Irish Mist Liqueur: a unique Tullamore product, and now a chance to talk, recall and publish recollections. We need your help.

For about forty years Tullamore was home to the production, bottling and marketing of a world-class product, Irish Mist liqueur. The background to the project to establish a whiskey-based liqueur came from English contacts of the Williams distillery company, B. Daly, and arose out of the scarcity of whiskey in England as the war came to an end in 1945. By late 1947 production of the liqueur compound – a mixture of honey, sugar and whiskey – commenced in Tullamore. Sales were good initially, but with the return of competitors to the market, such as Drambuie, and difficulties with the English shareholders progress slowed.

The good news is that with the support of Creative Ireland and Offaly County Council we are on an excursion to find out what made Irish Mist a product distributed worldwide and using the best designs for packaging. It was all started in Tullamore in 1947 so you can help fill in the gaps. We want to hear from people with memories. We want to record it in book form while there are people who can give first-hand accounts. You have a story to tell and you may have pictures. Please contact John Flanagan, Ardan Heights, Brian Jaffray or Michael Byrne. Why not email us or call to Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore. The work on the project has now started so get in early with your contribution of a memory or a picture.

Desmond Williams, a grandson of the founder of the firm was with the product from the start. He concentrated his sales skills on the wealthy Irish in America and by 1953 had established a small market there. It was his famous father-in-law, Oliver St. John Gogarty, who introduced Irish Mist to the U.S. when he personally conveyed four miniatures to a trade agent there in late September 1949, by way of samples of the new product.[1] Later, it was Irish connections such as that with Jim Costello (formerly of Ferbane, Offaly) and owner of a unique bar and restaurant in New York with an avant-garde clientele who gave an order for two cases and was willing to take another eight of a small shipment in 1950.[2

The early days link with Savermo. Product of Eire and we could add ‘the old warehouse Tullamore’.

All though the 1950s Desmond Williams zealously cultivated connections in the United States and later in England in an effort to promote both Irish Mist and Tullamore Dew. Desmond Williams visited the U.S. and Canada in 1953 and managed to secure useful publicity in some of the leading newspapers including the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune.98   Sales of Irish Mist in the U.S. went from 20 cases in 1951 to 4,000 in 1958. It was all about promotion and getting the product mentioned and associated with the better-off Irish Americans. The work of Williams in those years in promoting Irish whiskey in the States is a story in itself. His friends, the Costello brothers from Ferbane, were also good at promoting their New York pub as is clear from a piece in the Irish Independent in 1956. This period has been evoked in the television series, Mad Men, and in Ireland is known through the work of Maeve Brennan.

One Irish bar will be the hangout of college boys and girls, another of race-track people who find Broadway bars phony and gaudy. Some bars have old Irish customers who like their beer room temperature and their arguments anything above that. Several are favoured by journalists, others by advertising men. Each tends to be slightly exclusive, its patrons inclined to look down on others. The Third Avenue bars are the nearest equivalent in this country to the English or Irish pub – a man’s home away from home. One of the most renowned of the Third Avenue bars is Costello’s at 44th Street. It is run by two brothers, Joe and Tim, who were born in County Offaly, Ireland. Tim preceded his brother to this country and got a job as a bartender. Sometime after repeal (as he tells the story it would appear to have been only a day or two after) Tim opened his bar on Third Avenue and wrote Joe to join him. Some people think the Costellos owe their success to the Martini or as Tim calls it, “the Martini cocktail.”  Until Tim Costello brought his gentle elegance to Third Avenue (he is the only bar owner on the avenue known to wear Brooks Brothers suits), the Martini, to most Third Avenuers, was an effete tipple. But Costello customers wanted the Martini, and Tim obliged, reluctantly, even to the extent of serving Martinis in chilled glasses, a volcanic revolution to Third Avenue. [3]

At the time Desmond Williams decried the American habit of serving his beloved Tullamore Dew whiskey and Irish Mist ‘on the rocks’, but he probably soon learned to keep this opinion to himself. At home the Williams connections in the wine and spirits trade were essential to getting Irish Mist eventually established as the best-selling liqueur in Ireland. Sales of the product in England and its general advancement in the 1950s was hampered by poor relations with the English shareholders in the company and not resolved until these founding shareholders were bought out in 1962. The following year Desmond Williams appointed a new agent in the U.S., Hublein Inc., and that turned out to be a key decision as sales went from 5, 675 cases in 1963 to 23,000 in 1970. Like Tullamore Dew the Irish Mist product was also promoted in Europe and was bottled in Germany for a time, but Williams resisted a suggestion in the mid-1960s that it be bottled in the U.S.

Made in Tullamore save for the Waterford liqueur glass

Increased sales led to the building of the new head office for the Irish Mist company in 1966 at Bury Quay, Tullamore. beside the bonded warehouse and also improved production facilities in the mid-1960s and again in 1971. One issue for Williams in the 1960s was the supply of whiskey for Irish Mist. When distilling ceased in Tullamore in 1954 the distilling company, B. Daly, had 0.4m proof gallons of whiskey on hand, but by the early 1960s stocks were low and Power’s distillery was not in a position to supply until 1970.  At the time of the sale of the brand name to Power’s in 1965 all that was left of the Tullamore stock was 60,000 proof gallons. The timely acquisition of the remaining stock of Locke’s of Kilbeggan distillery from Herr Meller of Locke’s in Kilbeggan, in all 50,000 proof gallons, saved the day. Irish Mist liqueur had used up 100,000 proof gallons of whiskey from 1948 to 1965 and would require the same amount for a five-year period to 1970.[4] It was at this time that some research was done as to whether it would be a good idea to reopen the Tullamore distillery. Demand was just not sufficient at the time to make the project viable.

Desmond Williams was responsible for the packaging and design of the Irish Mist product and won many awards for his efforts. The story of  an Austrian distiller (in fact a Jewish and German chemist who fled Germany) was developed in the late 1940s and fine-tuned in 1953 with a Maurice Walsh story (of The Quiet Man) and the secret recipe brought  back from Austria by someone who was a descendant of the Wild Geese.. In the mid-1960s the Irish Mist figurine of an Irish emigre soldier in the Austrian service was developed, following on that of Galliano, and was hugely successful. It is still a proud keepsake today in many Tullamore homes. Desmond Williams was a perfectionist in all he did and drew on the talent of artists such as Louis Le Brocquy when he wanted new designs for the packaging of Tullamore Dew and Irish Mist. He was a demanding employer and as one obituary writer noted not only did he not suffer fools or obstructionists gladly. He never suffered them at all.[5]

All packaging done by hand in Tullamore. Now who was the Austrian soldier returned to Ireland with the recipe for Irish Mist

Desmond Williams died while on holidays in Renvyle, County Galway in July 1970 and did not live to see the completion of the second expansion of production facilities completed in April 1971 and opened by the then minister for industry and commerce, P.J. Lalor. Bill Jaffray now took over the management of the company which he had been associated with since 1947 and had served as a director since 1957. In all he was fifty years with Irish Mist and the guiding hand from 1970. The second expansion programme was completed about 1979 with the building of additional warehouse and production facilities at a cost of £1m. From the 1970s the company employed about eighty people including some key marketing jobs.

The new liqueurs did not just move. Why?

The early Eighties was less buoyant and saw some staff being put on a three-day week. The big surprise came in 1985 when the company was sold to Cantrell & Cochrane and forty jobs went, principally in the bottling section, which would now be done in Clonmel. Only a small staff would remain in Tullamore to concentrate on the blending of the liqueur and the final closure came about 1997. As noted in an article on the Williams firm the demand in the 1980s was for the lighter cream liqueurs such as Baileys (Gilbey’s, 1974) and the Williams Group had not invested in anything more than modest research.

This left vacant buildings in Tullamore and in 1988 Bill Jaffray had the idea of converting some of the offices adjoining the bonded warehouse into an exhibition/heritage centre and exhibitions were held there of the work of Offaly-based artists. In 1991 the large modern warehouse at the canal bank was offered for sale and was purchased by the Offaly Historical Society. Soon after, the Society acquired the adjoining old offices where the exhibitions had been held. The more attractive offices at Offally Street, built in 1966, to a design of Burke Kennedy Doyle, and with the shingle tile roof, were purchased by the Midland Health Board for use a Day Care Centre, in 1986. The great oats store was also sold in the early 1990s for the development of the Texas shop opened in 1995. The developer, Tom McNamara, would later acquire the adjoining buildings and lay the basis for the 2007 plan for a shopping centre on the former Fivestar/Quinnsworth/Tesco site. Planning was granted in 2009 to Inverine Limited, but the recession upset the scheme and the former Irish Mist buildings now lie empty waiting development. What remained in use was the 1897 bonded warehouse which became the Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre in 2000. The building was renewed and upgraded in 2012 by William Grant & Son for the new Tullamore D.E.W. Visitor Centre. This was closed in September 2020 and the visitor facilities at the new distillery upgraded and reopened in 2022. Now the bonded warehouse is open again since December 2022 with the winning duo of Clancy and Lowry.

The Italian made figurine recalling the origins story of Irish Mist, and Grace O’Shaughnessy of course.

The 1966 offices for Irish Mist and now owned by HSE faces on the old canal quay. It was to this building that visitors came from the 1960s to hear about Irish Mist and sample the international brand. When Desmond Williams sold the Tullamore Dew brand to Power’s in 1965 he could never have guessed that it would be back again to Tullamore, fifty years later, with a new distillery and a showcase visitor centre. Irish Mist on the other hand is in need of a new champion. Cantrell & Cochrane bought the brand in 1985 and sold it along with Tullamore Dew in 2010 to William Grant in a €300m deal. Soon after Grant sold Irish Mist, Carolans and Frangelico to Gruppo Campari.[6] A new champion of the calibre of a Desmond Williams or Bill Jaffray (deep pockets and long haul) needs to be found to promote what was once a great product and of which Tullamore people were immensely proud.

Mrs Rita Childers and some well-known Tullamore ICA members with a legendary Tullamore character Tom O’Toole and colleagues. For the life of Mrs Childers and how women were treated by Church and State see Wiki and DIB. The visit of the widowed Mrs Childers was in October 1976. The older records of the Offaly ICA would be great to have in Offaly Archives.

Text: Michael Byrne. Pics Offaly Archives

[1] Box 52, D.J. Williams to F.B. Hall, 23.9.49 and 5.10.49. Gogarty’s first letter stating that he delivered the goods to Hall is not in the file but two letters of Gogarty’s remain. This note is a reference to the Irish Mist archive viewed in the late 1970s. Whether the archive survived the move to Clonmel in the post-1985 period, following the sale to Cantrell & Cochrane and later to William Grant and eventually Campari is not known.

[2] Box 52, F.B. Hall to D.J. Williams, 9.8.50

98 See Irish Mist cuttings book, vol. I (with the author).

[3] Irish Independent, 13/12/1956

[4] OI, 3/4/1965

[5] MT, 8 August 1970 from an obituary written by Peter Luke for the Irish Times.

[6] Press statement from William Grant & Son, 22 Sept. 2010.