The whiskey distillery at Nun’s Island was certainly built in an ideal location, being so close to such a powerful water source as the River Corrib. According to contemporary sources, the enormous surge of water discharged from this river was strong enough to power all the mills in Manchester. There was also excellent safety features in the five storey complex for that time with water hoses placed throughout the building in case of fire. There was a series of buildings located around the large triangular courtyard of the distillery. The brew house was connected to the still house. This building had three stills capable of holding 10,000 gallons of spirits. The room in which the whiskey was stored contained a 12,000 gallon storage vat. There were also five warehouses around the complex; two of which had five floors. Both of these were devoted to the storage of corn for malting purposes. There was a kiln attached to these buildings. The malt depot was situated at the rear of the general offices. The malt and dried corn was pulverized in the stone loft by means of a water wheel. After the whiskey was produced it was stored close-by until it was ready for delivery by horse and cart. This was the only mode of transport and there were stables for the horses and a cart shed on the premises. Among the additional tradesmen working at the distillery were a smithy, joiner and painters.
The fact that the distillery proved very successful is evident from an annual production of 400,000 gallons of the famous Galway Whiskey by the 1880s. This was also good news for the people of the city and surrounding areas as the distillery employed over one hundred people directly. Many others found employment with the various businesses that supplied the distillery with materials and commodities required to run the business.
Persse’s Galway Whiskey was noted for its quality throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom. It was advertised as the leading whiskey of the day. In a promotion leaflet endorsing the virtues of Persse’s whiskey, there was also condemnation of other whiskey distillers. The management of the Galway distillery stated that their competitors were using sugar, molasses, beetroot and potatoes in the production of a bland spirit. They also accused these distillers of mixing this low cost product with the excellent quality Galway Whiskey and selling it off as their own brand. It was also mentioned that these distillers were also trying to flavour it by using various chemical essences. However, the result was a crude and somewhat harsh that they described as a ‘poisonous liquor’. The leaflet acclaimed the qualities of the Persse’s Galway whiskey and stated that it was produced from home grown Irish barley and using water which for softness and purity was unrivalled. The whiskey produced in Nun’s Island was under constant and close observation by experts in the art of distilling. The statement continued saying that it was little wonder that their whiskey was looked on as an ideal beverage and a ‘safe stimulant and a most valued medicine’.
The quality of Persse’s Galway Whiskey was well-known and sought after throughout the kingdom and was borne out by the fact that in 1882, the average price of a glass of whiskey was 3½ pence; but a glass of ‘Persse’s finest could be sold for 5 pence. However, not all were happy about the success of the distillery. The nineteenth century saw the rise of the Temperance movement, but it seems that some of its members weren’t in favour of a total ban on alcohol. The first meeting of the Galway Temperance Society was held at Kilroy’s Hotel, Eyre Square in 1836. Once the consumption of alcohol was raised as a concern, the meeting was disrupted by a priest who stood up and announced that a glass of whiskey punch a day was acceptable. He also promoted the consumption of ale and wine, but was careful to add that all alcohol should be taken in moderation. The society then offered members two choices; a total abstinence from alcohol or a moderation pledge which allowed a quart of beer, ale or porter or three glasses of wine per day! Despite the best efforts of the Temperance Society, Galway whiskey had continued success.
It was announced in 1898 that ‘Another Triumph for Galway Whiskey’ was achieved by Persse’s of Galway. The company had secured the contract to supply all the Irish whiskey to Crystal Palace for three years. This was a great achievement as they had fought off strong competition from other distillers around Ireland and Scotland. The contract also included a number of other bars and festivals. The report stated that the whiskey supplied at these popular places of entertainment would be of the same age and quality as that they supplied to the gentlemen of the House of Commons. Visitors to Galway said that they were very impressed by the improvements to the town which was a result of the business establishments, including the distillery. In October 1900, The Galway Express newspaper declared that the principle industry of which the citizens of Galway are justly proud was in the manufacture of Persse’s famous whiskey. However, it warned that there was a tendency by Galway publicans to try and sell off their own cheaper brands of whiskey under the Persse label. This practice appears to have continued and caused anger among members of the Persse family. In December 1902 the distillery issued a warning that legal action would follow if people were caught involved in such activity. It is believed that this illegal activity was a contributing factor in the closure of the Persse Distillery in circa 1908.
Over the years memorabilia of the Persse Distillery has become very collectable and indeed valuable. The old bar mirrors with the distinctive image of the distillery in the centre are rare and much sought after. This is the same for their labelled whiskey bottles. In 2002, a bottle of Persse’s Galway Whiskey was advertised as ‘the rarest bottle of whiskey in the world’ and the dealer was willing to sell it off at the right price. According to one source it was valued at £100,000. Some believed that after a number of queries it was eventually sold for a sum close to the asking price.
The estimated value mentioned above seems totally exaggerated when one considers the following account regarding the sale of another bottle of Galway Whiskey. In April 2014, a hundred year old bottle of Persse’s whiskey came up for sale in McTear’s Rare and Collectible Whiskey Auction. It caused a ‘stir amongst spirit collectors across the globe’. It was expected to fetch between £2,000 and £3,000. A representative from the auction house stated that historically it was rare bottles of Scotch malt whiskey that commanded the highest prices at auction, but over recent years, Irish whiskey had begun securing high prices also. They also stated that with prices continuing to rise for rare bottles of spirits, there was no doubt that whiskey continues to have great appeal and also as a ‘long term investment opportunity’.
There are a number of pieces of Persse memorabilia in private collection and some others were displayed in Galway City Museum collection in recent years. The latest venture is the Galway Whiskey Trail which includes Sonny Molloy’s Irish Whiskey Bar, The King’s Head, Blake’s Corner Bar, O’Connell’s, Tigh Neachtain, The Dáil Bar, Freeney’s, McCambridge’s, Garavan’s, Garvey’s and An Pucán.
Events of Note: Some interesting notes of the history of beer in Galway next week.