In order to mark the 50th anniversary of the Grand Canal’s closure to commercial traffic in 1959, to celebrate the achievements of the boatmen who worked the commercial boats and to promote the restoration of the Kilbeggan Line, the combined muscles of Cooley Distillery, Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI), Heritage Boat Association (HBA), 107B restoration barge project, Kilbeggan Harbour Amenity Group and the Irish Whiskey Society (IWS); shipped two whiskey casks by canal from Locke's Distillery in Kilbeggan to Dublin for the first time in more than 50 years. This entailed moving the cask down the (still dry) Kilbeggan Line to Ballycommon as this year’s “Kilbeggan Challenge” on Saturday 29th August 2009. There, it met with the HBA fleet heading East and was loaded on to the former commercial canal boat “107B” which transported the cask to Dublin and on to a celebration with the former Canal Boatmen to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the commercial era on the canal. The casks arrived in Dublin on October 5th and were formally welcomed by Dublin's Lord Mayor on the 6th.
Why bother? What's there to commemorate?
We organised this project with three objectives:
In her book "The Grand Canal of Ireland", Ruth Delany recalls that the completion of the Grand Canal from Dublin to the Shannon in 1804 was marked by the carrying of symbolic cargoes to an opening ceremony; imported articles from Dublin, coal from Athy, and Killaloe slate, Lough Allen coal and cattle coming from the Shannon. It seemed appropriate to mark this anniversary by carrying a similar symbolic cargo, and to highlight a neglected part of the Grand Canal, namely the Kilbeggan Line. Moreover, in addition to transporting the cask, firstly down the dry line of the Kilbeggan canal, and from Ballycommon to Dublin by boat, we decided to bottle the whiskey.
The Kilbeggan Line
A canal link to Kilbeggan was first proposed in 1796. However, work only began on a canal in 1830 to link Kilbeggan with Ballycommon on the Grand Canal 5 miles east of Tullamore. The Kilbeggan Line is 8.2 miles (13.2km) long and has no locks. The canal was formally opened in January 1835 although this was a bit premature. It was only in 1836 that commercial traffic commenced.
Among the principal users of the Grand Canal were whiskey distilleries. Boats brought in malted and unmalted grain, coal to fire the stills and oak to make casks. Of course the boats also transported the resulting whiskey to Limerick, Dublin, England and the Empire beyond. In addition to Dublin, the Grand Canal served distilleries at Kilbeggan, Tullamore, Banagher and Monasterevan.
The Kilbeggan line fell into disuse in the late 1940s. As early as 1970, the IWAI were negotiating with the Government and CIE to restore the Kilbeggan Line to use, going as far as seeking a transfer to its care. The Inland Waterways News of April 1970 reported that "The plan for IWAI to take over the Kilbeggan branch in collaboration with the local development association is still active, though no firm decision has yet been reached. IWAI representatives met the Department of Transport and Power on 24 March and doubts were expressed about the Association's ability to maintain the ten bridges. CIE estimate that it would cost twelve thousand pounds to make the branch navigable again, but with volunteer labour IWAI could probably do the job for a quarter of this figure". The Offaly Branch of IWAI, the HBA and the Kilbeggan Harbour Amenity Group have continued to champion the re-watering of this waterway, which, having no locks and no impediments to the navigation right-of-way is relatively straightforward.
End of the Grand Canal's commercial era
With increasing competition from the road and rail network, CIE announced the closure of the Grand Canal to commercial traffic in December 1959. 2009 marks the 50th anniversary. However, contrary to the expectations of 50 years ago, the Grand Canal did not die, primarily due to groups like the IWAI and the individuals who continued to use the canal for leisure purposes and who campaigned to keep it in navigable condition.
The Whiskey - Locke's "Grand Crew" Whiskey:
If you're a return visitor and are interested in getting a bottle, please see here.
OK, so you want to ship a cask of whiskey. But, which one? How does one go about selecting a cask?". To answer this, one should understand a little about whiskey.
The basic ingredients required to make whiskey are water, barley or other grains, good casks and time. Put simply, whiskey is made by distilling a "beer" made from various grains and storing that spirit for three years or more in casks. The process of distillation delivers a clear spirit from the stills. This raw spirit is filled into wooden casks and left to mature for a legal minimum of three years. Over time, the clear spirit takes on the character of the cask in which it is stored. Casks may have been used previously to store bourbon, sherry, port, Madeira or rum. The nature of the cask, temperature, humidity and general storage conditions plus the length of time the whiskey is left to mature determine the nature of the whiskey.
The majority of whiskey sold in Ireland is blended whiskey, being a blend of different styles and ages of whiskey. Typically its a blend of malt whiskey (whiskey made only from malted barley) and grain whiskey (typically made from maize).
Malt spirit is usually put into the cask at a strength of ~64% alcohol by volume (ABV). Since a cask is porous, the spirit interacts with the wood and evaporates a little over time. After 3 years in wood, the spirit legally becomes a whiskey. After 9 years the strength of the whiskey will be down to ~60% alcohol by volume (ABV). Whiskey is typically bottled at 40% ABV. Distilleries (or blenders) simply add distilled water to reduce the strength of the whiskey..
Like the canals, the whiskey trade had its ups and downs over the years. The Brusna distillery was founded in 1757. John Locke took over the distillery in 1843. A description of the distillery as observed by Alfred Barnard in 1887 can be read on the website of the Offaly Historical & Archaeological Society.
The distillery thrived in the late 1800s - at that time, the Irish whiskey industry far exceeded the efforts of our cousins in Scotland. However, a combination of prohibition in the USA, Irish independence, excise policies and changing taste had a devastating effect on the Irish whiskey industry. Production at Locke's ceased on the 19th March 1953 with the distillery closing completely in 1958. However, it was acquired by Cooley Distillery in 1987. Locke's now matures over 11,000 casks of whiskey - a higher number than at any time in its history. Moreover, the distillery has started distilling once again.
Locke's "Grand Crew" Single Malt, Single Cask
For our purposes, we wanted to bottle the contents of a good cask which we would then transport to Dublin by canal. Given that no two casks will ever be the exact same, a careful selection process was required. On May 29th 2009, seven members of the Irish Whiskey Society gathered to select a suitable cask by tasting samples from several casks. After much deliberation (documented here), casks K00/06 no. 696 and 700 were selected. While we originally intended to bottle a single cask, such is the interest that we intend to bottle a 2nd one too. Each is a superb 9-year old malt whiskey, distilled in 2000 and matured at Kilbeggan since then in a first-fill ex-bourbon cask. The whiskey is being bottled as Locke's "Grand Crew" Irish Whiskey. It is a single cask, single malt whiskey. It is being bottled at cask strength (almost 60% ABV) as this is the strength at which whiskey was typically shipped in cask by canal. Cask 694 yielded 149 litres or 216 standard bottles while cask 700 yielded 233 bottles.
Of Cask 696: our tasters found "a fascinating nose, quite floral with hints of peach, apricot and lemongrass, as well as some grassiness" when nosed at 20% ABV. At 40%, the whiskey offered an interesting array of exotic fruits, peaches, apricots, dried pear, almonds, grassiness and some malt. We're honoured that our Locke's "Grand Crew" is included by Jim Murray in his 2010 Whisky Bible - (available in all good bookshops or online from www.dramgoodbooks.com or from Amazon (at right)) and we're truely delighted that the whiskey was well received by him. Jim refers to it as a "near faultless little cracker" and gave it 93.5 points.
Of cask 700: our tasters found it "complex on the nose, offering some citrus notes, leafiness and fruity acetic acid" when nosed at 20% ABV. At 40% the whiskey offered some pepper, apple pie, nuts and pear drops as well as a pleasant oiliness and a malty finish.
Our sincere thanks to Cooley Distillery for their assistance in this project, for supplying us with a wonderful selection of whiskeys to chose from and for permitting us to bottle our casks as a Locke's whiskey.
Where can I get a bottle?
Unfortunately they're all gone at this stage!
July 24th 2010, saw the launch of another special Locke's bottling, Locke's "Premier Crew", in conjunction with the Irish Whiskey Society. It was bottled to mark the occasion of the 50th Shannon Boat Rally - information here. The last of these were sold in 2012.
Click here for more information about the:
Contact the Grand Crew team by: or the individuals named for each organisation here if you have any general queries.
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