History

Last man standing

In the latest of our series charting lost distilleries,Gavin Smith looks at Northern Ireland's Coleraine
By Gavin D. Smith
The County Londonderry town of Coleraine is located just eight miles from Bushmills, the only surviving distillery in Northern Ireland,and Coleraine was the last distillery in Ireland to cease production, operating from the early 1820s until 1978.During the mid-18th century, the Coleraine area was home to a thriving legal distilling industry, but the 1779 Distilling Act, which inadvertently discouraged the licensed distillation of high quality spirit, and the enduring popularity of illicitly-distilled poitin meant that by the early years of the 19th century, all legal whiskey-making in Coleraine had ceased.Then, around 1820, a mill in Newmarket Street,Coleraine, owned by John Rennie was converted into a distillery,though records of its early history are sketchy. It began to produce whiskey some time after 1822,and in 1838 the distillery was purchased by Michael Ferrar.By 1845 the highly regarded Coleraine ‘make’was to be found in the bars of the House of Commons.After operating the distillery for a decade, Ferrar sold it on to James Moore, who already owned the town’s Bann distillery,and following Moore’s death in 1868 the distillery passed into the ownership of local businessman Robert Taylor.At the time when Alfred Barnard visited Coleraine in the 1880s, output was a comparatively modest 100,000 gallons a year,and the spirit was aged for the lengthy period of 10 years.The wash still had a capacity of 2,700 gallons and the two spirit stills held a mere 550 gallons each, while Power’s vast John’s Lane distillery in Dublin boasted a pair of 25,000 gallon wash stills!The strong reputation of Coleraine whiskey helped the distillery to survive into the 20th century, but it finally succumbed to market forces during the early 1920s,by which time it was in the hands of Robert Taylor’s nephew, Andrew Clarke.Unlike many distilleries that fell silent during the 1920s never to distil again,Coleraine was acquired in 1935 by William Boyd,whose family had purchased nearby Bushmills in 1923, and distillation subsequently resumed.The Second World War halted distilling once more, and in 1946 the Boyd’s sold Bushmills and Coleraine to Isaac Wolfson’s Great Universal Stores, which rationalised the combined distilling venture so that all malting took place at Bushmills and bottling at Coleraine,where a bottling facility had been established in the late 1880s. 1954 saw the installation of a Coffey still at Coleraine,and though the plant continued to produce malt whiskey for another decade, concentration was largely on grain spirit.The 1960s were a period when both the brewing and distilling industries experienced rapid changes of ownership, with takeovers and mergers being the order of the day, and in 1964 Great Universal Stores sold its distilling interests to the English brewing giant Charrington United Breweries.Thereafter, they were sold on to Seagram and then to the Irish Distillers Group in 1972.The writing was already on the wall for the comparatively small and outdated Coleraine operation, and Irish Distillers’ stopped using its Coffey still in 1978 when grain spirit production was concentrated at their Midleton distilling, which had opened in 1975.Soon, all whiskey-making ended at Coleraine, and the principal buildings of the distillery were demolished, though some of the ancillary structures survived and found new commercial uses.The Coleraine brand name endures in the shape of a blended whiskey, produced at Midleton and in the occasional bottle of Coleraine malt whiskey, distilled in 1959 and bottled in 1993 by Irish Distillers.Fewer than 400 bottles of this 57.1% expression were produced, and bottle number 121 sold at McTear’s Glasgow auction house for £550 in September 2000.At the time, the catalogue entry for this lot noted that “The quality of Coleraine Whiskey has never been surpassed for mellowness and purity.This excellence is not only attributed to the water from the well blessed by St Finan in the 6th century, but also to the catacombs (cellars) wherein the spirit rested on its long slow journey to maturity. ” That £550 purchase now looks something of a steal in view of the fact that the Wright Wine & Whisky Co is currently offering a bottle on behalf of a private vendor for £1,400.