Irish whiskey maintains its A-game with opening of McConnell’s Distillery in listed Victorian former Belfast gaol

April 18, 2024

In 2010 there were only four working whiskey distilleries on the island of Ireland and the opening of McConnell’s Distillery in the former A-wing of Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol is the latest success story in the meteoric rise of the sector — as well as marking the welcome arrival of the newest distillery in Ireland.

The Irish Whiskey Association, the representative body for the all-island Irish whiskey industry, has welcomed the opening of McConnell’s Irish Whisky Distillery, located inside the Victorian walls of the Grade A-listed former Crumlin Road Gaol building in Belfast. 

This is the newest distillery on the island of Ireland.

A gala opening of the new distillery took place on Wednesday (17.04.24), with special guest Joe P Kennedy III, who is Trade Envoy of the USA to Northern Ireland, in attendance to cut the ribbon. Also among the attendees at the gala opening were First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill, Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly and Economy Minister Conor Murphy – a “former resident” of Crumlin Road Goal, having spent time in the A wing of the prison in the 1980s.

The strong links between Ireland and the USA are a key part of the story of McConnell’s, as the revitalisation of the iconic, 250-year-old Belfast brand was made possible in part by US private investment, along with investment by the Northern Ireland government, together totalling £30 million. 

The distillery is poised to produce 500,000 litres of pure alcohol (LPA) per annum, and it is already operating a visitor experience, bringing 34 long-term employment opportunities to what is one of the more economically marginalised areas of Northern Ireland. It hopes to welcome 100,000 visitors a year to the distillery in years to come. 

The distillery and visitor experience are located in the former A-wing of “The Crum” prison, which closed 28 years ago, and which was designed by the master architect Charles Lanyon in the 1840s. 

The derelict A wing hadn’t been touched since 1996, however thanks to the rejuvenation made possible by the private and public investment, visitors to the distillery can today enjoy tours of the former prison wing, a retail area, café, bar, cocktail suite and a number of function rooms to cater for corporate and private functions.
Speaking from the gala opening, director of the Irish Whiskey Association Eoin Ó Catháin said: “The Irish Whiskey Association is delighted to see this £30 million investment benefit not only the Irish whiskey sector but also the community of North Belfast. We have enjoyed a close working relationship with the team in McConnell’s Distillery for a number of years now, and we look forward to further engagement and collaboration in the years to come. 
“The opening of this distillery, with the significant political and business support it has enjoyed, is an incredible testament to the promise of the wider sector. In 2010, there were just four working distilleries on the island of Ireland. To see this rapid growth, and the increased sales and export success of this category is confidence inspiring. This opening celebration, however, is about McConnell’s Irish Whisky, and we want to add our voice to the many well-wishers who are assured of their continued success.”

Welcoming its membership of the Irish Whiskey Association, CEO of McConnell’s Irish Whisky John Kelly said: “Established by Hugh McConnell in 1776, McConnell’s contributed to the success story that was a rapidly-expanding Belfast in the 18th and 19th centuries. The rebirth of the brand that we’re showcasing today marks just one step in our journey towards revitalising whisky distilling in the city, building a world-class visitor experience and shining a spotlight on a great Belfast tradition that is alive and flourishing again. 
“I’m delighted to be celebrating this success with Eoin and the Irish Whiskey Association team here at the restored Crumlin Road Gaol in the heart of North Belfast, and I look forward to working with other members across the length and breadth of the island of Ireland.”