Deep in the green county of Meath just 45 minutes away from Dublin, on a natural curve of the River Boyne, sits an ancestral Castle famed for its rock concerts! Forming a natural amphitheatre and with links to the designer Capability Brown, the grounds of Slane Castle have played host to everyone who is anyone in the world of Rock and Roll, from Thin Lizzy, U2 to Guns n Roses – to name just a few. In the early 1980’s the Conyngham family who have inhabited and looked after Slane castle since the 1700’s decided to diversify and host music concerts in their grounds to help fund the upkeep of the castle. Indeed in the early 90’s a large portion of the Castle was damaged and almost destroyed by fire. Yet through their perseverance and attracting the biggest names in rock and roll the castle was rebuilt to its former glory.
In the last decade this diversification has expanded to include building their own distillery and producing whisky (well almost!). A few weeks ago we were invited over to Slane Castle to meet its owners in both the Conyngham and Brown-Forman families and have a tour of the distillery nearing completion. Sited just a 100 yards or so from the castle itself is a double quad stable block, famed in its former glory days as the residence of many a famous racehorse, and before that for housing the working horses and agricultural equipment that would have been used on the castle estate. We were first led into the double story Quad, slightly more modern with distinctive architectural notes that belie Brown’s (Capability that is) involvement in its design. A hive of activity greeted us at construction is undertaken at pace to ready this magnificent building into its new purpose.
We are directed to the old grain and feed storage areas which are planned to be a tour hub and shop with above it a miniature malting/kilning area for educational/demonstration purposes and below that an old stable block destined to become an end of tour tasting bar.
Directly opposite where the old stable managers offices would be we step into a void soon to be filled with a wooden washback and out the back of the old building into a completely new addition housing a mashtun, mash filter (for grain whiskey production), hot water storage tanks and heat exchangers, where Alex explains the various processes involved. Not shown he describes their 6 roller adjustable grain mill built to handle both the tougher unmalted barley for pot still production as well as the softer malted barley for Malt production.
Through the first quad and into the second we peak a glimpse of copper pot stills shoe-horned into areas previously used to store horse-carts and farming equipment. Up a set of stone stairs into the stillhouse we get a better view of the three copper-pot stills, handmade at McMillans of Prestonpans. Here Alex Conyngham regales us the story of sleepless nights immediately after paying for the stills in full so as not to lose their place in the several year long waiting queue for their construction! The two wash stills and 1 spirit still have unusually slender and deep pots to fit within the confines of the building and line arms punch straight out through the ancient oak-beamed roof terminating in mid-air awaiting tube-in-shell vertical condensors yet to be fitted. The upper portions are hand beaten and have reflux inducing necks or a complete boil ball in the case of the spirit still to refine the vapours leaving them and produce lighter spirit for maturing into whiskey. Leaving the stillhouse we glimpse the column stills to be used for grain whiskey production on the same site.
Back down the stairs and into the single story (original) stable quad built ~ 1720’s we are told this area was originally used for the craftsmen that ran the estate, the blacksmiths and carpenters etc.
Here a small cooperage is planned where barrels can be rebuilt and reconditioned, a tiny warehouse No.1 to display the effects of wood maturation, potential yeast labs and more besides – all with the backing of experience from Brown-Forman. Out of the second quad we are greeted by a wooden-clad building that will be used for green energy. Pot ale, dark grains and other waste products not suitable for agricultural recycling will be used in a biomass boiler to directly heat the collected rainwater and directly provide all waters for fermentation and sugar extraction in the distillery, creating a huge saving in energy costs whilst cooling water is provided by the ample River Boyne flowing through the estate.
The result is an odd mixture of traditional and old backed by ultra-modern and new working in harmony to produce Malt, Pot Still and Grain whisky at Slane distillery, with a current estimated operational date of August 2017. A lot of work is still to be done but the major equipment has arrived and a clear vision of how it will look & operate once finished were obviously clear in Alex’s mind. With a background in Biochemisty during his studies at Trinity College in Dublin, Alex has a great understanding of the brewing and distilling processes and more importantly where the natural elements of it will lend a unique flavour to the planned Slane Whiskey. During the tour I received an insight into how Alex is aiming to produce a whisky-lovers whisky at Slane Distillery. A view compounded by his father Henry Mountcharles the eighth Marquess Conyngham as he greeted us back in the foyer of Slane Castle after our tour of the distillery works.
Many thanks to The Conyngham Family, Brown Forman and Eulogy PR