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 didnt need
the snake. Illicit production of whiskey had acquired the
status of a consuming hobby, if youll 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 governments
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.
Derrys 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, Davids
father, was a leading merchant in the city with premises
at 9 Bishop Street. In the 1830s 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 1830s. 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 companys 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
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
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 Meehans Row to accommodate the distillery workers.
By the early 1830s, 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 1880s, Abbey Street had the capacity to produce
two million gallons of whiskey a year; the Watersides
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.
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 Watts
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 1940s. 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 Derrys
Many former workers told of the companys 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 fathers 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 Watts distillery.
Courtesy of the Derry Journal