Go-ahead at last for £22m distillery and visitor centre in 'The Crum'

Pictured at the investment announcement at Crumlin Road Gaol are Stormont ministers Deirdre Hargey, Gordon Lyons and John O'Dowd with Belfast Distillery Company chief executive John Kelly and Invest NI interim chief executive Mel Chittock
Gary McDonald Business Editor

THE American owners of the recently revived J&J McConnell’s whiskey brand are pumping £22.3 million into a new distillery and visitor centre at the old Crumlin Road Gaol in a move which will create 49 jobs in sales, marketing, operations, hospitality and finance when it opens in October 2023.

Conecuh Brands in New York, parent company and owner of Belfast Distillery Company, have outlined plans to regenerate the A wing of the 'Crum' jail - which housed prisoners from the 1840s until its closure in 1996 - into a world-class visitor experience including whiskey tours, cocktail master-classes, a tasting bar and shop.

Bus driver Peter Lavery, who famously won £10.6 million in the UK lottery, first mooted a distillery at the north Belfast development back in 2012, before a consortium of US-based business figures led by James Ammeen, Joseph Babiec, William Bocra and Mark Fuller stepped in six years ago to take the project forward.

Planning permission had been in place since March 2020, but Covid delayed the formal announcement, which was made yesterday by Stormont ministers Gordon Lyons (economy), Deirdre Hargey (communities) and John O’Dowd (infrastructure) during a tour of the site.

The Department for Infrastructure has provided Belfast Distillery Company with the lease to develop the distillery within the historic Grade A listed building while the Communities Department, through its Urban Development Grant programme, has provided grant funding of £656,000.

Making the joint announcement, Economy Minister Gordon Lyons said: “This investment will see the transformation of this historic Belfast building and create 49 new jobs, contributing over £1.7 million of additional annual salaries into the local economy.

“The global Irish whiskey industry has trebled in size over the last decade, and Belfast Distillery Company is already a great addition to the sector.

“The J&J McConnell’s distillery and visitor experience will boost our economy as both an export business and a tourism offering.”

Belfast Distillery Company chief executive John Kelly said: “We launched McConnell’s Irish Whisky in 2020 and have already achieved significant success in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and China.

“The distillery and visitor experience will become the home of our brand and will help us to take our business to the next level in the global whiskey market, and the support we have received from across government has been vital to making this ambition a reality for us.”

The distillery will extend over three floors offering 1,000 sq metres of distilling floor-space and 1,700 sq metres for the visitor centre, with plans to host more than 100,000 visitors a year.

McConnell’s Irish Whisky (without the ‘e’ as originally spelled) was established in Belfast in 1776 by brothers John and James McConnell, and it enjoyed huge popularity in the US from the late 1800s right through the early part of the 20th century when, like many Irish distilleries, it ran into hard times as a result of prohibition.

When it closed its Belfast distillery in 1958, the brand went dormant, until recovered by Conecuh Brands.