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Belfast bar czar Willie Jack creates Cathedral Quarter whiskey emporium in memory of his late friend

Publican Willie Jack's latest business venture is an off-licence with a difference and mini-museum charting the history of distilling in his native city

By Jim McDowell

He's served up platters of fine food to royalty at Hillsborough Castle, and pints to the punters at Down Royal races. He's met Presidents and Prime Ministers. So you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's time Willie Jack, the bar czar of Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, raised a glass to himself.

Instead, he's gone for the bottle.

The whiskey bottle. Hundreds of them.

For the big Instonian who used to run the bars at Ravenhill hopes that Ireland are going for the Grand Slam in rugby's looming Six Nations Championship.

So he has just launched his own Grand Dram.

He's about to open Ireland's only whiskey emporium - selling only Irish whiskey across its polished copper counter and within its palatial portals.

It's a unique whiskey off-licence…although to call Willie's latest venture in Belfast's cobblestoned Hill Street an off-licence is, well, a bit 'off'.

Because this is much more than a mere retail outlet, albeit the first of its kind anywhere in the country.

This is a mini-museum charting the history of distilling in Belfast, and simultaneously shimmering with charming artefacts encased in glass display cabinets.

So what is this graduate of the London School of Economics doing selling more liquor in his native city?

After all, he's already the proprietor of two great pubs - the iconic Duke of York and the live music mecca of The Harp - as well as the character-laced Dark Horse coffee house in the hub of Cathedral Quarter.

"Two prime reasons," says this 56-year-old ex-director of - what else? - but the former Distillery Football Club , now, of course, Lisburn Distillery FC... although Willie will not use the 'Lisburn' label as he maintains Distillery 'always was and still should be a Belfast club.'

"First, it is to commemorate the tradition of whiskey distilling in this great city of ours.

"Within a quarter-mile radius of here," he says as he sits sipping coffee in the Dark Horse in Hill Street, "was the hub of whiskey making in Belfast."

A trio of the names traipse off his tongue: "R&D McAllister, Frederick Hoey, J&J McConnell, the makers of 'Old Cro'…."

He recounts that "ten of the biggest distillers were based around this district", which he still calls the 'Half Bap', at the height of the whiskey-making boom in Belfast.

Plus, he points out, the head office of Bushmills whiskey was not always in the North Antrim town which gave the peat brown soft stuff its name: but at 5/23 Hill Street a few steps away from where we now sit.

The second most significant, and emotional, reason he has converted a sandwich shop into a five-star whiskey showpiece is in memory of his life-long friend and business partner Bruce Kirk, a well-known, ebullient and generous Belfast man who died suddenly last year, aged just 62.

Willie Jack and Bruce had taken over the catering business, Hamilton and Kirk, set up by Bruce's father, 'Big Ben' Kirk.

The firm did the catering for State banquets attended by the Queen and other royals at Hillsborough Castle, as well as having contracts for the big dinners at Belfast City Hall, and the boxing and other events at the King's Hall, among other venues.

Indeed, it was at a big boxing event - when Barry McGuigan won his World title by beating Eusebio Pedroza on that famous night at QPR's Loftus Road soccer stadium in London, that Willie Jack, fresh out of the LSE, was offered his first big break, and took it.

"I worked for Ben Kirk and Bruce while still at school. Our families were friends. But Ben sent Bruce over to the Barry McGuigan fight in London to ask me to come back to Belfast and become a director of the firm.

"That was in 1985. I accepted. We took it from there."

And how!

That was the same year they bought the main bar of the Duke of York pub in Commercial Court, a hub for the hacks from every Belfast newspaper (and it still is).

A back lounge, focused on live music, was later bought and kitted out, and opened by Snow Patrol, with a plaque on the outside wall still marking where they performed, live, in the cobblestoned alleyway, which Willie has since turned into another tourist attraction with a gallery of Belfast-themed murals: not all of which are totally complimentary to the - ahem - 'celebrities' who are caricatured on them.

But back to Bruce Kirk, and the new whiskey emporium.

The hand-painted sign on the front bears the simple name: 'The Friend At Hand'.

Explains Willie Jack: "It's named after Bruce. He was always that. Because whether it was family, friends, acquaintances, the Samaritans, the folk who run the SoS bus to help people at night in Belfast, Bruce was always there for us, and for them."

So, as well as having 500 other different bottles of whiskey on the shelves - with one bottle alone valued at £12,000! - and as well as a whole set comprising 600 bottles of the precious Old Comber brand, Willie is producing a 'Friend at Hand' brand.

There will be a series of 13. The first is already labelled 'Reconciliation', with hands clasped in friendship.

The ethos of Willie's new project in ensuring the spirit of his long-time friend and business partner Bruce lives on is inscribed on the label. It reads: 'To reconcile is to put aside our differences, to have enough courage to extend the hand of friendship or the strength of character to accept the friend at hand.'

"The second in the series will be called 'Bruce's Share', as in 'Angel's Share'," big Willie says, adding: "The last in the series of the 13 13-year-old whiskies will be named 'Journey's End' - but I'm keeping the reason for that name to myself at the moment…."

So 'Bruce's Share' will sit squarely on the mahogany varnished shelves, taking pride of place in particular with the products of the likes of the Quiet Man distillery in Derry-Londonderry -'there's no 'stroke' in reconciliation', says Mr Jack - the Echlinville distillery in Kircubbin, and, of course, the world-renowned Bushmills Whiskey.

They'll be among 500 whiskeys on view - in both bottles and ornate, antique whiskey flasks.

The Friend at Hand will, of course, be another huge tour-de-force in terms of Belfast tourism.

But Willie Jack insists it's not just about the flotilla of cruise ships and other visitors due to flock into the city this summer again.

"My wife Joanne and I have spent years minesweeping antiques fairs and shops for the artefacts which are now the hallmarks of our Cathedral Quarter establishments.

"But we're not interested in turning Belfast into a kind of 'call centre' city.

"We want our own people in here, we want everyone from taxi drivers to tycoons crossing the doorstep.

"Bruce and I recognised a long time ago that the hospitality trade in this city was going to be river-driven, focused close to the Lagan, and around the Farset.

"That was when the security barriers, a legacy of the Troubles, started coming down.

"Since then more and more people have started coming in from the country to the city, who wouldn't have before.

"They're staying overnight. And that's the essence of what Cathedral Quarter is about.

"We want folk to come to Belfast, to see it - and to taste it, yes, like in the whiskey shop - to stay here, and to love this city."

That's why Willie says that of the 500 brands of whiskey on show, '300 will not be for sale.'

Why? "Because," says the man who has, more than most, put the beating heart into the centre of his native city, "those bottles, more than the rest, are simply about celebrating Belfast's rich distilling history."

In other words, to use an old Belfast phrase, it's not only about Willie Jack now putting on show, and for sale, 'the largest selection of Irish whiskies in the world' and basing his new project in the Belfast's 'Half Bap'.

It's also, as usual, about this very colourful character, and equally astute businessman 'using the bap' to put Belfast, once again, on the worldwide map.

And we can all raise a glass - of Irish whiskey of course - to that.

And, of course, to the memory of Bruce Kirk: the quintessential 'Friend At Hand'...

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