Ninety-five years ago this weekend Andrew Watt ended a proud and prosperous tradition of Derry whiskey manufacture when he permanently locked out striking workers from the Watt distillery in the Bogside.
The Journal caught up with Ciaran Mulgrew, Managing Director of Niche Drinks’ cream liqueur operation on the Rossdowney Road, to talk about his plans to bring whiskey back to the North West with a new distillery and interpretive centre in the heart of Ebrington and a new homegrown Derry whiskey that will mature in time for the centenary of the lock-out in 1921, should the proposal eventually secure planning approval from Derry City and Strabane District Council.
The Belfast-native believes that with the recent growth and popularity of local craft beers, distilleries and food movements, the time is right to put Derry back on the whiskey production map.
“If you look what’s happened in the craft brewing industry, for years, all you could buy were one or two beers and they weren’t great. More importantly, they weren’t local, whereas people now have a greater interest in what they eat and what they drink. People want local foods and if we can produce local spirits locally, why not?”
Mr Mulgrew’s dream is to start distilling ‘An Fear Ciúin’ blended Irish whiskey at a new distillery and visitor centre extending right across the old guard house, barrack store, and barrack master’s house on the south side of Ebrington Square - directly opposite the proposed maritime museum.
Visitors will be able to enjoy a glass of the locally distilled product, named after Mr Mulgrew’s late father, a lifelong bar man, in a whiskey garden overlooking the Foyle from the old barrack master’s house, should the plans proceed.
“We have put in the full planning application and we did that, I think, around August 20, and we hope to hear before the end of the calendar year that planning has been approved and the building will be ready by 2018, although we’ll be distilling quicker than that.”
It’s a considerable investment by the firm as there’s a lot of downtime due to the time it takes for whiskey to mature: you’re not allowed to call yourself an Irish whiskey unless you’ve been matured in an oak barrel for three years.
“This is going to cost us somewhere between £10m and £12m. The reason why it’s so high is, when you make whiskey...we make our first whiskey say, in January 2018, but we won’t be able to sell that until January 2021 because it has to be matured for three years. So you’ve got three solid years of production before you can sell a single bottle. That’s an awful lot of stock before you actually sell any.”
Part of the solution to this, as the first new Derry whiskey in 100 years is maturing in time for the Watt lock-out anniversary, will be to distil ‘clear spirits’ such as gin and vodka, which will also be made at Ebrington and sold as soon as produced.
“We’re putting in a still there that will produce vodka and that will produce gin.
“The benefit of vodka and gin is, you can make it on a Monday and sell it on a Tuesday. It’s all about cash flow. So we will be producing vodka and we’ll be producing gin as well.”
The main aim, however, is to reintroduce what once was a huge industry and employer in Derry, albeit on a much smaller scale.
‘An Fear Ciúin’s’ main product will be a typical three to four year blended Irish whiskey.
But an eight year old single malt whiskey and a 12 year old liqueur whiskey will also be made at Ebrington and respectively finished in bourbon and sherry casks in the city.
Niche is already sourcing whiskey from two confidential distillers outside the city and blending it here in order to get the An Fear Ciúin name out.
“We started buying whiskey about nine years ago. We’ve got quite a lot of whiskey at this stage - nearly £3m worth of stock maturing now, because if we had done nothing and then we’d gone ahead and built this in 2018 we wouldn’t have had whiskey to sell until 2022, which is very, very difficult. Whereas at least this way we have the revenue that comes from the cream end of the business and that enables us to buy whiskey that we’ve been maturing and selling now.”
If all goes according to plan Derry should have a brand new product and tourist attraction by the time of one of the darker local centenaries in terms of industry and labour relations.
“At the end of the day if we can get visitors to come to it, if we have the attraction where people come around, our idea is that people will feel an affection for the thing and are likely to buy it.”
We can all drink to that.