Celebrate our tremendous culture of distilling and brewing


Article written for Ulster Grocer by Food NI CEO Michele Shirlow

Year of Food and Drink, now in its fourth month, celebrates our tremendous culture of distilling and brewing throughout April. And there’s a huge amount to celebrate and showcase in both categories. Both are growing steadily especially brewing.

When I was growing up, Northern Ireland had one distillery and a couple of major brand breweries. The sole distillery was the historic Old Bushmills in Co. Antrim. It started distilling whiskey in the 17th century, 1622 to be precise, and continues today as one of our genuine world-class brands. At the turn of the 20th century the north of Ireland had around 20 whiskey distillers including the two biggest producers in the world, the Royal Irish off the Grosvenor Road, Belfast, producer of Dunville’s, VR and Three Crowns, three of the biggest selling Irish whiskies in the US back then, and Watts in Derry’s Waterside, again supplying the huge US market. Both were badly impacted by Prohibition in 1929.

The last major brewery, Bass Ireland, closed its doors in Belfast in 2005. Better known as The Ulster Brewery, it was founded in 1897 by Thomas R. Caffrey. It passed through a number of owners until 2005.

How things have changed in the past five years. We now have another distillery producing whiskey, Echlinville in Kircubbin, which has rejuvenated the old Dunville brands as well as planning to launch its own gin, vodka and rum. Niche Drinks in Derry has launched The Quiet Man Irish Whiskey. Other spirits are now being distilled – Rademon Estate Craft Distillery in Crossgar has won global acclaim for its Shortcross gin, RubyBlue in Lisburn, famed for its Boozeberries liqueurs, is now selling an Irish potato vodka to customers worldwide including Russia, Duallist spiced rum has been developed by a small business in Ballynahinch, and Jawbox has been created in Belfast. All draw on the great traditions of distilling here over the decades.

It’s the same story in brewing. We now have around 30 craft breweries, several of which are exporting beyond these shores, the best known being Hilden in Dunmurry, Ireland’s oldest craft ale, beer and stout producer, and Whitewater in Kilkeel, which is now shipping its beers as far as China.

There’s now a brewery in most parts of Northern Ireland, several of which are integrating with other artisan businesses. For instance, Northbound in Derry is supplying its ale to Dart Mountain in Dungiven for Banagher Bold, a pasteurised cow’s milk cheese washed in beer for a distinctive flavour. The beer is already being enjoyed by diners in local gourmet restaurants.

Hillstown Brewery in Ahoghill is using grain from the brewing operation to feed cows for the production of a Wagyu-style beer flavoured meat. And Farmageddon, a co-operative brewery in Comber is also using grain waste to feed a small herd of pigs. Bacon from the Farmageddon pigs is attracting the attention of top chef Danny Millar of Balloo Inns.

Also significant is a recent partnership involving three craft breweries – Farmageddon, Hillstown and Pokertree in Tyrone to develop a new beer for export to Britain and the Republic. They’ve pooled their expertise and resources to develop the beer, Three-Way, and to ensure the capacity to produce it for export.

As well as a vast range of craft beers, Northern Ireland has a thriving cider industry that is winning acclaim in Britain and the Republic. Our cider is produced from 100 per cent apple juice. In Britain, cider is generally made from concentrates with preservatives. Our cider is natural and delicious.

Thus there could scarcely be a better time to raise a glass, and to stock, our innovative and enterprising distillers and brewers.