Food & Drink

McConnell’s Distillery: Meet the women proving that ‘whiskey is not just an old man’s drink anymore’

Julie Thompson, Finn McGrenaghan and Sarah Kennedy from McConnell’s Distillery share their whiskey wisdom with Sophie Clarke

McConnell's Distillery and Visitor Experience
Finn McGrenaghan, visitor experience team leader at McConnell's Distillery and Visitor Experience in Crumlin Road Gaol in north Belfast, says women have always been deeply involved in the company, which traces its roots back to 1776 (Mal McCann)

HISTORICALLY whiskey has been considered ‘a man’s drink’ associated with power, money and masculinity. However, at McConnell’s Distillery the perception of the spirit is very different.

The brand was established in 1776 by grocer and spirit dealer Hugh McConnell.

However, after his untimely death it was his wife Eleanor, who the team at the distillery now affectionately refer to as ‘Mother McConnell’, that continued the business making, blending and selling whiskey all over the world.

The company continued to run successfully right up until the 1930s when Prohibition in the US forced McConnell’s to close the doors.

Now, thanks to Belfast Distillery Company and their US investors, the brand is back in business operating as a distillery and visitor experience in the former ‘A-wing’ of Crumlin Road Gaol - which, coincidentally and rather fittingly, was also the women’s wing of the prison.

Just like Eleanor McConnell, women continue to play an integral role in the brand. From production to tourism and branding they are helping to restore the legend of McConnell’s, which is what attracted both Julie Thompson and Finn McGrenaghan to their respective roles within the company.

“I’m obsessed with history and the Victorian era, which is why I applied, and I’ve been totally blown away,” says Julie, who is currently the only female distillery operative within the eight-person team.

McConnell's Distillery and Visitor Experience
Since she started working at McConnell's, Julie Thompson - the only female distiller in the team - says she never has 'the Monday morning dread' (Mal McCann)

“It’s been a relief for me to come here from my previous job because I love what I’m doing and because of that I sleep better at night, and I never have the Monday morning dread.

“I read up on the history of McConnell’s before I started and I learnt all about Mother McConnell. For her to carry on this business and do what she’s done whilst also being a woman at that time is just absolutely phenomenal.

“It makes you feel really proud and just adds to the uniqueness of the job – where else would you get to work in an old prison making whiskey?”

Nodding in agreement, Finn, who is the visitor experience team leader, explains there are many subtle references to women in whiskey intertwined within the brand if you know where to look.

“We have this image upstairs of the old McConnell’s bottling hall and it’s a line of mostly women, which to me suggests that women have always been heavily involved in the business, but it maybe wasn’t spoken about as much.

“We have also incorporated a story about the tradition of the old Irish snug into our bottle.”

Prior to the 1960s, Ireland’s drinking establishments were almost exclusively for men as women were discouraged from enjoying a tipple in public. This led to the many pubs having a snug where women could enjoy their pints privately.

The snugs, or ‘confession boxes’, would have a small window for bartenders to pass drinks through so no-one could see the patron order.

“The bottom of our bottle design is made out of opaque glass and it’s sort of a nod to the glasses you’d get in snugs and to that history,” Finn adds.

McConnell's Distillery and Visitor Experience
Not everyone who joins the tours is a whiskey drinker, says Finn McGrenaghan, visitor experience team leader at McConnell's Distillery and Visitor Experience in Crumlin Road Gaol. Former prisoners and guards are keen to see inside (Mal McCann)

“There are so many stories relating to women incorporated into the bottle alone. Our logo for example, is the Harp of Erin.

“The harp itself is a harmonious symbol of Ireland but in the late 1700s - which coincidentally was when McConnell’s was founded - the female form began to be incorporated into the harp.

“It was more a symbol of political struggle, but Ireland was also romantically referred to as a woman and given the name Erin and that’s where the inspiration for the logo came from.”

Eagle-eyed readers may have also spotted that McConnell’s whisky is spelt without the ‘e’ which deviates from the traditional spelling.

This is because, ‘whisky’ was the form originally favoured by McConnell’s and the company wished to honour it when the brand was re-established.

“It’s that attention to detail and history that led me to this role – I’m big into Irish whiskey, it’s my passion but it was more so the history and heritage side of it,” Finn enthuses.

In addition to her role at McConnell’s Finn also runs her own whiskey-themed Instagram page @irishgirlwhiskeysoul which is where her initial interest in the beverage came from.

“It started off as a blog to document road tripping around Ireland but then the majority of my trips involved visiting distilleries and breweries,” she confesses.

“So, it evolved into a whiskey page from there and that’s when I realised how big the whiskey community in NI actually was.”

Finn explains that since opening in ‘The Crum’, McConnell’s is attracting more than just whiskey connoisseurs.

McConnell's Distillery and Visitor Experience
'Where else would you get to work in an old prison making whiskey?', asks McConnell's distiller Julie Thompson (Mal McCann)

“There’s a wide variety of people who come here for a tour whether their whiskey fans or people who are just curious.

“We’ve had ex-prisoners and ex-prison wardens come in – people from all walks of life. So we have to be aware that not everybody here is a whiskey drinker.”

That’s where brand manager Sarah Kennedy, who the other ladies describe as the company’s own “modern day Mother McConnell” comes in.

Whiskey is not about what you mix it with, it’s about who you’re mixing it with, the conversations that it starts, it’s about experimenting with it and not being afraid to do that

—  Sarah Kennedy

Although her role involves spinning many plates her main aim is to change the narrative around whiskey.

“I came from a very female dominated family - I have six sisters and a daughter, so I am surrounded by women,” she laughs.

“I worked in bars whenever I was a student, so I was really exposed to neat spirits and - I sound like Hozier - but I really developed a taste for neat whiskey.

“Whereas my sisters didn’t have the same experience and would almost make fun of me when I said I liked whiskey.

“But over time one of the most fun and beneficial experiences I’ve had was converting my sisters into whiskey drinkers and they all are now.

“The best way to get not just women but any non-whiskey drinkers interested is by making it accessible.”

In addition to offering a distillery tour, which includes a whiskey tasting, McConnell’s has also recently launched a cocktail experience in their Long Serve Bar.

Visitors will have the opportunity to learn about the cocktail-making process from the company’s resident mixologist whilst also getting to fix themselves a drink.

“Whiskey is not about what you mix it with, it’s about who you’re mixing it with, the conversations that it starts, it’s about experimenting with it and not being afraid to do that,” says Sarah.

McConnell's Distillery and Visitor Experience
Sarah Kennedy, brand manager, at the McConnell's Distillery and Visitor Experience Crumlin Road Gaol, says whiskey is no longer 'an old man's drink' (Mal McCann)

“The cocktail experience gives people that opportunity to gain a better understanding of whiskey and the best ways to enjoy it.”

She also alludes to the fact tastings can inspire a sense of healthy competition between men and women.

“Women tend to have really interesting palettes,” she explains.

“In every tasting I do I engage with men and women, and both give very varied views and opinions on what they’re getting from the glass.”

Although women are still not as prolific in the whiskey industry as men, the times are beginning to change.

“I’m starting to see way more women in whiskey, and I think that proves it’s not just an old man’s drink anymore – it’s far more accessible.”

Having only opened in April, McConnell’s has already made a strong impression on Belfast but according to Sarah, they’re “only getting started”.

“Before coming to the Gaol we didn’t have a home to bring people to but now that we do everything else makes sense – it’s part of our DNA, as is north Belfast,” she says.

“If anyone asked what our unique selling point is I’d say it’s definitely our city and the spirit of what has and does go on here in relation to our industrial heritage.”