History Of Irish Whiskey

"George Roe & Co. Distillery"
My special thanks to Mícheál D. Roe, Ph.D. for taking time to compile and submit the following information:

George Roe and Company had its beginning in 1757 when Peter Roe bought a small distillery on Thomas Street in Dublin. This Thomas Street Distillery was powered by the largest smock windmill at that time in all Europe. Today the windmill's tower still stands and graces the Dublin skyline, blue capped with copper sheeting and a wind vane in the likeness of St. Patrick. It is known as St. Patrick's Tower, and it is located on what is now Guinness property. In fact, it was two years after Peter Roe established the Thomas Street Distillery, that Arthur Guinness set up his famous St. James' Gate Brewery across the street. Given that they were close neighbors, and that they shared the complementary callings of producing a fine whiskey and a fine stout, one would readily assume that they shared professional admiration for one another. Apparently, that was not so. Over the years, generations of the Guinness family considered their stout to be the "nurse of the people," while they considered spirits (e.g., Roe whiskey) to be the "curse of the people." In contrast, I would venture that generations of the Roe family magnanimously enjoyed both Guinness stout and Roe whiskey.

In 1766 Richard Roe took over the Thomas Street Distillery, and in 1784 Nicholas Roe founded a separate distillery on Pimlico Street, a few blocks away. In 1832 George Roe took over both the Thomas Street and Pimlico distilleries. He consolidated and expanded these distilleries into quite a large complex. The resultant organization became known as George Roe & Company or Geo. Roe & Co., Distillers. George Roe's sons Henry and George Jr. took over the company in 1862, and by 1887 it had been built into the largest distillery in Europe. At that time the Thomas Street Distillery covered seventeen acres, and Geo. Roe & Co., Distillers were producing two million gallons of whiskey annually. Roe whiskey had a large and important export to the United States, Canada, and Australia.

During this heyday of Geo. Roe & Co., Henry Roe applied a substantial portion of the Roe distillery wealth to the restoration of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the building of the attached Synod Hall (today housing the tourist attraction, Dublina). Between 1871 and 1878, he donated the astronomical sum of 220,000 to 250,000 pounds (equivalent today to approximately 25,000,000 U.S. dollars). Following its restoration, a new thoroughfare was cut in the vicinity of Christ Church, and although it was named "Lord Edmund Street", a local witticism at the time was "Roe Row".

In 1889 Geo. Roe & Co., Distillers, joined William Jameson & Co. and the Dublin Whiskey Distillery (better known as D.W.D.) to form a trading unit called the Dublin Distilling Company, LTD. Each distillery continued to market its own whiskey under its own name and mark.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries defined a very difficult period for the whiskey industry in Ireland, and the Roe distillery was no exception. Competition from Scottish blended whiskies, prohibition in the United States, and social and economic instabilities in Ireland caused many distilleries to fail. By 1926 Geo. Roe & Co., Distillers and its two partners had ceased producing whiskey, although they still possessed large quantities of unsold stock in storage. In the mid 1940's the Limited Company dissolved, and Geo. Roe & Co., Distillers was no more. Finally, in 1949 Guinness took over the site of the old Roe Thomas Street Distillery.

During the early decades of the Thomas Street Distillery in Dublin, another line of the same Roe family established a distillery in New Ross, Co. Wexford, the Roe and Fletcher Distillery. Over the years the Roes became the sole proprietors and their operation came to include a brewery as well. In 1832 the Roes sold the complex to an established brewing family, the Cherrys. Today Cherry's Breweries Ltd is part of The Waterford Brewery and under the Guinness Ireland Group.

Barnard, A. (1887). The whisky distilleries of the United Kingdom. Reprint: Newton Abbot Devon, Great Britain: David & Charles LTD., 1969.

Irish whiskies: Past and present. (1993). County Wicklow: Little Books of Ireland.

Magee, M. (1980). 1000 years of Irish whiskey. Dublin: O'Brien Press.

McGuire, E. B. (1973). Irish whiskey: A history of distilling, the spirit trade and excise controls in Ireland. Dublin: Gill & MacMillan.

Milne, K. (Ed.) (2000). Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin: A History. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Townsend, B. (1997). The lost distilleries of Ireland. Glasgow: Neil Wilson Publishing.

(Personal Roe family history and genealogy work.)

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