Northern Ireland Distillery Scene

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Take a tour of Northern Ireland's flourishing whiskey distilleries

Take a tour of Northern Ireland's flourishing whiskey distilleries

After a prosperous period helping to lead Irish whiskey’s global charge, the distilleries of Northern Ireland gradually fell silent through the 20th century — but now a new band of distillers is on the march, reviving the past and rewriting the future

12 Feb 2024 | By Gavin Smith

Dublin is often considered to be the historical powerhouse of Irish whiskey production, but the north has had its fair share of significant distilleries, too. Indeed, the whiskey output of Belfast in 1901 was 6.7 million gallons (30.45 million litres), which equated to 75 per cent of the overall Irish whiskey market. By the late 19th century, Dunville’s vast Royal Irish Distilleries on Falls Road in Belfast was responsible for 2.5 million of the total 14 million gallons (63.6 million litres) of whiskey being produced in the whole country.


Dunville’s fell silent in 1935, and for many years, only Bushmills — dating back to the late 18th century — was making whiskey in Northern Ireland. But just as new distilleries have sprung up across the Republic, so the north has also seen major positive changes to its distilling landscape, with prevailing Irish whiskey legislation applying to the whole of the island.

Bushmills' new Causeway Distillery in Co Antrim. Credit: Proximo Spirits

The largest and most recent new northern distillery is Bushmills’ Causeway facility, which opened in April 2023. Positioned adjacent to the existing Bushmills site, it was constructed from basalt and limestone at a cost of £37 million (€43.5 million). Causeway doubles potential annual production to 11 million litres and contains 10 stills that are exact replicas of those in the ‘original’ Bushmills distillery, while thermal technology cuts energy usage by 30 per cent. Legal distillation in the Bushmills area can be traced back to 1608 and the brand has been enjoying significant success in recent years, not only with its core blends and single malts but with its ongoing Causeway Collection of ‘finished’ cask-strength malts. This year has also seen 25- and 30-year-old expressions added to the core range.


Since 2015, Bushmills has been owned by Jose Cuervo owner Proximo Spirits, and it is now the third best-selling Irish whiskey brand globally. Volume sales rose by 10 per cent during 2022, taking the brand over the million-case sales mark for the first time. Colum Egan, Bushmills master distiller, says, “We are obsessed with exceptional whiskeys – the ingredients, the processes, the wood, the ageing. Our second distillery represents a great step forward in ensuring generations to come will enjoy our renowned signature triple-distilled single malts alongside the innovations of the future.”

The Dunville's whiskey brand was revived by Echlinville

If Bushmills is a dynamic survivor, the earliest of the new wave of Northern Irish distilleries was Echlinville. Established by Shane Braniff and his family in 2013, it was the first new distillery to be licensed in Northern Ireland by HM Customs and Excise in 130 years. It is situated within the historic Echlinville Estate near the village of Kircubbin on the Ards Peninsula, about 20 miles south-east of Belfast, and has undergone several phases of expansion during its decade of whiskey making. Both single pot still and single malt spirit are produced, and the distillery boasts its own floor maltings, bottling facility, and a recently enhanced visitor centre and café. In October 2023, the company announced plans to invest £5 million in restoring the former Ards Maltings, once one of Ireland’s largest malting houses, to expand its malting operation.


Significantly, Echlinville has been responsible for reviving the Dunville’s brand, with the distillery’s Anne-Marie Clarke declaring, “It was Echlinville’s founding goal to revive Dunville’s and restore it to its rightful place among the world’s best whiskeys, which we have done with a reputation for exceptional sherry cask finishes.”


Echlinville has also revived the Matt D’Arcy name — originally associated with whiskey produced in the County Down town of Newry — with a premium blend and a 10-year-old with a port cask finish. The third of Echlinville’s “trilogy of iconic heritage whiskey brands” is Old Comber (the distillery, which closed in 1953, was located just 10 miles from Echlinville). Port and sherry cask-finished pot still bottlings are offered.


Clarke added enticingly that the company’s whiskey portfolio will expand further in the coming months with the launch of Echlinville Whiskey, its first field-to-glass release that will feature liquid distilled, matured, and bottled at Echlinville from barley grown, harvested, and malted on the distillery farm.

Titanic Distillers started production at its Belfast distillery in August 2023

Echlinville may have revived the old Dunville’s whiskey brand, but distilling returned to Belfast for the first time since Dunville’s demise with the opening of Titanic Distillers’ facility earlier this year. The distillery is both named after the ill-fated ship and is based in the pumphouse used during its construction, at Thompson Dock in the heart of Belfast’s ‘Titanic Quarter’ development. Director and co-owner Peter Lavery says, “We could have built on a brownfield site, but I wanted something with a bit of history, with a story to it, and the story of the Titanic is one that’s known all over the world. You can look into the dry dock where it was built and launched from the windows of the distillery, and we offer tours of the dock and pumphouse, as well as tasting sessions.”


The distillery, which began production in August 2023, is making about 100,000 litres of triple-distilled single malt per year. While its own spirit matures a Titanic Blend is on sale, which is produced at the Great Northern Distillery just across the border in Dundalk.


Belfast is due to gain a second distillery in the near future — and another that has involved the renovation of a city landmark. While Titanic was developed in a former shipyard, J&J McConnell’s Distillery and Visitor Experience is being created in a former prison. The Belfast Distillery Company is investing £22 million in the venture, based in A-Wing of the historic Crumlin Road Gaol in the north of the city, and expects to host more than 100,000 visitors each year, with a range of whiskey tours and cocktail masterclasses on offer along with a tasting bar and shop.


The McConnell’s whiskey brand dates back to 1776 and was particularly associated with Belfast’s Cromac Distillery, which opened in 1899. McConnell’s was revived in 2020, and John Kelly, CEO of Belfast Distillery Company, says that the brand has already achieved success in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and China. “In our home market we are having great success with our product to date, experiencing significant support from our trade partners in hospitality and retail sectors. The J&J McConnell’s Distillery and Visitor Experience will become the home of our brand and will help us to take our business to the next level in the global whiskey market,” Kelly said.

Loading the still at Copeland Distillery

In procuring and retailing third-party whiskey in the short term, Titanic and the Belfast Distillery Company have adopted the same strategy as many start-ups, including their Northern Irish counterparts Hinch and Copeland.


Hinch Distillery is located just 15 miles south of Belfast and was established in 2021 by entrepreneur Dr Terry Cross at a cost of £15 million. Its location on the picturesque Killaney Estate means that hosting functions and offering visitor experiences are an important part of its activities, while a range of third-party whiskeys have
been marketed under the Hinch brand. These include the Small Batch Blend, 5 Years Old Double Wood blend, 10 Years Old Sherry Cask Finish blend, a peated single malt, and a 19-year-old single malt finished in Château de la Ligne casks.


Opened for business in August 2019, Copeland Distillery is situated in a former cinema and bottling plant at Donaghadee, 20 miles east of Belfast. The distillery has a capacity of 40,000 litres per annum and produces rums and gins as well as whiskey, with third-party bottlings appearing under the Merchant’s Quay name.


However, the initial release of its own whiskey is not far off. According to Copeland’s Megan Hide, “Our founder Gareth Irvine was always very specific that he did not want to release a three-year-old and wanted to hold off for a five-year-old whiskey.” The distillery’s first official release is slated for 2024 but Hide hinted that a very limited pre-sale sample may be made available to the public before the end of this year.


In terms of Copeland’s spirit styles, Hide said, “With our current four mash bills that we have run from starting production in 2019, with an additional fifth mash bill added this year, we have a wide array of new-make spirits. Our range includes a double-distilled Irish pot still and double-distilled chocolate malt whiskey.”

Shortcross Irish Whiskey, produced by Rademon Estate Distillery

Rademon Estate Distillery also benefits from a location not far from Northern Ireland’s principal city, being situated 17 miles south of Belfast. A range of visitor experiences is on offer in converted farm buildings at the ancient estate, presided over by David and Fiona Boyd-Armstrong. Its gins and whiskeys are marketed under the Shortcross name. David, who acts as head distiller, explained, “The Shortcross Irish whiskey journey began in 2015 when we distilled our first Shortcross whiskey on what was then Ireland’s smallest copper pot still.”


2021 saw the release of a highly regarded five-year-old double-distilled single malt, matured in Bordeaux red wine casks and finished in virgin chinquapin oak with a high char level. Between 200 and 300 casks are filled each year.


Boyd-Armstrong said, “With our Shortcross Irish whiskey we are seeking to create flavours, from our mash bills to our extended fermentation times to our cask types. We have so far released a single malt, rye and malt, peated single malt in a Cognac liqueur cask, a cask-strength rye and a malt, and our latest for Belfast Whiskey Week was a marriage of our malt and pot still Irish whiskeys. We also have some special malt releases to come before the end of this year.”


Like Rademon Estate, Killowen Distillery is proudly marketing its own whiskey. Of all Northern Ireland’s distilleries, this is the most radical in its approach to making spirits.

Brendan Carty, founder of Killowen Distillery, with the stills

The distillery was established in 2017 in a converted barn in the Mourne Mountains, south-east of Newry, by architect Brendan Carty, who declares that his aim was “to create an Irish whiskey from traditional techniques over flame”.  Some malting is undertaken on-site and fermentation takes place in open-topped vessels, lasting for a week or more. It is also home to Ireland’s only operational worm tubs, installed for condensing purposes.

Killowen’s Rum & Raisin Single Malt has been finished and vatted at the distillery using a mixture of its own rum casks and imported Pedro Ximénez sherry casks. Carty has also produced pot still Irish whiskeys with significantly higher proportions of ‘secondary’ grains such as oats, rye, and wheat in the mash bill than is usual today, along with gin and poitín.

Killowen’s Barántúil (Irish Gaelic for ‘authentic’) single cask releases do not comply with the prevailing legal ‘single pot still’ definition, which mandates no more than 5 per cent of cereals other than barley in the mash bill, but according to Carty, Barántúil is the distillery’s pride and joy. “It’s pot still Irish whiskey using a healthy dose of oats for body and creaminess, made in very small batches in a very labour-intensive process, much slower than other distilleries, with extra-long fermentations and distillations, using traditional methods [and] allowing wonderful flavour expressions that are unfortunately lost to time.”

Other distilling projects in the offing include An Carn, near Maghera in County Londonderry, and Glens of Antrim at Cushendall, on the east coast of County Antrim. Clearly, the proud heritage of whiskey making in Northern Ireland is flourishing, with ever more variety and innovation to look forward to. 


This article originally appeared here

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