“Watt” was brewing in bygone Derry

American funny man W.C Fields once said "I always keep a supply of whiskey handy in case I see a snake which I also keep handy". In the mid eighteenth century, many inhabitants of counties Derry and Donegal didn’t need the snake. Illicit production of whiskey had acquired the status of a consuming hobby, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Poteen, produced by many small farmers in Inishowen, was brought to Derry in open barrels to be sold openly in the streets. In 1815, whiskey was selling for a mouth watering nine shillings and six pence a gallon. Two events however, were to favour the legal distillation of the product and prompt the growth of distilleries in Ireland.

The end of the war with France in 1815 allowed the government’s excise force to bring pressure to bear on illegal stills. By 1823, changes to the law greatly favoured small legal distilleries, of which there were 40 in Ireland producing 3 million gallons of whiskey. By 1840, this had grown to 86 distilleries, with an output of 7.3 million gallons. Derry’s suitability for whiskey production on a major scale put her in an advantageous position. Copious supplies of good clean water, excellent supplies of local barley and the Derry mills to grind malt. The port facilities boosted the potential for export and placed the city in prominent position to establish a major distilling industry.

First Derry Distillery
Alexander Stewart was the first man to open a distillery in Derry in 1815 when he set up business at Pennyburn for the production of malt whiskey. He became, incidentally, the first entrepreneur to introduce steam power to the city with the erection of a ten horsepower engine which consumed 80 tons of coal a week. Within three years, his business was producing 85,000 gallons of whiskey a year. Stewart was followed 13 years later by Ross T. Smith with a distillery at Abbey Street and James Robinson with one in the Waterside. The largest and most productive business was the Pennyburn site which produced 117,000 gallons of whiskey annually, rising to 160,000 gallons by 1836. That same year, the combined production of whiskey from all three Derry distilleries amounted to a staggering 350,000 gallons. This had very favourable knock on effects for the local farming sector with the demand for 150,000 bushels of grain and malt every year. The figures represented the produce of approximately 3,600 acres of arable land and the importance to the local agricultural economy cannot be overstated.

Watt takes over
The Watt influence in Derry became substantial in 1839 when David Watt secured full ownership of the Abbey Street distillery. Originally from Ramelton in Co. Donegal, the family first came to Derry in 1762. By 1824, Andrew Alexander Watt, David’s father, was a leading merchant in the city with premises at 9 Bishop Street. In the 1830’s Watt entered into partnership with Ross T. Smith in the Abbey Street distillery. The partnership specified that 50% of any profit was to be evenly divided between the partners, with the remaining 50% to be ploughed back into the company. Full ownership soon followed and with control now in the Watt family hands, an expansion programme was undertaken to make the Abbey Street distillery the largest in the U.K.

One of the most significant decisions taken was to install the Coffey still, the operation being under the personal supervision of Aenea Coffey, the inventor. The grain whiskey produced in the Coffey still had the milder flavour than the malt whiskey produced in the old-fashioned pot stills at Pennyburn. This new flavour was more pleasing to the palates of an increasingly sophisticated market. Pennyburn failed to adapt to the changes within the industry and subsequently faltered, eventually closing in the 1830’s. Abbey Street flourished in this, the golden age of Irish whiskey and the Derry distillery was to the forefront in this domination of the market.

Largest in Ireland
By 1887, Abbey Street was the largest distillery in Ireland and covered a massive eight acres, which included Abbey Street, Fahan Street, Bogside and adjoining streets. Head of the company, David Watt, installed a second Coffey still to boost output to an incredible two million gallons a year. The firm developed three major brands, Tyrconnell, Favourite and Innishowen. In 1876, the Watt family entered a racehorse called “Tyrconnell” in the Irish Classic “National Produce Stakes” and it won against all the odds at an incredible 100 to 1. This spectacular achievement inspired the Watt distillery to celebrate the occasion with a special commemorative Tyrconnell label. The Tyrconnell was, before prohibition, one of the biggest selling whiskey brands in the United States. Pre-prohibition photos of Yankee Stadium in New York show Tyrconnell billboards in positions of prominence at the venue. All three of the company’s brand names enjoyed great success in the export sector. Sales in England, Canada, Australia, Nigeria and the West Indies and the U.S. put Derry on the commercial map as never before.

The sheer scope of the Abbey Street operation can be gauged from the following statistical facts. Water used in the distillery came from the surrounding Derry hills and was stored in reservoirs on site. The wheat and maize stores were immense. At any one time, the warehouses, ranging in size from two to four storeys in height, contained 2,000 tons of wheat and barley; 1,000 tons of maize; 1,600 tons of barley, oats and maize. Attached to these buildings were two large “Malakoff’ dry-corn kilns, capable of drying 30 tons of corn every 24 hours, while in each of the two malting houses, 16 tons of grain were malted in a steep (50 ft in length by 9 ft wide) four times a week. The maize and malt were then sent by elevators into the mill building, which had six pairs of stones for grinding. From the grist loft, 300 feet square, the largest in the United Kingdom, the malt was sent by shoots into three mash tuns.

The wort was then pumped into Coffey stills in a still house which was seven storeys high, the tallest building in the city, apart from the Cathedral.

After dilution and casking, the barrels were taken to one of the five warehouses by an overhead railway pulled by a small steam engine. An advantage by-product from the Coffey stills was fusel oil which was used to light the distillery. It had a distinctive all pervading spirituous smell that the men carried home with them in their clothes.

The Abbey Street site had many distinctive features notably two massive chimneys, one 160 feet and the other 130 feet high.

Waterside Operation
Around 1820, James Robinson started distilling in the Waterside with a simple 76-gallon still. The operation was later acquired by the Meehan family who built a street in the Waterside called Meehan’s Row to accommodate the distillery workers. By the early 1830’s, the Watt family purchased the business and set out on a planned, systematic expansion of the site. Despite being successful, the Waterside operation always laboured in the shadow of the Abbey street distillery. In the 1880’s, Abbey Street had the capacity to produce two million gallons of whiskey a year; the Waterside’s maximum output was 200,000 gallons. It is possible that the geographical location inhibited major expansion as the premises were situated on a steep hill and were flanked by two major thoroughfares.

Belfast Merger
The decision was taken in 1902-03 by the Watt family to merge with two Belfast distilleries, the small Avoniel, owned by William Higgins and the Irish Distillery Ltd., Connswater, to form the United Distilleries Company Limited (U.D.C.) Andrew Watt would chair the new consortium that had the capability to produce the six million gallons of grain whiskey per year. The operation would have several Coffey stills and would exert great influence within the industry becoming a major supplier of grain whiskey to blenders in both Scotland and England.

Things worked perfectly at first but around 1908 and 1910, conflict arose between the UDC group and Scottish giants DCL based in Edinburgh. A series of further complicated deals between them served only to undermine confidence in both organisations. This was to be the beginning of the end for the huge Derry operation and company head, Andrew Watt closed the business in 1925. Watt himself died at his English estate in Easton Hall near Grantham in October 1928 at the age of 75.
Several directors of the now defunct firm used Watt’s former headquarters at Shipquay street, which had extensive storage, vatting, blending an bottling facilities. Iriscot performed remarkably well, despite losing the Watts brand to big Scottish blends in the 1940’s. The end finally came when their premises became yet another casualty of the “Troubles” in 1970. It was to be a sad and ignominious end to a remarkable chapter in Derry’s industrial history.

Watt’s Ghost
Many former workers told of the company’s cavalier attitude and approach to safety at both Abbey Street and Waterside. A local man named Morrison was a department manager at Abbey Street and when his son was the necessary age, he got him apprenticed to the plumbing trade within the company. The story goes that one morning after his mother called him for work, the boy, Bobby, saw someone standing at the bottom of his bed, completely motionless. To his horror, he recognised the figure as himself. The figure remained for a short time, and then disappeared. Frightened, the boy ran downstairs and told his mother what he just seen. The mother insisted that her son stay at home that day, much to the father’s annoyance. As the family home was at Laburnum Terrace, just a short walk away from the distillery, Mr. Morrison came home every day at lunchtime. On that particular day, he arrived home around 1 p.m. in a state of great distress. He told the family that there had been a terrible accident, a boiler had exploded and killed a plumber instantly. Had the boy gone to work, there is little doubt that he too would have been killed. The incident has had several interpretations and is yet another strand in the unique fabric that was Watt’s distillery.

Courtesy of the Derry Journal
October 2004.