Food & Drink

Back in Belfast, McConnell's whisky is in it for the long-term

McConnell's whisky CEO John Kelly and Master Distiller Graeme Millar
Visitors to the new McConnell's whisky distillery will witness quite a transformation from the old Crumlin Road Gaol - overseen by CEO John Kelly and Master Distiller Graeme Millar

FOR much of its history, people wanted to get out Crumlin Road Gaol; they’ll be queuing to get into its new incarnation as the home of McConnell’s whisky.

The imminent opening of the distillery and visitor experience in north Belfast later this month will revive another part of the city’s whiskey history.

Indeed, the McConnell’s brand dates back to 1776, even before Old Bushmills was operational at its site from 1784, and operated in Belfast until 1938.

Owners the Belfast Distilling Company have spent £22m in refurbishing the former A-wing of the old prison to create a working distillery and visitor experience which they hope will attract 100,000 people per year.

CEO John Kelly, a north Belfast man himself, explained: “The aim is to make the home of McConnell’s whisky an event space for Belfast. It’s much-needed in the north of the city, but it’s close enough to the centre to attract parties.”

Graeme Millar, Master Distiller and Head of Supply and Distillery Operations, explained that a sense of place attracted him to join McConnell’s, in a high-profile transfer from the multi-award-winning Echlinville Distillery on the Ards peninsula in late 2022:

“The location, to be in Belfast, growing up not far away, does pull at your heartstrings a bit, to have the opportunity to do something so close to home.

“Also, the team’s commercial drive and focus are fantastic. That’s rare in Irish whiskey circles at the moment. Plus the kit is amazing,” he says with a laugh. “I get to play with a bigger train set!”

CGI impression of what the new McConnell's Distillery will look like.
CGI impression of what the new McConnell's Distillery will look like.

As regards the visitor experience, the full glory of that will soon be revealed to the public, who will be able to go on extraordinary guided tours from March 27.

“Building a distillery in such a unique venue – everything outside has had to stay as is because it’s a Heritage Grade A listed building,” explains Kelly.

That obviously presented some logistical challenges. For example, they had to take nine cells out, right up to roof level, in order to bring the 30-tonne malt silo in through the roof. The stills for making the spirit were also air-lifted in.

Giant still lowered into A Wing of Crumlin Road Gaol, Picture by Hugh Russell
Giant still lowered into A Wing of Crumlin Road Gaol, Picture by Hugh Russell Giant still lowered into A Wing of Crumlin Road Gaol, Picture by Hugh Russell

Inside, the bars remain on windows of cells, even those re-purposed as offices, kitchens, etc. They chose to keep one of the original staircases, going up two floors, and the metal balustrades while many of the original cell doors remain.

Production will run 24/7, doing 27 batches per week, so visitors will see and smell the whole process, even looking into fermentation vessels; a glass-fronted lift will add to the amazing visual experience.

Although they aim to employ mostly locals, Kelly says with a smile that have another ‘recruitment’ aim: “We want people to be leaving the facility as ‘McConnell’s Brand Ambassadors’, going back all over the world and talking about the great time they had with us.”

What matters most, of course, is the whiskey produced. McConnell’s distillery will certainly be large scale, but they seem set to pull off that tricky combination of quality and quantity.

Clearly they will continue to use sourced spirit until their own distillate is ready; “We’ve got about 9,000 barrels of Irish whiskey even before we open our own distillery and start distilling.”

McConnell's whisky Master Distiller Graeme Millar
McConnell's whisky Master Distiller Graeme Millar pictured in one of the old Crumlin Road Gaol cells before its update into the new distillery and visitors' centre.

Malt whiskey will remain the sole focus, with an emphasis from Millar on creating as much flavour as possible even before going into cask – “I’m very confident that it’s going to taste fantastic,” he says with a smile - and he’s a major advocate of the influence of wood on whisky too.

“What we intend to do is manufacture half a million LPA [litres of pure alcohol] of new make spirit,” says Millar. “If we extrapolated that amount into, say, McConnell’s five-year blend, that’s four million bottles per year.

“Obviously we want to support the McConnell’s brand first and foremost, but there’ll also be spare capacity there and we’ll be keen to explore the potential for that as well.”

The Belfast Distilling Company has deliberately built its brand with just two products so far, its 5-year-old blend and then a sherry finish, in stark contrast to the multiple different casks and versions issued by many other distilleries.

“Absolutely that’s a deliberate strategy,” confirmed Kelly. “The five-year-old is our mainstream brand, then we wanted to ‘premium-ise’ to the sherry, which is 46% ABV [alcohol by volume].

“After that we will be launched a ‘premium premium’ range but we’re not going to go widespread with that. We’ll probably launch with 10 to 15 barrels only, from a whiskey inventory that we have as part of our overall stocks.

“We’re not planning loads of product, we’ll focus on the five-year-old, focus on the sherry.”

The McConnell’s Irish Whisky brand, revived by the Belfast Distillery Company in 2020.
The McConnell’s Irish Whisky brand, revived by the Belfast Distillery Company in 2020. The McConnell’s Irish Whisky brand, revived by the Belfast Distillery Company in 2020.

The good news for McConnell’s fans is that a 20-year-old single malt will be available very soon, and at a reasonable price point of around £270/E300, honouring the brand’s history and previous Belfast location under the name ‘Old Cromac Collection’.

Millar commented: “The 20-year-old, I’ve been basically managing that since I started [in January 2023]. It was already in the finishing casks.

“There’ll be a range to follow. It’s very early stages; I’m thinking now about the finishing casks we might use. All I can say is it will be limited, and special, and interesting.”

In keeping with their calm, controlled strategy, they won’t necessarily rush into bringing out their own whisky as soon as they could, three years after it is distilled and put in casks.

However, given that 2026 will mark the 250th anniversary of the founding of the McConnell’s brand, it would seem foolish not to have some special product then, as 1776 is also the founding year for the United States of America, a massive market for Irish whiskey.

“We could do, and we might do,” said Kelly, “because we’ll be celebrating our 250th anniversary in 2026, so we might decide to launch something that’s from our home in 2027, just to celebrate the start of the next 250 years. But that won’t be a big play for us, it would be more of niche offering to mark the occasion.

“The plan is to stay focussed on the five-year and the sherry, then start to introduce these premium single malts as we start to progress.

“The liquid that’s going to come out of here will be single malt, and it’ll be five years before that can go into our blend, so we’ve made sure that we’re well-stocked with single malt and single grain, and we’ll continue to buy grain whiskey – unless we decide to build our own grain distillery, which is further down the track.”

Back in Belfast, McConnell’s whisky is set for a long stay – but an enjoyable one.