Waters Of Life

Human settlements have been built around water for thousands of years. Springs, streams, rivers, harbours – all vital for sustenance, agriculture, transport, and trade. You could argue that part of Midleton’s prosperity as a town came from having two rivers running through it, and being sat alongside an estuary within Cork Harbour. Obviously you might not feel so blessed of late as you stood in your business premises in four feet of brown river water with a side order of whatever was in the drains and sewers of the town. 

As you’d expect from a low-lying town sat on the edge of an estuary, with two rivers running through it, Midleton has flooded in the past, but this was the worst in living memory. This time the Owenacurra – the river which approaches from the north – burst its banks at multiple points and raced through the town to greet the rising waters of the Dungourney river – which arrives into the town from the east. 

There is of course another water source in Midleton, and anyone who partook in the distillery tour would be able to tell you that some of their water comes from an aquifer. The entire region is limestone so underground water is par for the course. If Irish Distillers Ltd (IDL) had any sense that they might be vulnerable, or if there were any records of the distillery flooding in the IDL archives, they showed no sign of it. Local historian Tony Harpur has a great blog post about historic incidents of flooding, many of them very severe. But the problem facing the town, and the producer of Jameson, its most famous product, is that the floods are getting worse. 

The Flood Maps website has a handy tool that allows you to implement various flooding scenarios. The below shows an illustration of the River Flooding Low Probability Scenario for Midleton. This shows the modelled extent of land that might be flooded by rivers in a severe flood event. Low Probability flood events have approximately a 1-in-a-1,000 chance of occurring or being exceeded in any given year. This is also referred to as an Annual Exceedance Probability (AEP) of 0.1%. It also illustrates, to a certain degree, what happened to Midleton recently, and specifically the distillery’s tourism wing – the main entrance to which is marked with an X. 

In July 2020 as Covid gnawed into their global sales, IDL lodged plans to revamp their tourism wing in Midleton. It was a good time to do it – with a pandemic still raging, tourism was off the menu for most people for the foreseeable. The Jameson Heritage Centre, as it was then, had been opened in 1992 and although it had been updated over the years, it was a tad stale in comparison to some overseas distillery experiences. After all, it was the home of so many Irish whiskey brands, not least the gargantuan Jameson, that it deserved a bit of the old razzle dazzle.

Over the following two years it was completely renovated at a cost of €13 million – adding to the cost was the fact that the buildings dated back to 1794; contractors made upgrades to preserve the fabric of the site using like-for-like materials, and with sustainability and efficiency central to the design. New and efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and the retrofit of existing buildings was set to deliver improved energy performance throughout and help reduce the amount of energy used. The switch to LED lighting throughout – close to 1,000 bulbs – was estimated to bring an 80% reduction in consumption of electricity. The design team also manufactured the new experiences’ bar counters and tables from repurposed oak from an old vat situated in Irish Distillers’ Fox & Geese bottling plant in Dublin. 

On September 29th, it opened as the Midleton Distillery Experience to much fanfare. Designed by experiential tour supremos Ralph Applebaum Associates, it offered a world class distillery experience, with multiple aspects – tasting rooms, VIP spaces, a café, restaurant and bar, and sizable gift shop. 

At around noon on October 18th, the river from which they make the whiskey poured through the doors. Soon there was up to a metre of water throughout the ground floor. The working distillery, located on higher ground, was unharmed, although it shut down briefly as a precautionary measure. Below is a photo taken by Guileen Coast Guard at around 3pm on October 18th which shows the distillery site underwater. The red X marks the entrance.

If you zoom in below you can see the waters of the Dungourney river surging through the white archway alongside the main gates of the distillery. This is what that area looked like after the waters receded. 

The problem now isn’t just the potential millions of euro it will cost to refurb the refurb – it’s the fact that IDL’s entire webshop is run out of Midleton Distillery, it’s the fact that in 2025 – a little over a year away – the distillery marks two centuries of whiskey making, and it’s the fact that weather extremes like this are only going to become more common. The last seven years alone saw record breaking winds via Storm Ophelia, record breaking snow from Storm Emma, and now record breaking rainfall – a month’s supply in one day – via Storm Babet. The Office Of Public Works’ 2018 flood risk management plan details other lesser flood events in Midleton over the last 15 years, in June 2012 when the lower end of the town near the distillery flooded, in February 2014 when Bailick flooded, and in December 2015 when the rivers burst and flooded the town, with groundwater flooding compounded this and causing the N25 to be closed for a prolonged period between Castlemartyr and Killeagh. But that was only a practise run for the recent floods.

These three examples show a steady progression in terms of severity and impact. There is a €40 million Midleton flood prevention plan in development but it may be years before that is complete, and in the meantime, IDL are planning a second distillery just across the river from their current one.  There is an extensive flood report lodged as part of the planning for it which can be downloaded here

The problem facing all distilleries now is the same as that which is facing so many towns, villages, and cities – that the water which brought life now brings the threat of destruction. You can argue that nobody died in the Midleton floods, but the stress factor combined with the economic impacts of living through something like that will have a severe effect on health, mental and otherwise, within the community. Midleton distillery laid off tourism staff after the flood – no visitors centre meant no jobs, and with up to 58 people working in the tourism wing, that is a blow to those people as individuals but to the area as a whole (IDL say all layoffs were seasonal and that it was only a small number who were let go).

Small firms across east Cork were damaged or destroyed by the recent floods in the region, but Midleton distillery’s loss was massive. Following queries about the microdistillery and archives, a representative had this to say:

“The Irish Distillers archive was not damaged following the flooding of October 18th, 2023. Given the significance of the records in the archival repository, Irish Distillers has plans in place to ensure the protection of the archive in the event of a disaster, including extreme weather events such as the one Midleton experienced in October.

“While the micro distillery was affected by the flooding, the damage was not significant.

“The production side of the business was unaffected and continues to operate as normal.”

Going forward the issues facing Midleton will be the same ones facing any low-lying distillery, which given their preference for a nearby water source, is many of them – even the historic distilling site of Clashmore flooded on Octover 18. There are modern distilleries in lock-ups and barns that can be moved, but there are others that were put in place, alongside rivers or next to estuaries, at a cost of millions. Not everyone can run to the hills. Sustainability has been a byword for the industry in the last decade, but that won’t stop the situation we are currently in, where distilleries are under threat from the very thing that sustains them. 

If you want to see what the brand new Midleton Distillery Experience looked like before it was annihilated, Barry Chandler has an excellent video of it on Instagram

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