PR invite // All thoughts and opinions are, of course, my own.
I’m just back from a lovely couple of days in Northern Ireland. It was my first time ever across to Ireland and definitely a trip to remember. I was visiting with Invest Northern Ireland so discover more of the food & drinks scene around Belfast and we managed to visit five different distilleries, three restaurants and the Invest Northern Ireland food & drinks showcase so it was an itinerary packed with experiences!
Staying at Grand Central Belfast
I flew from Edinburgh to Belfast City Airport with Aer Lingus which was very convenient as the flight time is only 55 minutes and the airport was a short taxi ride of about 15 minutes from the hotel. We were staying at the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast and I had a spacious room on the ninth floor with a lovely big bed. I slept really well all of the nights during the stay, and much thanks to how comfortable the bed was but also that it was possible to turn the AC down to 16 C so it was lovely and cool in the room. We also had breakfast at the hotel, which was buffet style and a variety of toast, porridge (with or without a dram of Bushmills Whiskey), yoghurts, cereals and hot items such as scrambled eggs, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, hash browns, soda bread and potato scones. The scrambled eggs get a pass from me, and I’m quite picky, and also really enjoyed the hash browns and hot items although the rest of the buffet seemed a bit tired and if you wanted tea & coffee you had to go up to a desk and collect it for your table rather than someone bringing it to you. It’s a spacious and large hotel which feels elegant and clean, and if you get lost in the city it’s easy to find your way back as you can see the hotel from afar because of its height.
I was also thrilled to find some treats in my room – I just love a goodie bag! It was a mix of local Northern Irish producers with everything from kombucha, whisky and chocolate to candles, crisps and a cookbook.
Whisky Tasting at The Friend at Hand with Hidden Tours Belfast
Our visit kicked off with a trip into town and Belfast Hidden Tours took us to The Friend at Hand shop and mini-museum where our first whiskey tasting of the trip waited. If you are a whiskey fan visiting Belfast you really should try to visit The Friend at Hand, because it is quite the spectacular place. There are so many different whiskies displayed in the glass cabinets and if you want to buy something you can go to the shop at the front of the building, as unfortunately none of the museum items are for sale.
After a couple of minutes of walking around the room and admiring the bottles, we were introduced to Paul who is the founder of Belfast Whiskey Week and the Belfast Whiskey Club. He took us through to the tasting room where he’d set up a tasting of three different Irish whiskeys.
First up we had the McConnells Sherry Cask Finish. An Irish whiskey matured for 5 years in first fill ex-bourbon followed by oloroso with notes of sweet honey, wood and spice. Quite approachable but I would’ve expected a bit more from this combination of cask types, perhaps my palate was just a little tired this evening. One interesting thing worth mentioning about Irish whiskey is that there are not that many distilleries that actually sell their own whiskey. This is because for a long time there really only were two distilleries across the country: Bushmills and Midleton so the younger distilleries source whiskey from them and bottle under their own name in spite of not having whiskey themselves just yet. I don’t mind distilleries doing this, but I think they should be transparent about the situation as I’ve met a couple of people in the past (not on this trip) who are reluctant to say if the whiskey in the bottle is from them or somewhere else. The whiskey made at Midleton and Bushmills is really good, so it’s definitely not bad quality, but I do of course prefer trying whiskey from the distillery itself. With that mentioned McConnells is one of the brands that bottle sourced whiskey, since their distillery is being built in Belfast. I had the chance to go visit the Belfast Distillery Company which will open next year so I’ve written more about it later on in this post.
The second whiskey in our tasting was a delicious Bushmills from an Amarone cask, bottle by The Friend at Hand. It had notes of rich and sweet stewed fruits, berries and caramelised red apple. It stood up well against adding a couple of drops of water as well and it brought out more Haribo peach sweets.
The last whiskey of the tasting was also quite spectacular. This was the Dunville’s 2023 Belfast Whiskey Week bottling, distilled at Cooley Distillery and finished in a PX cask and 20 years old. It was a rich dram with a golden round fruitiness of plums and nectarine, slightly grassy with sweet honey and spices. Future spirit will come from Echlinville Distillery, which we also managed to visit during our trip.
Dinner at Waterman House
Following the tasting we were all quite hungry so good thing the next stop was just across the street at Waterman House where dinner awaited.
Chef Niall McKenna showed us a demonstration of how he made the first course, which was scallops and then we sat down at the table to enjoy that same course. The food was delightful and felt really fresh with a lovely balance of texture and flavours. For mains, we enjoyed a lovely meat course with incredible layered potatoes, chimichurri and root vegetables. For dessert, we were served a cheese board and to everyone’s delight, there were also Irish coffees waiting. Definitely one of the best Irish coffees I’ve ever had. This is now my standard for Irish coffees and everything else will be a disappointment.
Invest Northern Ireland Food & Drink Showcase at Clandeboye Lodge Hotel
After a good night’s sleep, we headed over to Clandeboye Lodge Hotel where Invest Northern Ireland were hosting their Food & Drink Showcase.
I thoroughly enjoy discovering and meeting brands that I’ve not come across before, and especially when they are local and small businesses to that area. Some of the standouts from the show were the Killowen Pangur poitin, Two Stacks Irish Whiskey Cream Liqueur, Boatyard Gin and Vodka, Symphonia Irish Apple Gin, Long Meadow Farm Apple Juice and Irish Cider Vinegar. Would love to come back and visit Killowen, Boatyard, Two Stacks and Long Meadow Farm in particular.
After a warming lunch at the show, it was time to jump in the vans once more and head back to Belfast to visit Belfast Distillery Company.
The distillery will be set in an old prison and it was fascinating to walk around the building – which is currently a building site so we made sure to be safe with helmets, steel caps and hi-vis vests.
It will be so fun to come back in 2024 and see it all once it is up and running. There were some mock up sketches of the room designs that we got to see, and inside the building you can see all the jail cells, so it will be an interesting one for visitors for sure!
Titanic Belfast Experience
Before visiting Titanic Distillers, we enjoyed a tour of the Titanic Belfast Experience, as the ship was built and set sail from the harbour. It was a well-designed experience and so much information, memorabilia and even a ride involved in the tour. Just bear in mind that you can’t bring any food and drinks in, but it’s a lovely experience for anyone with the slightest interest in the Titanic or the history of Belfast. I even cried a little, as I really felt for all those victims of the accident and what really got me was seeing the Swedish names on the long list of those who lost their lives. Such a tragic piece of history. But don’t worry it is not all gloom and darkness, as it’s also fascinating to see how the rooms and bunks would’ve looked, what the menu in the restaurant would have been and how this massive ship was even built. The museum is also situated right by the harbour, with lovely views over the water, and there’s also a souvenir shop and a café in the building.
Titanic Distillers at Thompson Dock Tour
Just a short journey from the museum sits Titanic Distillers. This is one of the most unique distilleries I’ve seen since the production is suspended above the original pump well in this historic Pumphouse. We had a tour through the production area and then also a tasting of their sugar beet vodka, new make and sourced whisky. The vodka was really tasty, and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with the vodka on this trip. Who would’ve thought I’d go to Northern Ireland and come back with a new appreciation for vodka?
Dinner at The Titanic Hotel
To end the day we went to The Titanic Hotel for dinner. I enjoyed quail to start followed by the sirloin steak with baby potatoes on the side and chocolate cake for dessert. A very enjoyable meal in the Wolff Grill restaurant and I left feeling really full.
Hinch Distillery Tour
The following day three more distilleries awaited and first up was Hinch Distillery. I was really impressed with Hinch as they had a really approachable tour which utilised several different sensory aids which I have not seen before like a hand-held mini diffuser filled with new make so that you could get the aroma of the new make better rather than just nose it from a glass. I got cider and floral honey aromas. It’s also quite the stunning distillery with stained glass windows (I freakin love a stained glass window!) and the line up of the stills. After our tour we also sat down for a tasting and found out that on the day we were there was the 3 year birthday celebration of when they ran their first spirit at Hinch. So now they legally have their own spirit and it will be so exciting to see what their whiskey will be like in the future. In the meantime they have also bottled sourced whiskey and have just released a Madeira-cask finish as part of their new Connoisseur Collection which I really enjoyed. So much tropical fruit along with sweetness and a touch of wood – right up my street!
We were also lucky enough to try their peated new make which was also really good, so my prediction is that good things will come from Hinch in the next few years.
Next up was Rademon Estate Distillery where the Shortcross Gin and Whiskey is made. In comparison to the other distilleries we visited Rademon actually releases their own spirit. The distillery sits on a beautiful estate and is run my husband and wife team Fiona and David who started up the distillery in 2013, initially making gin before also venturing into whiskey in 2015. We had a look around production and also got to try wort, which is always fun. The tour ended with a tasting of both their core release whiskey and some exciting upcoming releases.
The core release is double distilled, using 100% Irish malt and is called the Rye & malt edition. It uses malted barley and malted rye and is matured for at least five years in a combination of ex-bourbon and chinkapin oak casks. Their whisky is also non chill-filtered and natural colour, bottled at 46% but there is also a cask strength version at 66%. It’s a very approachable whiskey and I really like it. It has notes of sweet fudge and fresh orange with soft rye spice.
The other releases we got a preview of were one whiskey matured in a combination of virgin American oak and ex-bourbon, one in virgin American oak, ex-bourbon and first fill ex-cognac casks and finally one really quirky peated whiskey matured for 7 years in cognac and orange liqueur casks. The ex-cognac was delightful as I really enjoy the influence of cognac casks with floral fruitiness, cognac on the nose and honey with green orchard fruits on the palate. So fun to try! The orange liqueur cask matured whiskey was just crazy. I had a nose and a taste before being told what it was and I just got orange. There were hints of smoke on the nose but the palate had more of a charred tone with herbal smoke. I’d just describe is as weird & wonderful and I have so much space on my whisky shelves for whiskies like these.
The new whiskies are set to be released throughout 2024 so keep an eye on their website if you are curious.
Lunch at Poacher’s Pocket
After two distilleries it was perfect to sit down for a warming and filling pub lunch at Gastro pub Poacher’s Pocket. I went for fried feta cubes with chili honey drizzle followed by chicken and potatoes with green beans. This was such an enjoyable meal. The chicken was a massive portion, so I struggled to finish it but the potato was perfectly cooked, the chicken skin was crisp and it was exactly what I needed in between distillery tours. If I’m in the area again I’d definitely make sure to stop by. Especially as they also have a cute little shop where they sell everything from cheese, sausages and pastries to jams, vinegar and wine.
The final distillery of the trip was Echlinville Distillery. The distillery sits in a beautiful building with big glass walls which displays the stills in a lovely way. Echlinville is also fairly young and they are working on expanding the site in the coming year, as there is currently some ruins of buildings sitting on the area at the moment. This is another distillery that will be exciting to follow the journey of. Currently the distillery produced a gin made from 100% barley. We got to try the new make fresh of the stills which was really enjoyable and not harsh at all and to top the whole visit off we also got to try a single cask whiskey straight from a cask. And it was a lovely single grain! Sweet and rich in all the best ways, packed with flavour.
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