The Watts of Thornhill owned one of the world's great distilleries. Located at Abbey Street in the Bogside it produced famous brands such as The Tyrconnell and Inishowen and made a fortune for the family.
Then one bleak day in Derry, after workers clashed with management, the Watts responded by closing the whole process forever. It sent shock waves through the entire whiskey industry and left a legacy of poverty in Derry that was to last for decades to come. But was it a moment of madness, or was there something more sinister to it all?
Picture this - a gleaming yellow Rolls Royce slowly making its way through the gloom of a cold foggy morning in the Bogside in the year 1921. The air is tense and there are huddles of men everywhere – unbelievably, the workers of Watt’s Distillery are on strike. The 8-acre site, normally humming with activity round the clock, is as silent as the grave. But in the approaching vehicle is 68 year - old Andrew Alexander Watt, and he’s intent on a showdown.
As the limousine drew up at the Abbey Street entrance to the distillery on that awful morning a crowd of workers moved forward and blocked the gates. Defiant shouts and cheers suddenly echoed through the narrow Bogside streets. Then, just as quickly, there was a hush as Andrew Watt stepped from his Rolls. His grim countenance said it all - he was ready for a fight.
The Watt reputation was built on generations of hard graft. They were stubborn and flinty and never flinched from a dispute. Andrew Watt maintained the tradition well. He was a small dapper man, sharp-featured and with a bristling moustache. A.A., as he was popularly known, dressed impeccably and carried himself with an almost military bearing – in all he presented a formidable picture.
Even before the strike was called old hands about the Bogside had cautioned – ‘Don’t fight with the Watts. They’ll never back down.’
Yet there was total frustration amongst the workers, who insisted they couldn’t live on the wages they were getting. Watt had dismissed their pleas out of hand, declaring that there was no money in the whiskey trade due to a decline in sales.
So, on this memorable day, it was mutiny. Suddenly, Andrew Watt was prevented from entering his own distillery and worse still he was all but submerged in a crowd of enraged workers.
What happened next must rate high in the annals of Derry’s dark days.
Andrew Watt asked to be helped up on to one of his own whiskey barrels and from there he addressed the crowd with the menacing words - ‘Well men, I shall put it to you like this …what is it to be? Will you open the gates?’
The workers retorted angrily- ‘The gates stay shut!’
‘Very well!’ exclaimed Watt bluntly. ‘Shut they are, and shut they shall remain!’
In that bleak instant the Watt’s whiskey enterprise disappeared from Derry forever. Over 300 jobs were lost, including the talents of some of Ireland’s finest whiskey blenders. Also left jobless were coopers, carpenters and a host of other tradesfolk and office staff, many of whose parents and grandparents had worked for Watts for generations.
As for A.A.Watt, he left the city never to return. In doing so he turned his back on what would be a multi-million pound business in today’s world. Looking back, the outcome can only be viewed as a total disaster.
The loss was staggering. The Watts had two sites in Derry, one at Abbey St and the other at Spencer Road in Waterside (where the health centre is now located). The city side distillery made grain whiskey, while pot still whiskey (single malt) was produced at the Waterside premises. Estimates on the total output vary but it seems that up to 2,000,000 gallons of whiskey were being produced between the two plants in 1900. It was later to rise to 6,000,000 gallons when other distilleries were brought on board.
Incidentally, much of the Watt’s bottling and administration was done at 33 Shipquay Street. The site reached back almost 100 yards to the city walls. There were also production facilities in Belfast.
At the time the Watt’s operation in Derry was probably the biggest of its kind in the world. An idea of the scale comes from the fact that the two multi-storey granaries at Abbey St. were the size of football pitches; the mixing vessels were 20’ deep and it took a 50,000 gallon tank to feed the Coffey stills. These stills were the talk of the country for they were as tall as skyscrapers and dwarfed St Eugene’s Cathedral until it got its spire. But towering above everything were the two giant chimneys, 160 and 130 feet high. They could be seen for miles away and were a landmark for ships coming into Derry in the days of sail.
Distilleries in those days were dark, cavernous places – you can imagine the incessant noise from the grinding mills, the steam engines and the workshops. Conditions were often deplorable. Everyone knew you could get lost, injured, or even drowned in a distillery – no wonder then that the workers were begging for higher wages.
Yet one thing can be said of the Watts – they were well ahead of their time in their use of innovations and technology. It was this fact that left competitors trailing in their wake. Anyone who ran foul of them could expect no quarter – litigation and buy outs were the order of the day if you squared up to this tenacious Derry outfit.
And out of this came the celebrated spirits, which made Watts a worldwide name. In the beginning they were fortunate to get the services of the brilliant Aeneas Coffey, whose Patent Still invention revolutionised the whiskey trade. Coffey came to Derry in 1833 and the Watts never looked back.
The family came to the city in 1762 from Ramelton. Firstly, they established a business in wines, spirits and general merchandise in Bishop St. Then in the early1800s they moved into whiskey, distilling at Abbey St. under the direction of David Watt.
Andrew A. Watt, who was David’s nephew, took over the reins in the 1870s and from that time the company expanded across the globe. A.A. had been educated at Foyle College but also had a private tutor. He was made High Sheriff for the county in 1886 and loved hunting and shooting in his spare time.
Watt was sharp-witted and uncompromising. Most of all he had a vision – he wanted to own one of the biggest distilleries in the world and it appears he also wanted to dominate the Scottish whisky industry. This latter ambition was a bridge too far.
Andrew Watt’s first major attempt at empire-building came in 1902 when he amalgamated with two Belfast distilleries to form the United Distilleries Company. Next he cast his eyes towards Scotland, where the Distillers Company reigned. After a bitter dispute the two groups agreed to divide the spoils and to seal the bargain they each took shares in the other’s companies.
But shortly afterwards Watt ran foul of the Scottish group again when he opened a finance company in a bid to control the smaller distilleries in Scotland. This proved to be his undoing. Changes in the Spirit Laws and Prohibition in America severely limited his cash flow. Soon, Andrew Watt found himself in the humiliating position of having to ask his Scottish rivals to take over his company.
Some people maintained that a fire at Abbey St. in 1915 was the beginning of the end for the Watts. The vats had to be opened and it seems whiskey flowed along the gutters - much to the delight of the locals, it must be said, for they were able to collect bucketfuls of the precious spirit!
But the real damage was done by A.A .Watt’s expansionist tendencies – this was his folly. Quite simply he bit off more than he could chew and left his whole operation vulnerable to a take-over.
Yet there may have been other unseen factors at work in the shock closure of the Derry distilleries. By the beginning of the 1920s the city and surrounding countryside was in a state of great tension due to the Irish troubles. Did Andrew Watt wonder if the proposed Border for the North of Ireland would affect his business and his estate? So, was he looking for a way out, or perhaps he was just exhausted with all the tribulations of the whiskey industry – who knows?
Whatever the case he left Derry and spent his retirement at Easton Hall, Lincolnshire. It was one of the great stately homes of England, close to Maggie Thatcher’s birthplace at Grantham. And here the former whiskey magnate remained until his death in 1928 at the age of seventy-five.
What occupied him in his twilight years? Perhaps he remembered the great days in 1876 when his chestnut colt Tyrconnell won the ‘The National Produce Stakes’ at a 100 -1 in Dublin. He named a single malt spirit after the horse and in doing so one of the world’s finest whiskeys, The Tyrconnell, was born. Or maybe he recalled evenings in his famous London club Boodle’s – the domain of the aristocracy, prime ministers, philosophers and writers such as Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.
There may even have been a smile on his face at the thought of the day he and his wife Violet met Queen Victoria at Court. Did he present her with a bottle of the famous Derry spirit I wonder?
Sadly, back here, no such luxury. The legacy of the Watt’s closure was unemployment and poverty in the dark days of the 1920s.
It was to be 1925 before the old distilleries at Abbey St. and Waterside were finally dismantled. Yet strangely enough there were still thousands of gallons of spirits in the Watt’s vats and this whiskey continued to be sold through a trading company called Iriscots until 1972.
The last vestige of Watts still standing in the city is the old warehouse on Distillery Brae, Waterside – many quality whiskies were stored here. It was said that the original Watt’s single malt whiskey made in Derry outdid any of its Scottish counterparts.
And astonishingly the spirit now lives on. The famous ‘Tyrconnell’ was re-incarnated in 1988 by the Cooley Distillery in Louth and they’ve also revived the old ‘Inishowen’ brand with considerable success. ‘Tyrconnell’ is produced mainly for the American market and it is already a major prizewinner in the league of great whiskeys. Connoisseurs describe it as golden in colour, with a supreme aroma and a mildly sweet taste of oranges, lemon and spices.
It brings to mind the old joke that the aroma around Watt’s Distillery in the city in past times was so potent that passers-by always lingered awhile to get the full advantage of the famous ‘Derry Air’!