How local distilleries are constrained by licensing laws

Distilleries in Northern Ireland are constrained owing to the region's current drinks legislation
Kirsty Mairs

IT'S no secret that Irish whiskey is experiencing an astonishingly strong resurgence around the world.

From just four whiskey distilleries in 2013 there are now 25 either in operation, or planned, on the island, according to the Irish Whiskey Association. In addition to whiskey, a number of these distilleries also produce gin, beer and ale for sale both locally and for export markets.

The Department for Communities recognises the hospitality industry makes a significant £1.2 billion contribution to the local economy and sustains 60,000 jobs. The Irish Whiskey Tourism Strategy, supported by Food NI and Tourism NI, also recognises this contribution and is working with distilleries around Ireland to treble the number of visitors to Irish whiskey distilleries to 1.9 million by 2025.

In support of this growth, the Republic introduced the Intoxicating Liquor (Breweries and Distilleries) Act 2018 which enables distilleries there to sell alcohol on their premises and offer taste tours to visitors without the requirement to have a liquor licence.

But the licensing laws in the Republic are extremely different from those in Northern Ireland, which unfortunately are less accommodating.

The Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 legislation specifically refers to types of premises which can hold a liquor licence and those categories include premises such as a public house, an off sales licence, a hotel, a conference centre and a restaurant. However, a working distillery is not a category which is referenced in the Order. Even if a distillery had the benefit of a restaurant licence, which can be obtained from the Court without requiring the payment of a premium, alcohol could only be consumed on the premises in conjunction with a meal.

In order for visitors to either consume alcohol on the premises as a stand-alone product, or to enable a distillery to sell alcohol for consumption off the premises, it must have a public house licence. This would not only require a change of use for part of the premises in planning terms, but more importantly, a public house licence must be purchased for a premium which, for a fledgling business, would come at a substantial cost.

The 1996 Order does not therefore provide for taste tours where an entrance fee is being charged to attend a distillery for the purposes of a tour. In the absence of a public house licence, customers would not be able to purchase alcohol at the end of a tour for consumption either on the premises, for personal use at home or as a gift. Therefore, our current legislation does not meet the needs of the ever-expanding number of distilleries opening their doors for trade in Northern Ireland.

The DfC has launched a consultation on the law relating to the retail sale and supply of alcohol in Northern Ireland. This consultation will ascertain what changes could be made to the legislation to ensure that the region has a more flexible and modern licensing framework to respond to changing expectations and lifestyles.

Only time will tell if this review will result in a change to the legislation, a subtle change that accommodates taste tours where an entry fee is being charged without the requirement - or it could introduce a new a liquor licence or specific type of distillery licence to facilitate the sale of alcohol on or from a distillery without the requirement for a public house licence or off sales licence.

:: Kirsty Mairs ( is partner/head of hospitality at DWF in Belfast (

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