Ulster, the most northern province of Ireland and containing all of Northern Ireland, is one of the island’s most storied regions. Its written histories of great heroes such as Cúchulainn and the exploits of Gaelic chieftains in the Ulster Cycle and Annals of Ulster provide a rich insight into the ancient culture of the area.
The Plantation of Ulster, from the start of the 17th century, also lead to it having a unique demographic makeup in Ireland and contributed to it becoming an industrial heartland in the following centuries.
Among that great history is also the great contribution of whiskey and distilling in the area. Though many dispute the Bushmills Distillery’s claims to have been creating whiskey since 1608, the underlying basis of that claim, a royal licence granted to distil in the area is not in doubt. So whichever side of that argument one finds themselves, the fact is that Ulster has a proven distilling tradition dating back more than four centuries.
In that time the people of the province embraced distilling, both legal and illegal, with considerable gusto. In Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula alone, for example, there were estimated to be at least 800 stills running in the 19th century, producing a whiskey which was renowned for its peatiness[i]. Apart from that, there was also a very healthy legal industry going on, with Belfast and Derry being rivalled only by Dublin and Cork in production terms by the time Alfred Barnard completed his seminal tour of Irish distilleries, at the end of the 1800s.
These included some world-renowned renowned distilleries. The Royal Irish Distillery in Belfast was producing 2.5 million gallons of whiskey in its 19th century heyday while the Coleraine distillery was the tipple of choice in London’s Houses of Parliament. The industry suffered from the same ailments as the rest of the island however during the 20th century, losing the vast majority of its great whiskey producers, so for now we’ll focus on Ulster’s current and future distilleries.
Bushmills Distillery is most definitely the jewel in Ulster’s distilling crown. For quite a while in fact, after the closure of the Coleraine distillery in the 1960s, it was the only one. Thus, as Ulster’s lone light it has done surprisingly well against the odds and indeed formed its own distinct style within the field of Irish whiskey. Besides more subtle differences in malting, aging and cask usage, this comes down to the fact that Bushmills for a long time was Ireland’s only single malt whiskey, maybe owing to its closeness in distance and culture to Scotland.
One of the “new wave” of Irish distilleries, Echlinville first started distilling spirit in 2013. Located on the Ards peninsula, with its barley being sourced from surrounding farms, the distillery seeks to focus on the great heritage of Ulster distilling. This can be seen with its revival of the Dunville’s name and especially its VR and Three Crowns whiskeys, which still hold a special place in the hearts and minds of local lore in Belfast and its surrounds.
Sliabh Liag Distillery
The Sliabh Liag distillery, located on the beautiful eponymous peninsula is looking to bring back Donegal’s great distilling tradition, even if the majority of it wasn’t exactly legal! It will thus be the first legitimate distillery in the county for 175 years and hopes to proudly represent the area through its premium offerings. While its “An Sliabh Liag” single malt and pot still whiskeys are in production its “The Silkie” blend, named after the mythological seals-turned-fair-maidens will sate the appetites of those looking for a taste of Donegal’s wild environs.
The Quiet Man Distillery
Building on Derry’s historical reputation of great distillery’s such as Watt’s, which produced the original Tyrconnell, The Quiet Man Distillery is named after the founder’s father, barman of 50 years who told no tales. Solely producing malt whiskey, the distillery’s initial releases are an 8-year single malt and a traditional blend.