The Smithwick’s Experience in Kilkenny town was opened on the 31st July last year and word must have quickly spread abroad because today Visitor Centre Manager Mark McGovern explains that overseas visitors comprise 65% of the total tally visiting the state-of-the-art installation which is well on its way to leaving its trainer wheels by the wayside. The installation provides a complete history of the celebrated brand formerly brewed here before operations were transferred to St James’s Gate. And the Smithwick’s Experience knows how to tell a story.
Story of when
Smithwick’s began life in 1710 although Franciscan monks had been busy brewing on the Smithwick’s site since 1231 making it the oldest brewery in Ireland.
Smithwick’s founder John Smithwick came to Kilkenny to forge a livelihood for himself but the penal laws against Catholics were in full swing at the time so he was unable to own property outright. Instead, he began brewing there with Richard Cole, his protestant partner who leased the land on John’s papish part. The ale that the pair produced went from strength-to-strength saleswise down the years. Between 1850 and 1860 alone volumes rose eightfold from 5,000 to 40,000 barrels under great-grandson Edmond Smithwick.
By 1930 Edmond’s descendant Walter had changed the brand name to Smithwick’s No 1 and advertising for this began to appear on buses, trams and newspapers across the country. It reverted back to its original monicker in the mid-70s.
Walter began exporting to the US too in January 1950 when 84 dozen half-pint bottles found their way to Boston – but never found their way back – to help celebrate St Patrick’s Day.
Strange as it may seem, by 1993 Smithwick’s Ale had become the Number One imported ale in Canada and it’s still exported in large quantities to the US, Canada, France and – wait for it – South Korea.
Story of how
Until the mid-1970s the hops used in brewing Smithwick’s were grown here in Ireland. These days – as they just cannot be got in sufficient quantities here any more – they’re imported. But that doesn’t faze the Smithwick’s brewers one tad for they’ve known other privations through history. For example, during World War II (stubbornly referred to in Irish as ‘The Emergency’) when supplies of sugar and barley ran out, they used beet sugar and oats instead.
However throughout history one thing has remained constant. The original yeast that set off John Smithwick’s first batch of ale in the fermenting vessel back in 1710 is still used today. It just replenishes itself with each passing.
Story of the Smithwick’s Experience
The tour itself utilises the latest in technology to help tell the Smithwick’s story but to avoid pressing into service any spoiler alerts, suffice it to say that visitors will enjoy the quirky nature of the tour while being pleasantly surprised at some of the tour features as they unfold.
Inevitably (and thankfully) with such tours the Experience ends at the tasting bar where the much-anticipated sample pint of Smithwick’s Ale can be quaffed (thank you Simon).
In a knowing nod to the growth in craft brewing, for an extra €6 the Smithwick’s Experience is offering visitors tasting flights of Smithwick’s variants Smithick’s Blonde and Smithwick’s Pale Ale in addition to the original Smithwick’s Ale.
And it’s here in the tasting bar that we meet Paul Smithwick (a direct descendant of progenitor John) who, together with his brother Justice Peter Smithwick, sits on the board of the Smithwick’s company and represent the brewing family today.
However the family’s business interest is somewhat more at arm’s length than it used to be since most of the Smithwick’s company’s shareholding was sold to Diageo’s predecessor Guinness in 1964, explains Paul, a mine of information about the brand and its history.
For example, Walter, his father, was famous for getting good publicity for the Smithwick’s company.
And among the many interesting photos lining the walls of the bar are those of Walter with international personalities of the day.
Framed photos of Walter with various film stars – among them Jimmy Cagney – and even rock stars – among them Mick Jagger – adorn the walls of the bar and Paul has a sizeable portfolio of original letters and photos to back up what he tells us when the walls cannot.
Eventually we emerge blinking back out into the glaring sunlight of a rare Summer’s day with the distinct feeling that the Smithwick’s Experience is going to be a successful one for Kilkenny.
As he escorts us off the premises Mark McGovern is unable to announce the visitor number figures quite just yet but he’s delighted to have welcomed visitors from over 30 countries since he first opened the gates last July – no doubt, there will be more where that came from..