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Whiskey distilling is undergoing a revolution in Dublin. One of the new distilleries in the city is Pearse Lyons, a boutique distillery located in the Liberties. While there are several Dublin distillery tours that you can take, the Pearse Lyons Distillery tour is like no other thanks to their stunning location in the former St. James Church.
History of Pearse Lyons Distillery & St. James Church
Dr. Pearse Lyons was an Irish businessman & philanthropist with a background in brewing & distilling. Being a descendant of coopers, a love of whiskey was in his genes. In 1976, Lyons moved to Kentucky in the United States to work at a distillery. Four years later, he started Alltech, an agricultural business focused on yeast fermentation & animal feeds that grew to become a multi-billion dollar company. While Pearse Lyons may have made his name with Alltech, his interests never strayed far from whiskey. When you’re an Irishman who lives in Kentucky, it’s easy to maintain this passion.
Although Pearse Lyons owned a brewery & distillery in Kentucky, eventually it was time to go all the way back to his Irish whiskey roots. Pearse Lyons Distillery opened its shiny new distillery in the former St. James Church in Dublin in 2017. Getting the facility that point took a lot of work & money.
Pearse Lyons is located in the Liberties in the old St. James Church, just behind the Guinness Brewery. The present St. James Church building dates back to 1859, and it was first founded in 1707. Its history goes back even further with the St. James parish being documented all the way back the the 12th century. Like much of the Liberties, St. James Church underwent rough times before seeing a 21st century rebirth. After closing at this location in the 1960s, the church sat vacant for decades until Pearse Lyons & his wife Deirdre bought the property for €700,000 in 2013. They then sunk a further €20 million into renovating St. James Church & opening the Pearse Lyons distillery.
Pearse Lyons passed away in 2018, but fortunately he was able to see his passion project begin operations before his death.
The Pearse Lyons Distillery tour in Dublin
In addition to the church that houses the distillery itself, there is also a modern new building that Pearse Lyons has constructed next door. This facility is where the ticket office is and where the distillery tours begin. You can also pre-book Pearse Lyons Distillery tour tickets online (recommended during the busy season).
If you arrive before your scheduled tour time, there are some videos about the church restoration & distillery to watch in the lobby, along with a small seating area.
Bernard, our tour guide & master storyteller (a good storyteller is a requirement in Ireland), led us around the property. The Pearse Lyons tour starts with a 7 minute intro video that covers not only the history of the distillery, but the Liberties & church site as well.
The tour of Pearse Lyons Distillery is as much about the church & the neighborhood as it is about the distillery and the whiskey. This was magnified by my fortunate luck with the tour I took. Not only was I the only person on the tour who wasn’t a Dubliner, everyone else was part of a group of older Irish ladies who had lived in the Liberties for decades. They had seen the full transformation of St. James Church from an operating house of worship to a derelict eyesore to a functioning whiskey distillery. I was quickly adopted as a grandson, complete with doting requests that I put on a jacket when we went out into the churchyard. Their stories gave the Pearse Lyons tour extra depth, so much so that I actually recommended to the staff that they become part of the experience for everyone.
The tour then heads out into the graveyard that surrounds the distillery. Some 100,000 people were buried & stacked here including Pearse Lyons’ own grandfather & several other relatives. Care was taken with the graves during the construction & operation of Pearse Lyons, with some unexpected sites being relocated. They’re certainly more undisturbed these days than they once were, as local body snatchers could earn a year’s salary for taking just one corpse for study by surgeons.
We also learned more about the St. James Church refurbishment. Not long after the Lyons’ purchased the property, it was designated a national monument. Deirdre Lyons took great effort to restore as much as possible to the original condition while also building a modern distillery. In fact, a quarry in the UK had to be reopened just to make the slate for the roof. While the designation as a national monument made the restoration of St. James Church more complicated & more expensive, the result is stunning.
One change is the new glass spire on top of the roof. This spire, known as The Liberties Lantern, acts as a beacon for the neighborhood, shining across Dublin.
Then, we headed into the church. The Pearse Lyons Distillery is magnificent.
What little sunshine there was on that drizzly Dublin afternoon poured in through the spire and the stained glass windows, making the two copper stills gleam. I can only imagine how bright it must be on a sunny day. The stills, named Mighty Molly & Little Lizzie, sit upon the former altar, inevitably capturing your attention. If whiskey is your religion, then this is a transcendent experience.
Look more closely at the stained glass, and you’ll see that it is all whiskey-themed.
These shining copper pot stills, which were manufactured in Kentucky, are so large that they needed to be installed from above while the slate roof was off. This makes sense since most churches don’t get huge deliveries, especially not a full distillery setup.
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After viewing the distilling equipment & getting a brief overview of the distillation process, it was time for a tasting of Pearse Lyons whiskey.
Pearse Lyons Distillery tasting
The ticket for the Pearse Lyons Distillery tour includes a tasting of 3-5 different whiskies depending on which level you purchase.
Pearse Lyons Irish whiskey is produced in small batches using all of the equipment you see around you. Their aging barrels come from Town Branch, their sister distillery in Kentucky.
The second whiskey, Distiller’s Choice, was my favorite of the tasting, but they all were nice.
The full Pearse Lyons Distillery tour & tasting took about an hour. They are also adding additional activities on site, including the Ha’Penny Gin School where you can make your own gin, as well as a tea room/cafe.
If you only do one distillery tour in Dublin, I highly recommend Pearse Lyons. Their facility in the old church is like no other, and the tour also serves as an interesting history of the Liberties. Buy your tickets here!
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