Project will see whiskey produced at listed building which will create 49 new jobs
It was an exciting day for John Kelly, standing in the yard of the old Crumlin Road Gaol ‘A’ wing.
Details of the final pieces of the plan to transform the crumbling three landing listed building into Belfast's first new whiskey distillery in more than a century were announced.
For Mr Kelly, chief executive of the Belfast Distillery Company driving the £22.3m project, this was close to home.
"I went to school just over the prison wall there, to St Malachy's," the 30-year whiskey business veteran remembered as three government ministers joined the United States-based investors to officially announce the plan to build J&J McConnell's Distillery and Visitor Centre.
"This is the beginning of a new era...it used to be many whiskeys were distilled in Belfast, bigger than Dublin or Cork."
The company will distil its own five-year blended malt and grain McConnell's Whiskey, a brand first produced in 1776 but discontinued in the 1920s. It returned in 2020.
Although there are no immediate plans to add other brands, it might happen, Mr Kelly indicated.
McConnell's is already on shelves in 21 countries, including the crucial US market, where Boston-based investor Joseph Babiec said there is still an expectation of big growth in the market and enough room despite the growing number of Irish whiskeys being produced.
Mr Babiec, a later comer to whiskey drinking, he says, believes Irish whiskey is in the same place Scotch was 10 to 15 years ago.
The global Irish whiskey market reached a value of $4.33bn in 2021 and is expected to reach a value of US$ 6.91bn by 2027, according to ResearchAndMarkets.com. Some analysts predict it may surpass the sales of Scotch in the next decade.
It is the first involvement in business here for Mr Babiec, a corporate consultant who joined with other investors from New York after first being approached in 2016.
This was not long after work stopped on a previous plan put forward more than 10 years ago by a team led by lottery winner Peter Lavery, currently planning his own distillery in the Titanic quarter.
"We were told of an opportunity to look at an Irish whiskey company building a distillery and told it was in a gaol. It was the uniqueness of that I was attracted to," said Mr Babiec.
"And then I got to know the history of the gaol and the history of whiskey in Belfast."
A visitor centre, which the owners hope will attract 100,000 visitors every year, is planned, along with whiskey tours, cocktail masterclasses, shop and a tasting bar on the top landing. It is planned to open next year, with the first whiskeys from the still ready to go in 2026.
But the centre will have to compete with other distilleries here, including Hinch and Killowen.
Economy Minster Gordon Lyons, Infrastructure Minister John O'Dowd and Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey attended the announcement of the overhaul. The communities department and Invest NI have provided a combined £1.9m of support towards the project, with 49 jobs planned. The Department for Infrastructure has provided Belfast Distillery Company with the lease to develop its distillery.
Mr Lyons said: “This multi-million pound investment will see the transformation of this historic Belfast building and create 49 new jobs, contributing over £1.7m of additional annual salaries into the local economy.”
“My department, through its Urban Development Grant programme, is providing much-needed investment in north Belfast with grant funding of £656,000 for the Belfast Distillery," said Ms Hargey.
"The project will deliver economic, social and environmental improvements as well as creating jobs and boosting tourism in the area.”
Mr O’Dowd added: “The historic Crumlin Road Gaol setting will enhance this regeneration project and help to maximise its economic, social and environmental benefits to the local and wider community.”
Mr Kelly said the refurbished gaol wing will become the home of the brand, currently produced to the company's specifications at the Great Northern Distillery in Dundalk.
"The support we have received from across government has been vital to making this ambition a reality for us,” he added.
Speaking about his home patch, Mr Kelly said: “We are truly delighted to be developing our distillery in north Belfast. We look forward to helping our great city grow and develop in the years ahead.”
Originally known as the County Gaol for Antrim, Crumlin Road was built between 1843 and 1845. It was designed by architect and engineer Charles Lanyon to house 550 prisoners.
Its winged construction, based on the London Pentonville design, was regarded as forward thinking for its time.
From its construction to its closure in 1996, it is estimated 25,000 passed through its doors, including many of the most famous figures over the near 30 years of conflict.
Its other wings have been reconstructed as a tourist attraction, visited by approximately 200,000 in the year before the pandemic.