Derry whiskey heritage hailed as archaic drinks laws blasted in licensing debate

Derry’s erstwhile position as one of the world’s biggest centres of whiskey production was recalled during a discussion of the licensing laws at Stormont.

The renaissance in beer and whiskey production across the north was hailed by SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole who called for a further liberalisation of licensing.

Noting that the earliest evidence of brewing comes from around 8000 BC in what is now Turkey he complained: “It sometimes seems that Northern Ireland’s licensing laws date from around the same period. The rules that govern how we sell alcohol are of a very old vintage. Sadly, unlike an oak cask of Bushmills laid down for decades, they have not always got better with age.”

He toasted Derry’s former position as one of the world’s foremost distilling centres.

“Relative to England and Scotland, the entire island of Ireland saw an enormous consolidation of our brewing and distilling businesses in the 20th century. Unlike in Scotland, Ireland lost a huge number of small local distillers, dozens of them in the North. Those distilleries included Coleraine, Comber, Dunville’s - which has, wonderfully, reopened and is starting to produce whisky again in the Member for Strangford’s constituency - and Watt’s, which was based in Derry. My colleague the Member for Foyle and the other Member for Foyle will know about that. Derry was once one of the world’s biggest centres of whiskey production. All those closed during the 20th century, leading to a point at which, until a little over a decade ago, there was only one operational distillery in NI, which was, of course, in Bushmills.”

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Watt lockout when Andrew Watt, in locking out striking workers at the Watt’s distillery in the Bogside, effectively ended a golden era of whiskey production in Derry.

Mr. O’Toole said beer and whiskey producers who wished to sell their products in their breweries and distilleries have been hindered by archaic licensing laws.

“We have some wonderful small producers here, but we are doing very little via the licensing system to support them. In my constituency, there is Bullhouse Brew Co in the Boucher area; just down the road in east Belfast, there is Boundary Brewing; Derry has the Walled City Brewery; Warrenpoint has the Mourne Mountains Brewery; and there are others across Northern Ireland that are doing wonderful things and producing wonderful products. I should have declared an interest at the beginning, which is that I am a very enthusiastic purchaser of those products and would love to be able to buy them in more premises,” he said.