Paul Kane is a great believer in what whiskey can do for Belfast. The local businessman and leading light behind the city’s upcoming Whiskey Week is convinced that distilling — one of the most vibrant industries in Victorian times — can once again become an important driver of prosperity. And this time around it can do more than just put bottles on shelves, it can bring visitors, too.
“I really would like to see Belfast become a whiskey city again,” he says. “Per head, it was the most profitable industry the city ever had. There are roads and buildings here that wouldn’t exist now if it weren’t for the wealth generated by Belfast’s whiskey industry.”
He’s talking about a time when Belfast’s industrial landscape was dominated by massive distilleries like Avoniel, Connswater, Cromac and Royal Irish. All are long gone, but in at least a couple of cases, their brand names live on. McConnell’s, once the flagship whiskey of Cromac Distillery on the Ravenhill Road, is back on the market thanks to the Belfast Distillery Company, and Dunville’s, the Royal Irish distillery’s famous brand, has been revived by Echlinville in Co Down.
“In places all around Belfast, we’ve seen distilleries popping up and now the first new ones in 70 years are set to bring the industry back into the city itself,” says Paul. The Belfast Distillery Company is working on production facilities at Crumlin Road Gaol and Titanic Distillers are on course to start making spirit at the Titanic Pump House before the end of the year. Paul insists all this could be just the start of something much bigger if the success of Belfast Whiskey Week is anything to go by. A celebration of all things whiskey led by enthusiasts from the Belfast Whiskey Club, the first festival in 2019 was a triumphant sell-out. The following year could have seen its swift demise amid the chaos of Covid, but the organisers adapted and took the festival online, opening it up to participants from across the world.
Last year, the response was such that Belfast Whiskey Week could lay claim to being the largest whiskey festival in the world, sending over 19,000 samples to fans around the globe and running events 24 hours a day for nine days straight.
This year’s festival, which runs from July 22-30, is less virtual and more hands-on. Whereas in previous years Whiskey Week went out to the world, now Paul wants the world to come to Belfast.
“I want people to be involved in the tastings and the more thought-provoking events, and to try whiskey in a different setting,” he says.
In at least a quarter of the 100-plus events, that different setting is food-related. There’s Tribal Burgers in Callender Street and Botanic Avenue turning out bespoke whiskey burgers, Oh Donuts in Upper Arthur Street whipping up some similarly-themed treats (donuts with whiskey? Oh yes...) and a much-anticipated collaboration with Ryan Jenkins, the acclaimed chef behind pop-up sensation, Roam. Belfast Cookery School will be dishing up two-course meals with a whiskey twist, there’ll be chocolate-making classes using a drop or two of the hard stuff and Common Market food hall on Dunbar Link will be uncorking a special day of food and whiskey.
Also on offer are a speed dating event, a steam train trip, heritage walks, distillery visits, the obligatory tasting sessions … and one unusual offering that Paul describes as a “must-do” event.
The Whiskey Sensorium is run by Belfast company Taste and Tour, which hosts inventive drinks experiences in The National in High Street. Their Whiskey Sensorium will challenge virtually everything you thought you knew about tasting, says Paul, who has tried a session for himself. “There is nothing like it in Belfast,” he insists. “Taste is usually divided into five areas but there’s also smell and memory and so many other factors involved, and you get to understand what makes you choose what you choose. I’ve been involved in whiskey tastings for nine years and the experience gave me an interesting new perspective.”
With intriguing events like these, little wonder that the buzz is building for a festival that takes the idea of whiskey and runs with it in all sorts of unexpected directions. So much so, that travel companies are now taking an interest in Belfast Whiskey Week and Paul is hopeful that next year tour operators could be bringing visitors to the city for the festival. As new distilleries spring up here and more brands emerge on the market, his vision of Belfast becoming a “whiskey city” again may not be so wide of the mark, though he’d be the first to admit there’s still a long way to go.
“Are we seeing a whiskey renaissance in Belfast? I think we’ve hardly started,” he says. “But this is only the fourth Belfast Whiskey Week, I might have a different answer when we’ve had the tenth.”
Prices for Belfast Whiskey Week events range from £5-£65, with day passes available from £80. Visit belfastwhiskeyweek.com
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Have a guess at naming the country that produces the most wine every year. France? Australia? Nope, it’s Italy — by a long way. Those industrious Italians turned out a whopping 4.45 billion litres of wine in 2021, whereas the next biggest producer, Spain, managed 3.5 billion litres. France was just behind with 3.42 billion litres and together these three countries bottled 45% of the world’s wine last year. The remainder of the top 10 is as follows: 4, United States; 5, Australia; 6, Chile; 7, Argentina; 8, South Africa; 9, Germany; and in 10th place, that well-known wine wonderland, China.