In the eighteenth century there were quite a number of small distilleries operating in Galway, which was remarkable when one considers how many poitín makers there probably were in the hinterland. A new Government act on distilling in 1779 brought in controls and reduced the number, so that there were only two distilleries here in 1802. Thirty years later, there were four operating in the city... Burke’s Quarter Barrel Distillery was at the end of Quay Street, where Jury’s Hotel is today; Burton Persse had two, one in Newtownsmith and one in Newcastle (Distillery Road ); and the Nun’s Island Distillery was owned by a John Lynch and produced 100,000 gallons per annum. Unfortunately Mr Lynch got into financial difficulties and closed down the business.
Burton Persse bought the premises from the Encumbered Estates Court in 1840 and for a time he operated it as a woollen mill. It quickly became noted for its excellent friezes, but when the trade in this article declined, and when his lease on the Newcastle distillery ran out, he restored the works at Nuns’ Island to their original business. He closed down the Newtownsmith operation and focused all of his energies on enlarging and improving Nuns’ Island. The distillery was on a small island reached by a bridge from the main road. It was a very sophisticated operation and made maximum use of the waters and the power of the waters of the river.
For over 60 years the business thrived. At its peak it was producing 10,000 gallons at 20 over proof per week. Persse employed more than 100 people directly, and there would have been many suppliers and artisans who would have been dependent on the company.
The product they manufactured was called Galway Whisky and was advertised as being “Bottled in Her Majesty’s Bonded Warehouses by the Distillers when 7 or 10 years old. Each case bears the revenue Seal. ...Sold by all Wine and Spirit Merchants. As supplied to the House of Commons”. It was a very popular drink. Persse’s was one of the first distilleries to bottle its own miniatures. It hit the headlines in 2002 when a dealer offered a bottle of Persse’s... the rarest bottle of whiskey in the world... for £100,000. It eventually sold for a figure close to that.
Our first illustration today is of the label of one of Persse’s bottles... sometimes they used the E in whiskey and sometimes they did not. It was an attractive label and featured a slightly exaggerated artist’s impression of the distillery buildings. They also used this image on bar mirrors, one of which you can see in the Galway City Museum together with some other memorabilia.
Our second illustration is of an advertisement which appeared in many newspapers at the beginning of the last century. They obviously took it very seriously when publicans attempted to pass off other whiskies as Persse’s. Indeed, in December 1902, they ended up in court seeking an injunction to restrain a publican who had three establishments in Galway from ‘selling or offering for sale, or otherwise disposing of, or causing to be represented as the manufacture of the plaintiffs, products which were not theirs’. The distillery closed down in 1908, mostly due to competition from the major whiskey brands in Dublin.
In the mid 19th century Nuns’ Island was a kind of industrial hub. There was the above mentioned distillery, Miller’s Bonded Store, John Gray’s factory for making corks, and Palmer’s who had an extensive business which included a flour mill, a bakery where they made the celebrated “Star of the West” bread, and a brewery where they made Palmer’s Porter.