Whiskey in the jar – A brief history of the original Sligo Distillery
Source credit: Jim McSharry via Sligo Photos and Postcards

Whiskey in the jar – A brief history of the original Sligo Distillery

Hazelwood House, an eighteenth-century Palladian house situated a few kilometres outside Sligo town, overlooks the shores of Lough Gill. The house was designed by the famous German architect Richard Cassells, who was commissioned by the local landlord Owen Wynne in the 1730s. In the last few years, Hazelwood house has undergone a rebirth as the home of a new whiskey on the market called Áthru which is produced in the craft distillery centre (formerly the Snia and Saehan factories) on the Hazelwood demesne. There are plans to conserve the house and open a visitor centre. In this blog post, we take a look back at the history of one of Sligo’s original distilleries. In the nineteenth century, Sligo had gained a reputation for producing high-quality ale and whiskey.  At one point, there were several breweries and distilleries operating in Sligo, one of these was the Sligo Distillery

The new home of whiskey in Sligo - Hazelwood House

Hazelwood House circa 1890s - Lawrence Collection - NLI.ie

Brief History
In this sketch of Riverside, from circa 1870, the distillery buildings and the weir are visible in the centre and the thatched cottage to the left of the sketch was part of Riverside street, the Abbey tower to the left is also visible.

The Sligo Distillery, Riverside c.1870 -  Source credit: Merchant Princes of Sligo/SligoLibrary.ie

This Sligo postcard, from about the turn of the 19th century, depicts Riverside with the distillery buildings to the right of the postcard.

Source credit: Jim McSharry via Sligo Photos and Postcards

According to local history and as referenced in the book Streets of Sligo, by Fiona Gallagher, the Sligo Distillery or Martin’s Distillery was established by Abraham Martin in 1813 and Martin’s Whiskey became popular nationwide in 1821 when King George IV on a visit to Ireland, sampled Martin’s Irish Whiskey.

King George IV  - Credit: Henry Bone [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The ordnance survey map from 1837, shows the Sligo distillery in the Abbeyquarter north district, (highlighted in yellow).

1830s Ordnance Survey map of Abbeyquarter area in Sligo town.

History of owners in  the 19th century:

After the Sligo distillery on Riverside ceased trading in 1845, Abraham Martin leased the distillery buildings to Alderman Jeremiah O’Donovan, where it continued as a distillery.   In Slater’s commercial trade directory from 1846, brothers Jeremiah and John O’Donovan are listed as Distillers at the Sligo Distillery.  They ran it for a few years and by 1852, Jeremiah had put an advertisement in the local newspaper, and had started to sell off the distillery equipment and by 1854, after Abraham Martin had passed away, his son and heir, Captain Martin, put the property up for public auction. The distillery buildings were then bought by Robert Culbertson, who also owned the Sligo Mills at Ballysadare, County Sligo.  By 1862, Robert Culbertson had died and the distillery buildings passed to his wife Agnes Culbertson and their son, Robert Spencer Culbertson.

The old distillery buildings continued in use, the buildings catering to various other businesses for the next 140 years. Although some of the warehouses on the site, which had been used as a corn mill, stores, and malt house, were demolished over the years, the original site remained mostly unchanged up to the Riverside development in 1998.

In the 1950s, the main distillery building was used as a Cold Storage business and then in the last 20 years before the site was levelled in the late 1990s, businesses in operation on the old distillery site, ranging from a bicycle repair workshop, motor factors business, garage, and the original distillery building was then used as tools and equipment storage business.

Architectural Heritage

Sligo is rich in history and has many examples of Victorian architecture both large and small throughout the town. This modest mill race is all that remains of the original Sligo distillery building, on the Riverside in Sligo. This is an example of a 19th-century mill race, which was the channel for the water that drove a mill wheel on this site. A mill race or millrun is the current of water that turns a water wheel.

According to the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, this is a double span stone mill race built in the mid 19th century and was once part of the distillery. It is made of rubble stonewalling to spandrel and segmental arches with tooled voussoirs.

 

19th Century mill race with Riverside hotel in the background
A 19th-century mill race
View of Millrace from the back looking down from The Mall

Where the Millbrook apartments and Riverside hotel are now located, was the original site of the Sligo distillery buildings.  Before the Riverside hotel was built circa 1998, the old stone building occupied this site, which had been part of the distillery.  The street leading down to the Riverside, was called Distillery lane after the distillery, the name fell out of use and it is now part of Abbey Street, although the apartment complex,  that was built in the 1990s along this part of the street, opposite St Joachim’s terrace, has been called Distillery Court, helping to keep the original name in existence.

Photo Credit: Isisbridge via Flickr

old Sligo - Garavogue River

I grew up on Riverside and this is how I remember it.  As can be seen in this lovely photo taken by Isisbridge on a visit to Sligo in 1984.

When researching about the old Sligo distillery building on Riverside, I discovered through Jim McSharry’s Sligo post card site, some interesting local history and found this charming old photo of the old distillery building from the 1950s, taken by Alfie Carroll.

Riverside Cold Store circa 1952

Riverside Cold Storage building circa 1950's

Photo Credit: Alfie Carroll Copyright by kind permission of Frank Carroll

Alfie’s son, Frank Carroll recounted, “Alfie Carroll bought the old water mill in the late 40’s.  It had been an old distillery & had a defunct undershot waterwheel fed by the archway you can see in the photograph.  Alfie restored the waterwheel and used it to generate his own electricity and to drive the cold store compressors.  Riverside Cold Store stored meat, fish, veg and distributed Merville Cream Ices from circa 1952 to 1960 when Alfie retired.”

As seen in this photograph below, George Holmes sells Sligo’s Merville Ice cream wafers to children, in the yard in front of Riverside Cold Store. The houses seen opposite are the row of four St Annes Terrace houses that face onto Riverside beside St Asicus Terrace. This section where the van is parked is now the walkway next to the Riverside hotel that leads onto the John Fallon pedestrian footbridge.

Children buying Ice cream at Riverside Sligo in the 1950's

Photo of the Riverside Mill cog wheel that Alfie Carroll restored.

Frank Carroll explains,  “this photo is of the waterwheel drive axle projecting into the old brewery building.  When Alfie Carroll bought the building in the late 40’s he resurrected the water wheel to provide electricity for Riverside Cold Store.”

What a great accomplishment, by Alfie Carroll, to restore the old mill wheel, I’d love to have seen it in operation back in the day.  The old black and white photo really captures how nice and quaint the old building was, although in the later years it was looking more neglected. It is disappointing that the original old main stone building couldn’t have been saved and converted when the new riverside development was being built in the late 1990s. When you see how the old Lough Gill brewery building on Kempten Parade, off Bridge-street, was renovated into the Velvet Nightclub and lately the Anderson Restaurant, while the original stone structure and outer facade of the building have been preserved.

The Riverside hotel reopened in 2015 after lying empty for several years and has breathed life back into the Riverside area, they have a nice rustic bar called the Mill which has old signs on the walls and invokes memories of the old corn store and mill business that once stood on this site.  Next time you’re nearby, take a stroll along the Riverside and stop and admire the old nineteenth-century millrace, the last remnant of the Sligo distillery.

Sources:

Newspaper Archives

Sligo Journal

Sligo Champion

Jim McSharry’s Sligo Collection

Streets of Sligo by Fiona Gallagher (2008)

Sligo Library

National library archives – visit of King George IV

Flickr 

Lawrence Collection – NLI.ie

NIAH.ie

First published in 2015 with revisions in 2017 on melcoo.com. Republished on 22nd August 2020 on SligoWalkingTours.com/blog