In 2017, contemporary whiskey brand Roe & Co was launched. Its name serves to pay homage to a forgotten distiller that was once the largest in Ireland. Hailed as a pioneer during the golden age of Irish whiskey, we take a look at the history of George Roe & Co Distillery and its intersections with the Guinness family.
George Roe may no longer be a household name, but during the heyday of Irish whiskey he was famous for his part in bringing the export to the international stage. The story began when in 1757 Peter Roe purchased a small distillery south of the River Liffey on the north side of Thomas Street. Just two years later Arthur Guinness would sign the famous 9,000-year lease for St James’s Gate Brewery. The Guinness founder lived in No. 1 Thomas Street from 1759 to 1764, which means he would have seen the Roe Distillery directly from his window.
By 1766, Peter Roe’s son Richard would run the business which continued to operate next to its neighbours: the Guinness brewery and the Jameson and John's Lane distilleries. Growing success resulted in an expansion to South Earl Street. Going from strength to strength, in 1832 George Roe inherited the business alongside the nearby Pimlico distillery. He combined the premises into one large distillery and would go on to lease two more premises, making George Roe & Co Distillery the largest in the world by the 1880s in terms of output. It wasn’t long before it was known as one of the ‘Big Four’ distilleries in Dublin alongside, John Jameson, William Jameson, and John Power. Altogether, they had a capacity of producing over 22.5 million litres of whiskey.
The Guinness and Roe families and enterprises co-existed as neighbours for hundreds of years during their trade. Titans of their industries, one might expect that the two businesses saw each other as rivals. However, that wasn’t the case. One incident even suggests that Roe was a political supporter of the Guinness’ in Dublin city politics. In 1850, George Roe nominated Arthur Guinness’ grandson as Lord Mayor of Dublin.
During the 1860s and 1870s, Benjamin Lee Guinness and Henry Roe (the grandson of George Roe) did appear to publicly ‘battle’ – but for a good cause. They engaged in a sort of philanthropy competition within the Dublin area. Benjamin financed the badly needed restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral between 1860 and 1865. Not to be outdone, the nearby Christchurch Cathedral was subsequently restored between 1871 and 1878 thanks to donations from one Henry Roe.
But the market would turn sour for Irish whiskey exports. At its peak in the 19th century, Irish whiskey accounted for 70% of the international whiskey market. Despite its booming popularity during the previous decades, the 1900s saw an increased interest in Scottish whisky abroad. On top of this, the Irish whiskey market abroad suffered two colossal blows; first by Prohibition in the US market and then bans on exports to the British market during the War of Independence and Civil War. As a result, the George Roe & Co Distillery was forced to close its gates in 1926.
Its legacy however lives on and Roe & Co whiskey is now distilled in the former Guinness Power Station where you can enjoy the finest whiskey tasting experience. Just a stone’s throw away from the site of the original George Roe & Co Distillery, it is within sight of the old distillery’s sole remaining features: the windmill tower and the pear tree bears fruit to this day (it's one of the oldest fruit bearing trees in Ireland).