Tourists flock to Ireland's big whiskey distilleries

Denise O’Neill, proprietor of the Londonderry Arms Hotel in Carnlough, and Bushmills brand ambassador Lauren McMullan launch the Arkle Whiskey Bar in the heart of the Glens of Antrim. Photo: Bill Smyth
Gary McDonald Business Editor

IRELAND'S main whiskey distilleries - including the likes of Bushmills, Echlinville and Rademon Estate in the north - attracted more than a million visitors last year.

And in just four years the total number of visitors to Irish whiskey distilleries and brand homes has grown by 54 per cent from 653,000 in 2015 to 1,020,000 in 2019.

The figures from the Drinks Ireland/Irish Whiskey Association trade body show that North America remains the top market of origin for visitors to Irish whiskey distilleries, with tourists from the US and Canada accounting for 34 per cent of all visits in 2019, followed by Ireland (13 per cent), Britain (12 per cent), Germany (10 per cent) and France (7 per cent).

Last year also saw an increase in visitors from outside the top five markets of origin, with reported increases in visitors from Australia, Italy, and the Benelux and Nordic countries.

Between 2018 and 2019, the highest increase – 32 per cent – was seen in visitors from Germany, while visitors from Ireland (north and south) grew by 16 per cent and visitors from France grew by 15 per cent.

There are 17 visitor centres and brand homes in operation across the island of Ireland, with more planned to open this year, including The Hinch Distillery close to Belfast, with further plans for visitor attractions at Matt Darcy’s & Co. in Newry and Crumlin Road in Belfast.

While existing visitor centres recorded slight growth in 2019, the bulk of the increases was accounted for by the opening of four new visitor centres during the year including Roe & Co, a €25 million ‘urban distillery’ in the former Guinness power station at St James’s Gate in Dublin.

Its opening in June marks a return to Irish whiskey production for owner Diageo, which sold Bushmills distillery to Jose Cuervo in 2014.

Bushmills is also planning to build another distillery on its existing site, which will double its annual production of new-make spirit to 10 million litres in the coming few years.

Joining in the increasing whiskey tourism market is the Londonderry Arms Hotel in Carnlough, which has rebranded its distinctly quirky Arkle Bar as the Arkle Whiskey Bar, providing a bespoke range of Irish whiskeys.

Hotel proprietor Denise O’Neill said: “The Arkle fan club of the Londonderry Arms Hotel was started by the late Frank O’Neill and a group of loyal enthusiastic followers, and the Arkle story continues to capture the imagination of the visitors today as it did with previous generations."

Andrew Cowan, chief executive of Matt D’Arcy’s & Co and chairman of the Drinks Ireland/Irish Whiskey Association tourism committee, said: “Exceeding a million visitors is a massive achievement, and Irish whiskey distilleries and brand homes are now firmly established as a star performer within Ireland’s all-island tourism offering.

“Distilleries based in Northern Ireland play a strong role in the ongoing success of the Irish whiskey industry. Traditionally, Bushmills has been the most-visited distillery in the north, but recent years have seen the emergence of a range of additional visitor centres here, and we look forward to continued future growth.”

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