Willie is anything but the 'Quiet Man' with new whiskey venture
I'LL start with a confession, I don't like whiskey. I never really did get the ‘acquired taste' that folk say is there. My only intake of whiskey has come in the form of a hot one when trying to get over a nasty cold, and even then I can barely get the smell from the glass beyond my nose and into my mouth.
Maybe the appreciation of the taste and texture will come in time, but probably not. That's okay, though because although not a whiskey drinker, I can appreciate the drink, the art and skill of distilling and flavouring and of course the history associated with many of the worlds most famous brands which originate from the length and breadth of Ireland.
My dad owned a ran a bar in Belfast in which my family all worked until it was sold in the middle of the 1990s. There is an old picture one the bar - The Oak - which forms part of the collage of pictures of old Belfast pubs on the exterior wall of the Dark Horse, on Hill Street. I walk past it to my office every day and never fail to have a glance and, sometimes, when I'm not rushing to or from a meeting or engrossed in a phone conversation, the sounds and smell of the Oak come back in that glance, including the smell of the whiskey.
My brother has gone further and harnessed those memories and a lifetime of working in the drinks trade to produce a whiskey 'The Quiet Man', which is already making waves in the spirit world at home and most significantly in the overseas market.
The Quiet Man is the first whiskey to be matured, blended and bottled Derry for a hundred years and is one of the thousands of whiskies which the well known publican and entrepreneur Willie Jack has gathered for sale and display in The Friend at Hand, a shop and museum dedicated solely and lovingly to Irish whiskey, which opens this month.
I was luck enough to get a sneak preview of the Friend at Hand last week in the company of a Dublin friend who, unlike me, does know his whiskey and who was bowled over by the depth and range of whiskey on display in the Hill Street outlet.
That half hour tour with Willie Jack was an antidote to the seemingly constant source of crisis stories enveloping our politics and threatening to hold back the prospect of long term economic regeneration for Northern Ireland.
Willie is a force of nature and you get the feeling that the workings (or non workings) of our political system is just about the last thing on his check-list when he makes a business decision. He is probably right about that.
We saw whiskey from every part of Ireland, bottles from every year going back a couple of centuries, mini bottles selling for a fiver and antique, historical whiskey selling for, well, call in yourself and see just how many thousands of pounds you would pay for the dearest bottle. You'll need a whiskey to recover from the shock. But there are other products aimed at the tourist or as presents for whiskey purists. My Dublin friend left with a determination to return when the shop officially opens, and to try some of the products on display.
The downstairs of the Friend at Hand is a display and sale operation while upstairs is a museum of Irish whiskey, curated by Willie over years and every bottle has a story behind it. It was a fascinating pleasure and tourists and Belfast people alike will love it.
Part of Willie's rationale is that we have tourists arriving on cruise ships and making their way to the north coast to visit the Bushmills distillery. That's fine but, as Willie sees it, that is a loss to Belfast and he is a dedicated Belfast man. So his museum brings a slice of Bushmills history to Hill Street and can help keep tourists in the city. He proudly shows off the old, original address of Bushmills from decades old labels and advertisements and that was 5-23 Hill Street. He has brought Bushmills home.
The addresses of many of the original distillers dot across Belfast and present the city as a whiskey capital, and of course before Hill Street became the main artery of the Cathedral Quarter it was a series of bonded warehouses storing whiskey and other products due to be shipped off from Belfast and around the world.
When I pursued Willie as to his business model (in other words: how is The Friend at Hand going to make money?), he didn't seem too sure, or too concerned, but he is sure people will come. I will predict with near certainty, though, that the project will be a success, and in years to come is likely to become a Belfast landmark. It already has that feel about it.
The old Oak bar has now been reborn as a social enterprise cafe, Loaf Cafe, on the Grosvenor Road. Call in for coffee or lunch sometime and maybe you will pick up the scent of whiskey from decades past, then head down to Hill Street and Willie will most likely have a bottle to suit your tastes, at The Friend at Hand. Good luck to you Willie.
:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner of MW Advocate. Twitter: @brendanbelfast
:: Next week: Conor Lambe