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ODOS mixes and matches at Church of Oak Distillery

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Words:
Eimear Arthur

Architect ODOS creates a cocktail of respect for existing heritage and contemporary influences at its restored distillery in Co. Kildare, Ireland

There’s a reverential quality to the architecture of the Church of Oak Distillery, with its sequence of voluminous, roof-lit spaces, its Tadao Ando-inspired spare concrete finish, and its celebration of the industrial activity that’s characterised this canal-side site in the Irish town of Monasterevin since 1801. A hymn to the process of whiskey making, the building must balance two primary processions: that of the grain through milling, mashing, cooking, washing, fermentation and distilling; and that of the visitor through reception, interpretive spaces, galleries, terraces, corporate and retail spaces – ‘back to where you entered so you can pick up your coat’, as architect David O’Shea of London- and Dublin-based ODOS says. It is at its most successful in its management of how these routes interact. 

Off the lobby, in a space of curving concrete walls and bouncing sound, an oculus frames a view out to the bellies of three grain silos. A section of inlaid glazed flooring at the top level allows visitors a bird’s eye view of the mash tun in action, mixing grain and hot water. Windows in a ground floor corridor are strategically placed to offer glimpses of the clinical distiller’s lab on one side, the bowels of the production zone on the other. And permeating all these spaces, to one degree or another, is the warm scent of fermenting grain.   

Adding complexity is the project’s inhabitation, through careful refurbishment and extension, of a large protected structure (Ireland’s equivalent of a listed building) consisting of an early 19th century mill building and its millrace to the north, an early 20th century malthouse to the south, and a pair of malting kilns which link the two. Additions are limited to a single-storey extension to the south; extensive landscaping that folds and shifts to define entryways, create planting beds, and shield the service yard from view, and a new Corten steel crown to the former malting house.

Vacant since the 1990s, the site once served Cassidy’s Distillery, a prominent whiskey-maker that operated out of the Co. Kildare town for 150 years, and was most recently used for grain storage. There is clear conservation value in returning these vacant buildings to use, and the new distillery is sympathetic to their original function, while the additional offerings – café, gallery, visitor experience, corporate spaces – invite visitors from the locality and beyond while underwriting the project’s economic viability. 

The influence of the existing buildings on the project’s architectural expression is clear. The existing malthouse is an early example of mass concrete and ODOS’ extension represents a contemporary use of that material. Over the years, many of the small, square windows piercing the mass walls of the malthouse’s primary elevations had been blocked up, and the new elevations nod to this via concrete infill panels recessed within the punched openings to maintain the legibility of the facade’s original rhythm. 

Rear elevation with west-facing glazing.
Rear elevation with west-facing glazing. Credit: Fionn McCann

Pyramidal rooflights above the malthouse take their form from the roofs of the malting kilns. There’s a pleasingly graphic quality to the combination of materials – amber corten and milky lime render separated by a deep black rainwater collector.

Most of the malthouse’s internal concrete floors had been removed, giving the architect freedom to arrange the spatial layout according to the needs of the whiskey-making process and future visitors. 

At ground floor are the public-facing spaces of retail, reception and café, alongside whiskey production, storage and testing spaces. Bridging these levels is the first floor, which includes space for visitors and staff, the distiller’s office (which has oversight of the whole process via a glazed wall and digital monitoring), and the all-important mash tun, fermentation tanks, washes and pot stills. The second floor, with galleries and east- and west-facing external terraces, focuses on visitor experience.

New glazing gives views into the distillery. Credit: Fionn McCann
Fair-faced concrete lightwell in the visitor centre. Credit: Fionn McCann

It’s the stills that grab the eye: glossy, amber-toned, protuberant. Hand-beaten in Scotland by master fabricator Forsyths, each is unique: the size, length and form of the pot and neck influencing the flavour profile of the end product. Their sinuous forms are dictated by the process they accommodate. 

Such process-based pragmatism also influenced the malthouse’s original design: its small windows making sense in a space that needed to be cool, dark, and dry. With the extensively glazed west facade at ground floor, this once-insular building now opens to the blueway along the Royal Canal, offering views into and out of the building, across an artificial lake created both for visual amenity and as part of the fire strategy. Solar gain may prove an issue on summer days, and there is perhaps a lost opportunity in not adding passive design strategies to the new architecture. 

The yet-to-be-opened café will encourage locals, visitors and passing tourists to enjoy the beautiful landscaping, planted with native species and with features of concrete that, due to shale aggregate and a sandblasted finish, are more rustic than the building interior. 

  • Weathering steel extends into the landscape, where visitors are guided through beds of barley, wheat and long grasses.
    Weathering steel extends into the landscape, where visitors are guided through beds of barley, wheat and long grasses. Credit: Fionn McCann
  • A glazed walkway alongside the distillery leads visitors to the older historic buildings.
    A glazed walkway alongside the distillery leads visitors to the older historic buildings. Credit: Fionn McCann
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Built at the height of the Covid pandemic, the project was not without its challenges: lockdowns saw shuttering left in place for too long in the lobby, staining the face of the concrete. The imperfection tells the story of the building’s construction, the time and place it comes from. Noise management required careful consideration, as did routes for goods and service vehicles. Combustibility, both of the whiskey itself and of the gases created in its production, is a key factor in the design, which includes a sophisticated ATEX protection system. 

The project’s future phases involve the conversion of the old mill to accommodate corporate visits, with the old millrace being adapted to provide entry to this part of the complex. The furnaces of the malting kilns will eventually contain a bar and a zone for whiskey tastings. As in the completed phases, ODOS and conservation architect Cathal O’Neill & Associates are keen to retain as much historic fabric as possible, from the kilns’ deep timber roof structure to the mill’s red-painted window shutters. 

With on-site whiskey making begun in earnest, completion of the final phase of building will complete the visitors’ circuit and bring the project to a coherent whole. The bold Corten roof, visible from all around, marks a new identity for this iconic site and a new life for these once-abandoned buildings. This is whiskey production as theatre, within ODOS’ carefully calibrated set.

Eimear Arthur is an architect and writer based in Dublin

 

  • Hand-hammered copper pot stills echo the rust-coloured roofs.
    Hand-hammered copper pot stills echo the rust-coloured roofs. Credit: Fionn McCann
  • Voids give views  from exhibition rooms  to working areas below.
    Voids give views from exhibition rooms to working areas below. Credit: Fionn McCann
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IN NUMBERS

GIFA 3386m²
Contract cost Confidential
Time on site 22 months 

Credits

Architect ODOS Architects
Structural and civil engineer JJ Cambell & Associates
Main contractor Ormonde Construction
Glazing BGFS
Washrooms Dolphin Solutions

 

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