Irish history

Gavin D Smith uncovers the story of Comber Distilleries
By Gavin D. Smith
Having taken a look at the story of Belfast’s Royal Irish Distilleries in the last issue,we stay in Northern Ireland to examine the heritage of whiskey-making at Comber, in County Down.Comber is located some eight miles south-east of Belfast (pictured above), and distilling started on two separate sites in the town during 1825. Distillery construction and expansion had been stimulated by the Excise Act of 1823 in Ireland just as it had in Scotland, and ‘Lower’ Comber was converted from a paper mill by messrs Byrne and Giffikin, trading as Byrne & Company, while ‘Upper’ Comber was a former brewery, developed for distilling by John Millar and George Johnston.Lower Comber enjoyed a lesser reputation than its neighbour in Killinchy Street, but despite that, Millar acquired the plant around 1860, unifying the two distilleries into one commercial operation.Following Millar’s death in 1871, the Comber distilleries were subsequently purchased by Gloucestershire-based businessman Samuel Bruce. His minority partner and resident distiller was a man by the name of J McBlizzard, sometimes rather splendidly given as J Blizard McChance!The Comber enterprise was not large by the scale of some of its Irish rivals, and output was recorded as 150,000 gallons of potstill spirit per distillery in the mid- 1880s. Comber tended to mature that spirit for considerably longer than many competitors, giving welcome justification for the brand name ‘Old Comber.’ Some whiskey was matured for 20 years, and there was warehousing capacity for 50,000 casks. The whiskey enjoyed a high reputation, and Lord Londonderry reputedly presented several gallons of it from his personal cellar to the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.Surviving records from this period offer a fascinating insight into the hierarchy of distillery employees. Of the 53 members of staff employed in 1908, the two coopers were the highest paid, earning 5s 7d (28p) per day, while the lowest paid were the female bottling plant workers,who received just 2s (10p) per day.Despite the future monarch’s endorsement of Old Comber, in 1914 total output from the two distilleries was just 110,000 gallons, and Lower Comber closed during the First World War. Upper Comber continued to distil during the harsh economic climate of the inter-war years, shutting down during the Second World War. It subsequently re-opened in 1945, but by this time tastes were changing, with blends gaining the ascendancy, and the characterful pot-still make of Comber appeared decidedly old-fashioned. In some quarters it was even said that the quality of the whiskey was not as good as it had been in days gone by.The spirit was now mainly sold to independent blenders, but their businesses were being squeezed by the growing consolidation of the Irish whiskey industry into the hands of an increasingly small number of major players, and their pot-still spirit requirements accordingly grew less.In February 1953 Comber distillery closed, and although it was offered for sale as a going concern there were no takers. As EB McGuire writes in Irish Whiskey, “It was well equipped, but the firm were now in a world where a small independent company making a pot still whiskey and with limited resources to finance modern marketing methods would not easily survive,no matter how good the product.” The distillery was subsequently sold to H&D Wines in Inverness, whose interest was in acquiring the stock and in selling the plant for scrap. The last remaining casks of Comber were bought by the Portadown wine and spirit wholesaler James E McCabe in 1970, and the firm subsequently turned out 5,000 bottles in 1993.Today, the Lower Comber site comprises residential and commercial properties and little or no tangible signs of distilling remain.However, much of the structure of the Upper distillery survives and has been put to a variety of small-scale, commercial uses.As for the whiskey itself, a few bottles of Old Comber 30YearsOld from the McCabe bottling are still to be found, courtesy of specialist retailers such as the Celtic Whiskey Shop in Dublin, which is currently offering bottles for e599.99 (£475).On the evidence of recent samplings,however, this Old Comber has definitely spent too long in the wood, and is one for the collector’s cabinet rather than the drinking glass