Carol Quinn has heard the myth of the whiskey pension – the idea that retirees from distilleries get a “bottle of grog” as their monthly payment – once or twice from the relatives of employees.
It goes back to the perks offered to employees who worked in some historic distilleries, such as Jameson’s on Bow Street near Smithfield, says Quinn, the archivist at Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard.
They got daily rations. “A glass of whiskey sometimes twice a day, morning and evening,” she says. “It would encourage you to come into work, on a cold winter’s morning.”
There were extra glasses available, too. “If you did what was called a dirty job,” Quinn says.
This included chores such as cleaning out the red-brick chimney at Jameson’s or heaving stacks of barley from farmers’ horse-drawn carts, sweeping out the grainstore, or shovelling coal in enormous heat into the giant copper stills. “That was very dirty, very dusty work,” she says.
For some, the official allocation of whiskey wasn’t enough. One small room on Bow Street had a teapot and a gas cooker. New employees were told by older-timers never to light the flame under the teapot though, Quinn says.
“Because it wasn’t tea,” she says. That’s where people hid extra whiskey from management.
When people retired from the distilleries, that daily whiskey allowance translated into a bonus to the pension of a couple of bottles a month.
A Perk with the Pension
Pensioners could take those bottles as they came, or some would prefer to let them pile up and collect them around Christmas, says Quinn.
“Nowadays, our pensioners are still entitled to an allocation but we get it delivered to the houses,” she says. “I think that’s where the myth of the whiskey pension comes from.”
What you get depends on when you started with the company, she says. It’s monthly now.
It’s unclear when that tradition started of getting bottles with the pension. “That was generally always the case,” says Quinn.
Ursula Fitzgerald’s father worked at a distillery on Watercourse Road in Cork before it moved to Middleton.
He was there about 50 years, up to the late ’90s, doing shift work that had something to do with the stills and mash, she says.
“He got a bottle of whiskey every month with his pension,” she says. He managed to get through most of them, she says. “He did a fair bit of damage.” Some would also go towards raffles for community fundraisers or to events they might have been involved in, though.
She and others were concerned about how much her father drank, which was more than most because he was around whiskey all the time. It is tough stuff, she says. “It’s coming to you free.”
Before 1908, when the old-age pension came in, those who were out of work didn’t get anything to support themselves. They relied on family mostly, so for those without, times were tough, says Quinn, the archivist.
Jameson had a tradition that as long as somebody could turn up, they would give them a job. “The job would be softer and softer,” says Quinn. “Until you’d be maybe a gateman just recording who comes in and out.”
The gateman would have had the job, too, of handing out whiskey to the pensioners. “That was going to be a very social job,” she says.
The Jameson distillery on Bow Street stopped making whiskey in 1975, says Quinn. Production moved to Cork and the Middleton plant.
Jameson pensioners in Dublin got their whiskey delivered from that point. “There would be a fair few families scattered around Dublin,” she says.
The Wider Neighbourhood
Working in the Bow Street distillery was a family affair, says Quinn. “You would have large extended families working there: fathers, uncles, sons, cousins.”
Most employees would come from the surrounding neighbourhood: Church Street, Smithfield, Stoneybatter, Arran Quay. Many were recommended by other family members for jobs. “There was this feeling of community because people knew each other,” she says.
Management had a paternalistic attitude to those who worked for them. There’s evidence of that in the old wage book for the Bow Street distillery from 1916.
During the Easter Rising, rebels broke into the distillery and made it a temporary headquarters. “That meant obviously nobody could get into work,” she says.
If you didn’t turn up to work at the time, you didn’t get paid. When the Titanic sank in 1912, the company stopped the wages of all the crew – boilermen, stokers, waiters, chambermaids. “They didn’t even have the dignity of giving the survivors a full week’s wages,” says Quinn.
The wage book for the Bow Street distillery has a pencilled note that says: “Rebellion in Dublin, all employees paid in full.”
“They realised this was a very traumatic event,” Quinn says. “They weren’t going to add to the trauma by taking their wages.”
Fitzgerald says bottles of Jameson are a reminder of her father and his time at the distillery in Blackpool in Cork.
Her mother still asks each year if she has her bottle of whiskey for making the Christmas cake. “As if the cake is going to need a whole bottle of whiskey,” she says, and laughs.