bordeaux by exporting empty oak barrels with staves inside to make more barrels; kits if you like. They traded these for full barrels of fine French wine. In 1703, Frances Rogers, a London Merchant, enjoyed in Kinsale ‘very good French claret at a shilling a bottle.’
In 1805, a man by the name of John Popham was distilling in Kinsale, and paying taxes for that privilege. Kinsale was becoming a more and more popular location for brewing and distilling. In 1818, George Dunne’s Kinsale brewery was valued at £12,000, one of the highest outside of Cork city.
In Belgooly village, just north of Kinsale, a pot still whiskey distillery was opened in the 1870s on the site of an old starch mill and vinegar distillery. Belgooly Whiskey was triple distilled and aged for a minimum of four years and noted to ‘possess a good body and the fine aroma of a fully matured spirit. Its great characteristic being freedom from fused oil.’ This distillery, though now in ruins, is still remembered today by the words of Kinsale poet Philip O’Neil:
We are honoured to continue this legacy of brewing and distilling in Kinsale. With such a rich history it is only fitting that Kinsale is the location of Ireland’s first co-located brewery & distillery, which proudly displays our name – Blacks.