This past month has seen something of a historical moment being made, as the opening of a new distillery situated at Thompson Dock and Pumphouse in Belfast became the first working whiskey distillery in the city for almost 90 years.
The Thompson Dock has been a historical landmark once before, but for those who don’t know the why, the name of the distillers should tell you why – Titanic Distillers.
Indeed, they have opened their new £8 million distillery at the dock which was once home to the Titanic ship, and the new distillers haven’t only incorporated it in namesake; as they have also re-purposed the pumphouse that was used to construct the ship as it’s place of operations.
They have managed to retain all the historical features and even the original pump equipment from the Dock’s 1911 opening, making it accessible to visitors as part of their tours.
The History of Irish Whiskey in Belfast
Belfast has a vast history dating back to the 1600s associated with whiskey. Its first known distillery is one that is still operational to this day – Bushmills, although technically its based out of County Antrim and not Belfast itself, due to their proximity and historical significance often gets connected to the city.
Belfast was once one of the global hubs for whiskey production, even staking a claim to the largest distillery in the world at one point – Royal Irish, who produced the famous Irish brand Dunville.
By the late 19th century and early 20th century Ireland was a major player in the industry, producing 14 million gallons of whiskey per year; Belfast alone had an output around 6.7 million gallons in the early 1900s. This significant volume enabled them to assert their dominance within the market, with Belfast and Dublin holding a 70% share of whiskey production across the globe.
However, this success came to a halt in the mid-1930’s due to factors across the globe like the US Prohibition which was a major concern for the city; as per head it was the most profitable industry the city ever had.
The economic difficulties faced by Belfast in the latter part of the 20th century, which encompassed both political instability and a decline in industrial activities, likely acted as deterrents to potential investments in new distilleries.
Prior to Titanic Distillers opening there have been efforts made to restore the city’s reputation by bringing back one of the most famed Whiskey brands to come out of Belfast, the previously mentioned Dunville.
Since 2012 Echlinville Distillery, based on the Ards Peninsula, have revived the once famous brand that had been forced into liquidation as far back as 1936. It was the company’s founding goal “to bring The Spirit of Belfast back to the world and restore it to its place among the world’s best whiskeys.”
Now, in 2023, there has finally been a breakthrough in re-establishing what was one of the most thriving industries that Belfast had to offer. The company’s aim is to produce and distil a single malt premium whiskey at around 1,500 barrels a year, aging the product for the next 3 years before going to market in 2026/27.
While Titanic Distilleries have become the first one to revive the industry locally, there likely won’t be another 88-year gap between themselves and the next distillery opening. The Belfast Distillery Company, producers of McConnell’s Irish Whisky, have invested over £20 million since August 2022 on their project of turning former prison Crumlin Road Gaol into a whiskey distillery and accompanying visitors centre with the aim to be open and running by the end of 2023. Gordon Lyons, Economy Minister, voiced his excitement at the prospective contribution this could bring into the city “This multi-million pound investment will see the transformation of this historic Belfast building and create 49 new jobs, contributing over £1.7million of additional annual salaries into the local economy.”
With these developments we could see even further increase in Irish whiskey’s foothold in the market. Figures the past couple of years have seen consistent growth of global case sales; hitting a record high 15.2 million in 2022, as well as hitting a market size of US$4.7 Billion in 2022 with the Distilled Spirits Council of the US (DISCUS) noting an increase in sales within the US at a rate of 17.8% vs 3.3% for Scotch whisky.
These figures justify the clear ambition of Belfast to take their first steps to hopefully reviving a sleeping giant of Irish whiskey. While Titanic Distillers will be recognised as having this milestone moment, it certainly won’t be the last for the city. It’s seeming to be a promising future for those living in the capital, and one that we’re excited to see the growth of!