Whiskey bliss

A tour with Invest Northern Ireland introduced me to some of Belfast’s newest and most innovative distilleries. Fionnuala Carolan found that the whiskey scene is very strong north of the border and recommends anyone to take a few days to discover the wonderful distilleries in some of the most beautiful locations this country has to offer

Hinch Distillery located on the Killaney Estate in Co Down


My visit to Northern Ireland last month was peppered with so many highlights that it’s hard to name them all but I will endeavour to give a snapshot of some of the really innovative businesses that are going to put Northern Ireland on the map when it comes to Irish whiskey.
The first stop was Invest NI’s live Showcase at the Clandeboye Lodge Hotel, Bangor, to meet Northern Ireland’s spirit producers including Echlinville Distillery (Dunville Irish Whiskey), Hinch Distillery, Rademon Estate Distillery (Shortcross Whiskey), Titanic Distillers, Belfast Distillery Co (McConnell’s Irish Whisky), Boatyard Distillery, Copeland Distillery and Two Stacks Irish Whiskey. It was a real education and a privilege to speak with the people behind all these great businesses and witness the entrepreneurship and passion that’s brought these businesses to where they are today.

Locking in flavour

McConnell’s Irish Whisky is produced by the Belfast Distillery Company

Work is ongoing at the Crumlin Road Gaol which will house a very unique distillery and visitor centre

After lunch we were brought on a Tour of Belfast Distillery Co (home to McConnell’s Whisky) situated in Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast and still a work in progress. McConnell’s is investing €22 million in this very unique distillery and visitor centre. The group donned our hard hats and steel-toe boots and were brought on a fascinating tour of the gaol, which was designed by Charles Lanyon. It opened in 1846 and was operated as a prison for 150 years until 1996. The McConnell’s Distillery is going to inhabit one wing of the former goal but it’s still possible to have a tour of the original gaol in another wing.

The Belfast Distillery Company was granted a lease by the Department of Infrastructure to renovate this wing of the former prison and use it for the purpose of development of Irish whiskey and also to entice visitors to see a piece
of history along the way. McConnell’s 5 year old Irish Whisky and McConnell’s Sherry Cask Finish are already winning international awards and building their portfolio of in global spirits markets. It won’t be long before visitors are filing through the front doors and enjoying some authentic Irish whiskey surrounded by history.

Fun Fact – whisky or whiskey?

In the 1800s, some of Ireland’s distillers began to use the ‘e’ to differentiate their ‘uisce beatha’ from their Celtic whisky cousins in Scotland producing Scotch Whisky. McConnells Irish Whisky was founded in 1776, predated this change and because it was already so established with 125 years of production behind them, the McConnell brothers James and John decided to stick with tradition and never included the ‘e’.

Blood, sweat and years

Titanic Distillers is situated in Thompson Dock and Pumphouse in the heart of the Maritime Mile, where the Titanic once stood

Next on the list was a tour of Titanic Distillers www.titanicdistillers.com, situated at The Pump House at Thompson Dock in the Titanic District/Quarter. The writing is on the wall here. Blood, sweat and years says it all about the sheer graft, love and history that went into bringing a project like this to fruition. Inspired by the people who worked in Belfast’s shipyard more than a century ago – you can now walk in their footsteps in the very pump-house and dry dock that represents such an authentic part of the Titanic story as this pumphouse was used to drain 26 million gallons of water from the dock in 90 minutes to allow workers repair the underside of ships like Titanic. The dock was constructed by the Belfast Harbour Commissioners and opened in 1911 ready to accommodate the new wave of WhiteStar Liners; Olympic and Titanic.
Visitors can see the workings of the distillery and hear the story of Belfast’s whiskey tradition, why it disappeared and how it has returned with the city’s first working whiskey distillery in almost 90 years.

Head distiller, Damien Rafferty explained how this distillery is destined for exciting things. We were also treated to a wonderful tasting and invited to try their existing premium blended whiskeys and their smooth vodka, which was the icing on the cake.

Whiskey dreams

The distillery produces Hinch Irish Whiskey and also Ninth Wave Irish Gin

Day two and a half hour drive from the city centre sees us arrive at the wonderful Hinch Distillery on the Killaney Estate, Co Down. Just reaching their third anniversary  the distillery produces Hinch Irish Whiskey but also Ninth Wave Irish Gin. Visitors to Hinch Distillery have the opportunity to see behind the scenes of its distilling operations on one of the guided tours and even make their own gin if desired. From the earliest design stage of the distillery, which displays three impressive copper stills through huge glass windows, it has been designed to allow visitors an
unprecedented up-close view of the operation from the Ingredients Room, the Mash House, Still House, Spectrum
Room (where you can even spray yourself in whiskey mist!) and finally finishing in one of the bespoke tasting areas where we got the chance to sample 5 year old triple distilled double wood and their new make too.
The passion from the team including William Stafford, head distiller and Claire McLernon, head of tours is
evident throughout the tour.

Redefining Irish whiskey

The last distillery for me on this trip was Rademon Estate Distillery that produces Shortcross, the name coming from the local village Crossgar, which translates to Short Cross in Irish. Rademon Estate Distillery is nestled within the heart of the beautiful and historic 500-acre estate in Co. Down, and was founded in 2012 by Fiona and David Boyd-Armstrong. The husband and wife team set out to create a gin with a vision of re-defining what an Irish gin should be. Four years later they began making whiskey in an impressive new copper pot still. Not surprisingly, the distillery’s inaugural release of Shortcross Single Malt Irish Whiskey won Best New Irish Whiskey at the2021 Irish Whiskey Awards.

During the tour we tasted a 5 and a half year aged single pot still whiskey straight from the bourbon cask which was a real treat. This was followed by a blind tasting of rye and malt whiskeys which showed the complexities in these whiskeys and the broad range being produced there.The distillery runs a full programme of tours which can be booked at www.rademonestatedistilley.com.
That concluded our tour of Northern Ireland’s whiskey distilleries which was a great education and showed clearly the huge investment of time, money and expertise that is being pumped into this dynamic industry which will no doubt encourage whiskeyenthusiasts and tourists from across the globe to to make Northern Ireland a destination.

Rademon Estate Distillery was founded in 2012 and is still run by Fiona and David Boyd-Armstrong

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