It’s no secret that Irish whiskey is on fire around the globe! On the island of Ireland there are currently 39 operational distilleries which is incredible when you look back to 10 years ago, when there were only four Irish whiskey distilleries total. Geographically, the island of Ireland is split into 32 counties; 26 counties are in the Republic of Ireland and 6 counties make up Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland forms part of the United Kingdom.
There are 13 distilleries / whiskey companies in Northern Ireland and in this piece, I want to take you on a journey through the beautiful North, taking in some of these ‘whiskey stops’ along the way. So let’s imagine that you have flown into Dublin (the capital in the Republic of Ireland). A motorway links Dublin Airport with the North. After a short hour we have crossed the border into Northern Ireland and one of the first cities we meet is Newry.
Matt D’Arcy, based in Newry, has been revived after a century. Established in 1817 before closing in 1918, 2020 saw the relaunch of the brand. The company’s longer-term plan is to re-establish a working distillery on the original D’Arcy site in the heart of Newry city. The project will also include a visitor’s centre, Victorian bar and restaurant.
Matt D’Arcy has picked up an impressive set of awards since its relaunch. Their super premium 17 year old single malt rum cask finish was voted best Irish whiskey at the San Francisco World Spirits competition in 2020. This was then repeated at the Las Vegas International Whiskey Competition. The 10 year old blend port finish picked up gold and silver medals at these awards too.
Just 10 minutes down the road, Mourne Dew Distillery is located in Warrenpoint in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains , where they produce a multi-award winning range of spirits. They are big into R&D and have developed cold distillation processes unique to their distillery. They are also actively involved with the Queen’s University of Belfast in researching maturation techniques and wood policies for their whiskeys and poitins.
Their whiskey offerings include a whiskey blended from grain whiskey matured in bourbon, virgin oak and rye casks with a hint of peated malt spirit, and a single malt whiskey finished in IPA casks with a peaty finish. They are available in the USA through Anthem Imports in Georgia.
Another quick journey down the road brings us to Killowen Distillery, which has a cult following that describe it as a ‘true distillery.’ Seated at the slopes of Knock Shee (the Fairy Mountain), the path to the distillery is the path smugglers took during the Napoleonic Wars to bring French brandy into the North of Ireland and until recently was a perfect hideout for local poitín makers (moonshiners). Today you can experience the craftsmanship behind this once illicit spirit making for yourself with an intimate ‘meet the maker’ tour and tasting experience.
A stunning 40 minute coastal drive brings us to our hotel tonight – Slieve Donard Resort and Spa stands in six acres of immaculate private grounds. A golden strand of beach borders one side while the mighty Royal County Down Golf Links frames the other. This lovingly maintained Victorian hotel is now home to one of Europe’s finest resort spas – relax and treat yourself!
The first whiskey stop the next day is Rademon Distillery, home of Shortcross gin & single malt whiskey. Set on a century’s old estate, Fiona and David are making a multi award winning Irish gin at Rademon – Shortcross Gin. The distillery tour with Head Distiller at Rademon, David Boyd-Armstrong, is not to be missed. He will tell you all about their plans for their whiskey coming very soon. The tour ends in the tastings bar for a very cool Shortcross Gin & Tonic Masterclass.
A quick 20-minute drive will see us at Strangford, a quaint village at the mouth of Strangford Lough. Here we take a quick ferry crossing to Portaferry and we are now embarking on a beautiful driving route along the Ards Peninsula enjoying spectacular views out over Strangford Lough.
Echlinville Distillery is set in the heart of rural farmland on the peninsula. It is a proper bona fide ‘field to glass’ distillery. All the barley used in the production of their whiskeys is grown onsite, they do their own malting and a personal highlight of the visit for me is always the chance to step inside the maturation warehouse. We finish in the impressive Echlinville manor house for two samples of their flagship whiskeys – the guys at Echlinville have very successfully resurrected the one-time world famous Dunvilles Irish Whiskey.
Continuing to the top of the peninsula we come to The Copeland Distillery, situated on Ireland’s East Coast. They are a craft producer of Irish gin, rum, single malt and pot still whiskey. Ahead of their whiskeys being released in 2024, look out for Merchants’ Quay Irish Whiskey – a unique blend of three Irish whiskeys aged in four different casks (launched May 2021)
Day Three is quite special – a breathtaking coastal drive will take you all the way to the home of Bushmills Irish Whiskey. We’re travelling north out of Belfast to the famous Causeway Coastal Route – one of the most beautiful driving routes in the country. We arrive at the very northern tip of Ireland and start with a visit to a UNESCO world heritage site – The Giant’s Causeway – one of the most unique places in Europe. It’s an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns. The scientists will tell you the rock formations are the result of a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago. The locals believe differently however, they’ll tell you the columns are the remains of a causeway built by a giant – the Irish legend, Finn MacCool. We’ll let you take it all in and decide for yourself!
Just two minutes down the road, dating all the way back to 1608 AD, Old Bushmills Distillery is the oldest licensed distillery in the world. Today, you will tour the historical distillery. Famed for its range of single malt Irish whiskeys, you will have the chance to try them during a premium tasting in the very impressive Master Distiller’s tasting rooms. Included in the tasting is; Bushmills Original & Red, Black Bush, Bushmills 10, 16 & 21 year old single malts. You also compare with a Scotch and a bourbon. Finally, you’ll try their 12 year old reserve in the bar – exclusive to Old Bushmills.
I’ve been working in whiskey tourism from the early age of 16 when I worked weekends in the Jameson visitor centre in Dublin. I worked fulltime in Irish tourism for 10+ years and it’s only when I saw what was coming down the tracks in terms of new distilleries opening...