Ulster Whiskey Blog
Recently I was in Derry and got talking to a tour guide and he was explaining how fantastic things were going for the city. “The Americans love coming here. They can’t get enough of the history and can’t believe how friendly the people are….” The chap was engaging and you could tell he genuinely was in love with his home city. The fact he could make a living sharing it with others was something that he obviously found slightly bewildering. Growing up in the city amidst the troubles the guy would never have envisaged that an opportunity like this would ever present itself, but you never can tell what the future holds.
I asked him what he knew about the old Watt distilleries and he shook his head. I mentioned the fact that this place was at one point the largest employer in the city and was one of the largest distilleries in the world, with a worldwide reputation and adverts on Yankee stadium billboards. When the legendary Babe Ruth stood at the plate, to swing for a homerun, his backdrop would have been for Tyrconnell whiskey advert. The friendly guide recognised the Tyrconnell brand, not that hard since there was a small copy of one on the wall further down the bar. It’s no real shock that even a knowledgeable chap like the guide didn’t know about this distillery since there is hardly a trace of it left. Standing on the wall at the Butcher’s gate looking out over the site there is nothing to show that the site once distilled 2,000,000 gallons of whiskey per annum, and a fine whiskey it was.
The Watts of Thornhill were hard working, innovative and exceptionally stubborn (“Thran” is a term used in Ulster for such stubborn people) There was 300+ people employed in the distillery including some of the finest blenders in Ireland. Dozens of Malt men to in the 2 malt houses that worked 16 tons of Malt 4 times a week. The scale of the site was immense, covering 8 acres just outside of the city’s North wall from Abbey St. right up the walls at Fahan St. . 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.
Watt’s distillery had 3 brands that were on sale across the world: Tyrconnell, Favourite and Innishowen and these were sold as far away as Canada and Nigeria, England and the West Indies and it put Derry on the map. The industry was growing from strength to strength. Watt united his 2 Derry operations (The was a smaller distillery in Spencer St. on the Waterside) with two Belfast distilleries, the small Avoniel, owned by William Higgins and the Irish Distillery Ltd., Connswater, to form the United Distilleries Company Limited (UDC). 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. Things came to a head 1921 when the workers of Abbey St. went on strike. Looking for better conditions and pay the workers went to the gates. Now the famed the Watts stubbornness would be seen for all. As the crowd stood at the gate a yellow Roll-Royce drove up the hill. 68 year old A. A. climbed out of the car and onto the top of a Whiskey barrel. “Well men, I shall put it to you like this …what is it to be? Will you open the gates?”
The workers retorted angrily- “The gates stay shut!”
“Very well!’ exclaimed Watt bluntly. ‘Shut they are, and shut they shall remain!” and with that the distillery was gone. It never opened again. A.A. Watt moved to England and died there, never returning to Ireland. It was a huge blow to the Bogside and in some ways it never recovered. Poverty was a hall mark of the area for decades.
The legacy of Watt was almost gone completely, all that remained was one building on Distillery Brae, until in 1988 the mighty Cooley distillery revived the Watts flagship brand of Tyrconnell. This historic bottle is so called because the legend goes that a racehorse owned by the Watt’s won the national produce stakes at a price of 100-1. The chestnut colt features on the bottle label to this day (The Irish and their horses!) Distilled at Cooley and stored at the old Locke distillery in Kilbeggan Tyrconnell has won numerous prizes and is part of the renaissance that is happening in Irish whiskey at the time.
Hopefully the guide I met will add this story to the tour he takes everyday and explain a little more about the history of Londonderry and the links with drinks that shaped the world.