Nine of the most unique distilleries and tasting tours in Northern Ireland
Experience true craftsmanship and gain an appreciation of the skills required to make world-renowned Irish spirits on one of these guided distillery tours.
Northern Ireland has seen a renaissance in distilling in recent years. Coast to coast, from County Fermanagh to County Down, a series of world-class producers are now blending traditional and innovative methods to create new spirits and experiences, making Northern Ireland a fascinating destination for any whiskey, gin or vodka drinker.
New gin flavourings are being created using botanicals from Northern Ireland's Atlantic Coast, while long-forgotten distillation techniques are being employed to create fuller-bodied whiskies and pay homage to the country's unique distilling history. We’ve rounded up nine of the most unique distilleries, which are raising the profile of Northern Ireland as a key spirit-producing region, offering tours, tastings and an education in local culture and Northern Irish history.
1. Boatyard Distillery, County Fermanagh
On the banks of the idyllic Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, the Boatyard Distillery is a unique business run from a disused boathouse, meaning visitors can arrive just as easily by boat as they can by car. Founded by Joe McGirr, the distillery is very much a family affair, with Joe’s brother Brian farming the botanicals, while his sister Marie writes the poetry on the labels. Focusing on premium craft spirits using sustainable practices, Boatyard’s range includes the signature juniper-led, 46% ABV Double Gin made with a double distilling method, as well as three additional gins and a vodka.
Each 90-minute tour includes a behind-the-scenes look at everything from distilling to labelling, with the history and origins of the distillery, plus the chance to label a 70cl bottle of Boatyard Double Gin. While in the area, don’t miss a trip on the Erne Water Taxi or a guided walking tour with the Enniskillen Taste Experience.
2. The Old Bushmills Distillery, County Antrim
Steeped in history and located just a two-mile drive from Ireland’s rugged North Atlantic coast, The Old Bushmills Distillery is listed as the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. Using water drawn from the River Bush over beds of basalt rock, the 400-year-old distillery is the home of a craft passed through the generations. While most Irish whiskey distilleries switched to corn when a tax on barley was introduced in the 1850s, Bushmills stuck to malted barley, creating top-quality single malt whiskey throughout its history.
The distillery’s range includes everything from 21-year-old single malts, finished in Madeira casks to mature mellow notes, to a limited-edition Causeway Collection with dramatic flavours that conjure up the County Antrim coast. The tour here includes learning about the mashing process, fermentation and tastings. Afterwards, make time to visit the Giant’s Causeway — a breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising of 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns.
3. Copeland Distillery, County Down
After a successful crowdfunding project, Copeland Distillery opened its doors in 2019 with a vibrant range of spirits, including a raspberry and mint-infused gin and a mission to become Northern Ireland’s most innovative craft distillery. Home to award-winning Classic Irish and Navy Strength gins, as well as cask-aged rums, the distillery is now maturing a new range of malt and pot-stilled whiskies, which will launch in 2024.
Though modern in its methods, Copeland is near the historic harbour in Donaghadee, County Down and shares the area’s rich maritime and distilling history through its products and tours. Listen out for the fascinating story of the Copeland Islands, which were used as a Viking trading post and as a smuggling point from Scotland. Located in a treacherous part of the sea where many lives were lost, the islands are the site of shipwrecks and myriad stories.
4. Echlinville Distillery, County Down
Northern Ireland’s first farm distillery, Echlinville has been at the forefront of the Irish spirits renaissance since it was established in 2012. This family-owned distillery on the Ards Peninsula in County Down crafts its whiskey, gin and poitín from barley on land that the family has farmed for generations, giving it the all-important ‘farm-to-glass’ traceability. Its guided tasting tour even takes in the unique topography of the area and the workings of the farm, from provenance to growing, harvesting and visiting the beautiful copper stills.
Echlinville’s products include Jawbox, a small-batch gin with juniper and pine notes, and Bán Poitín, a rebellious brand of the Irish moonshine distilled from potato, malted barley and molasses. The distillery is all about using slow distillation techniques to create complex character and delicate flavour.
5. Hinch Distillery, County Down
Found on the beautiful Killaney Estate in County Down, between Belfast and the town of Ballynahinch, from which it gets its name, Hinch Distillery is one of Northern Ireland’s youngest, having launched in late 2020. It specialises in triple-distilled whiskey, inspired by centuries-old distilling traditions, with a range including small-batch bourbon cask and peated single malt. The distillery is also renowned for producing the multi-award-winning Ninth Wave Irish gin, a brand inspired by Irish mythology.
Hinch operates two informative and hands-on guided tours: the Classic tour, which offers tastings of the distillery’s two flagship whiskies, and the Premium tour, featuring tastings of an additional two. On top of this, there’s also a gin school experience where visitors can learn about recipe development, the necessary botanical ingredients, the distilling process and even how to design their own labels.
6. Rademon Estate, County Down
Founded a decade ago by husband-and-wife team David and Fiona Boyd-Armstrong, the multi-award-winning Rademon Estate is the birthplace of Shortcross Gin. Each bottle is created using foraged wild clover, elderflower, elderberries and water from the estate’s historic well, in homage to the surrounding forest. A notable highlight of the guided distillery tour is the opportunity to create a personalised label and wax-dip the bottle by hand — a process the team does for every bottle. In 2021, Rademon launched its first whiskey, the award-winning Shortcross Single Malt. They also hold virtual cocktail evenings, supper clubs and gin and jazz nights, while the tour covers the origins and history of gin and includes the chance to taste the entire range.
7. Killowen Distillery, County Down
Nestled in the Mourne Mountains in County Down, Killowen Distillery is renowned for its use of worm tub condensers and flame-fed whiskey stills — an old-fashioned process of heating whiskey directly over fire (instead of steam) for caramelisation and a fuller-bodied spirit. While a handful of Scottish distilleries still use flames, Killowen is the only one in Northern Ireland still using this method.
On the guided distillery tour, visitors will be schooled in the production process behind gin, poitín and pot-still Irish whiskey, all of which are produced in small batches here. Be sure to try the poitín, made from a local family recipe that has been used for generations. Afterwards, don’t miss a visit to the Kilfeaghan Dolmen — an ancient megalithic tomb that is part of the area’s rich history.
8. Wild Atlantic Distillery, County Tyrone
As wild and rugged as the name would suggest, Wild Atlantic Distillery is at Aghyaran in County Tyrone, around a 50-minute drive from the 1,600-mile-long coastal road known as the Wild Atlantic Way. Founded and run by brothers-in-law, Brian and Jim Nash, the distillery was inspired by the Porcupine Bank, a natural wonder located 120 miles off the west coast of Ireland. The ocean itself provides botanicals such as organic sugar kelp and dulse that form their unique flagship Wild Atlantic Irish Gin.
The team have also launched a vodka made with Amalfi lemons and are producing a limited-edition whiskey to mark the closure in 1921 of what was once Ireland’s biggest whiskey distillery. Aside from a 90-minute tour that takes in Wild Atlantic’s gin and vodka, the distillery also offers four-hour cocktail making classes that include a distillery tour and tapas-style food.
9. The Friend At Hand, Belfast
The Friend at Hand is a must on every spirit enthusiast’s visit to Northern Ireland. Located in Belfast’s historic Cathedral Quarter, the unique off-licence houses more than 600 Irish whiskey labels combined with a mini museum. Browse the shelves full of the history of Irish whiskey, with several 13-year single malts including the Reconciliation, Bruce’s Share and Pride Not Prejudice, all of which would make an original gift for a special occasion. With all of the bottles only available to buy on site, it’s a whiskey lover’s paradise and makes a great start or end to a trip to Northern Ireland. From Monday to Saturday, the venue also offers private tastings for six or more people.
For more information on Northern Ireland’s distillery scene, visit buynifood.com and discovernorthernireland.com
Published in Issue 15 (spring 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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