A drink at the bar… Gaol is the new home of a £22 million distillery

It was an exciting day for John Kelly as he stood in the yard of the old jail, Crumlin Road, A Wing.

Details of the final parts of a plan to transform a listed listed building from a crumbling, listed building with three jetties into Belfast’s first new whiskey distillery in over a century have been announced.

For Mr Kelly, chief executive of the Belfast Distillery Company managing the £22.3 million project, this was close to home.

“I went to school right outside the prison wall at St. Malachy,” the 30-year veteran of the whiskey business recalled, when three government ministers joined US investors to officially announce the plan to build J&J McConnell’s Distillery and a distillery center. visitors.

“This is the beginning of a new era… Belfast used to produce a lot of whiskey, more than Dublin or Cork.”

The company will distill its own McConnell’s five-year-old blended malt and grain whisky, a brand first produced in 1776 but discontinued in the 1920s. He returned in 2020.

While there are no immediate plans to add other brands, it could happen, Mr. Kelly pointed out.

McConnell’s is already on the shelves in 21 countries, including the critical US market, where Boston investor Joseph Babik says there is expected to be a big market growth and plenty of room despite the growing number of Irish whiskeys being produced.

According to him, Mr. Babets, who later came to drink whiskey, believes that Irish whiskey is in the same place as Scotch whiskey 10-15 years ago.

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Inside the Jail (Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX)

According to ResearchAndMarkets.com, the global Irish whiskey market reached $4.33 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $6.91 billion by 2027. Some analysts predict that it could outsell whiskey in the next decade.

This is the first involvement in the business of Mr. Babitz, a corporate consultant who joined other investors from New York after he was first approached in 2016.

It comes shortly after work on a previous plan put forward over 10 years ago was halted by a team led by lottery winner Peter Lavery, who is currently planning to build his own distillery in the Titanic Quarter.

“We were told about the opportunity to watch an Irish whiskey company build a distillery and were told that it was in prison. I was attracted by the uniqueness,” said Mr. Babets.

“And then I learned the history of the prison and the history of whiskey in Belfast.”

A visitor center is planned, which the owners hope will attract 100,000 visitors each year, as well as whiskey tours, cocktail workshops, a shop and a tasting bar on the top deck. It is scheduled to open next year and the first whiskey from the warehouse will be ready to drink in 2026.

But here the center will have to compete with other distilleries, including Hinch and Killowen.

Economics Minister Gordon Lyons, Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd, and Communities Minister Deirdre Hardji attended the announcement of the major renovations. The Public Affairs Department and Invest NI provided £1.9m in total support for the project, with 49 jobs planned. The Department of Infrastructure granted the Belfast Distillery Company a lease to develop its distillery.

Mr Lyons said: “This multi-million dollar investment will transform this historic building in Belfast and create 49 new jobs, bringing more than £1.7m of additional annual wages into the local economy.”

“My department, through its Urban Development Grants programme, is providing a much needed investment in North Belfast with £656,000 in grant funding for the Belfast Distillery,” said Ms Hargy.

“The project will provide economic, social and environmental improvements, as well as create jobs and boost tourism in the area.”

Mr O’Dowd added: “The historic setting of Crumlin Road Jail will enhance this restoration project and help maximize its economic, social and environmental benefits to the local and wider community.”

Mr Kelly said the refurbished prison wing would be home to the brand, which is now produced to company specifications at Great Northern Distillery’s Dundalk facility.

“The support we have received from the entire government has been vital to making these ambitions a reality for us,” he added.

Speaking about his home site, Mr Kelly said: “We are very excited about the development of our distillery in north Belfast. We look forward to helping our great city grow and develop in the coming years.”

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Inside the Jail (Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX)

Originally known as Antrim County Jail, Crumlin Road was built between 1843 and 1845. It was designed by architect and engineer Charles Lanyon to house 550 prisoners.

Its winged design, based on that of London’s Pentonville, was considered forward-thinking for its time.

From its construction until its closure in 1996, it is estimated that 25,000 people passed through its doors, including many of the most notorious figures in nearly 30 years of conflict.

Its other wings were reconstructed as a tourist attraction, with about 200,000 visitors in the year before the pandemic.