Whiskey in the jar is now a collector's item
Nineteenth-century Dublin was the whiskey powerhouse of the world. The city's half dozen distilleries produced 10 million gallons every year; one gallon in seven of all those produced in the British Isles. The top distilleries - both in quantity and quality - were the "Dublin Big Four": George Roe (established 1757), William Jameson (1779), John Jameson (1780), and John Power (1791). Pot still whiskey from these four distilleries was considered the finest in the world and the benchmark for all other whiskeys.
"Just as the names of Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini give Italian motor cars a cachet far beyond that of the bulk-selling Fiat saloons, so the great Dublin distillers of the mid-19th century bestowed on the whole Irish whiskey industry a reputation," writes Brian Townsend, author of The Lost Distilleries of Ireland, (1997-1999). "Scotch, at that time, tended to be the poor relation."
Of Dublin's Big Four, George Roe Whiskey was the oldest and eventually became the largest. It began in 1757, when Peter Roe bought a small distillery on Thomas Street. Between 1757 and 1832, the business passed through the hands of many family members, during which time Nicholas Roe founded another distillery on Pimlico Street. Then, in 1832, George Roe took over both distilleries and brought them together to form a larger complex.
By 1887, George Roe & Co Distillers of Thomas Street was the largest distillery in Europe. It covered 17 acres with eight pot stills, producing more than two million gallons of whiskey a year, and employed 200 workers of every skill and trade, including 18 coopers to make and repair barrels. George Roe whiskey was highly regarded, but not quite in the same league as that of the John Jameson or Power distilleries. Now, it's one of the rarest Irish whiskeys in the world.
"Unfortunately, these bottles were just drunk and not saved," says Bryan Mee, auctioneer. A bottle of whiskey made in the 1890s by George Roe whiskey of Thomas Street in Dublin (est €6,000 to €12,000) is coming up for auction at Victor Mee's Irish Connection sale of May 8 and 9. "It's been well cared for and kept out of sunlight so the bottle itself is in excellent condition. There's only a little bit of evaporation. The artwork on the bottle is fabulous - it shows the Thomas Street Distillery and it's a lovely thing to look at."
Mee has only been able to confirm the existence of two other bottles of its kind, one in Belfast and the other in the US. Both are owned by private collectors. This one comes from the Northern Irish collector, Des McCabe, and has been in private ownership for a very long time.
By the end of the 19th century, the Golden Age of Irish Whiskey was drawing to a close.
"The Scots - harnessing their legendary sense of thrift and efficiency - had found a way to make a palatable whiskey more cheaply and eventually elbowed the Irish whiskey distillers out of the market," Townsend writes. In 1889, George Roe & Co Distillers joined William Jameson & Co and the Dublin Whiskey Distillery (DWD) to form a trading unit called the Dublin Distilling Company Ltd. Each distillery continued to market its own whiskey under its own name. They continued to produce whiskey until 1926, leaving large quantities of unsold stock. In the mid-1940s, Geo Roe & Co Distillers dissolved and the site was taken over by Guinness. Now, the most visible reminder of the former Thomas Street distillery is Saint Patrick's Tower, a brick-built windmill that was constructed in 1757 and believed to be one of the oldest surviving smock windmills in Europe.
The sale will also include a 1940s JJ & S Liqueur Dublin Irish Whiskey, a blend of 100pc John Jameson whiskey, distilled and bottled by John Jameson & Son Ltd (est €800 to €1,200). It comes in a hexagonal bottle with a label that states "Not a Drop is Sold till it's Twelve Years Old". This particular bottle was imported into the United States by WA Taylor & Co, New York and was probably brought back to Ireland as a gift by a distant cousin of the vendor. Like the George Roe whiskey, this bottle also shows some evaporation due to age. Over the past two years, Bryan Mee has noticed a surge of interest in Irish whiskey at auction, with enquiries about the George Roe bottle coming in from as far away as China. "Collecting whiskey is a very male hobby," he says, "but there's also a lot of interest among publican and distilleries wanting to assume a collection for display in their visitor centre." Diageo is due to launch a new blended Irish whiskey, Roe & Co in June 2019. The whiskey is named in honour of George Roe and made at the new St James's Gate distillery, just a stone's throw from where George Roe & Co Distillers once stood.
The Irish Connections Collectors Sale will take place at Victor Mee Auctions, Cloverhill, Belturbet, Co Cavan. Viewing from tomorrow to Tuesday.