In search of lost gold

Shortcross Distillery’s David Boyd-Armstrong on heritage, innovation, and why a new generation of Northern Irish whiskey makers are taking the distilling world by storm


In 1908, the north of Ireland was a hotbed of distilling, with more than two-thirds of the island’s spirits reportedly hailing from the area that is now Northern Ireland. Times change though and, over a couple of generations, this centre of gravity drifted gradually south, until the venerable Bushmills was the only whiskey distillery left flying the flag for the north. The international rise of craft alcohol in the 2000s though brought drinkers keen to learn more about this heritage, and aspiring distillers passionate about reviving what was thought lost, giving rise to an exciting new crop of craft Irish whiskies. 

Among the most notable of this new wave is Shortcross Distillery, headed up by husband and wife team David and Fiona Boyd-Armstrong. Inspired by a book on Ireland’s lost whiskey distilleries, Fiona had long dreamed of resurrecting Northern Ireland’s distilling heritage; it was an itch that grew over time, until in 2011 she and David finally felt ready to leave their respective careers in property and the defence industry, to strike out on their own. 

“We really went down the rabbit hole of distilleries,” recalls David. “Every weekend, every holiday, we were doing courses with the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, doing courses in America. We were visiting distilleries literally everywhere in the world, from Seattle to Seoul, and having a hell of a good time along the way. And after two years, in January of 2013, we said ‘you know what we're going to do it’, so we ordered our first still that arrived the same summer.”

Shortcross started life as a gin distillery, primarily because that was where the pair’s interests lay at the time – Shortcross gin remains hugely popular and successful – but they quickly set their sights back on whiskey, attracted by the heritage and technical challenge of the spirit.

“We already had the pot still – the final part, if you like – so all we needed was a means to make beer, because of course whiskey is nothing more than distilled beer,” continues David. “So while we launched Shortcross gin into the marketplace, we were quietly in the background designing and fabricating our brewing plant.

“We always tell people that our process of making whiskey is not one of making alcohol, it's about making flavour, and a lot of that is down to the beer we brew. From how we draw the wort off the mash tun, whether it's cloudy or clear, through to the use of yeast, all of these things matter. Our fermentation time is typically 170 to 180 hours, so very much a secondary fermentation, and we believe that impacts flavour aroma, and mouthfeel.”

Shortcross began production of its Single Malt Irish Whiskey in the summer of 2015, and has been laying down casks of its renowned peated whiskey since the start of 2016. David believes he now has the oldest stock of peated whiskey, outside of Cooley Distillery, on the island of Ireland. “Everyone told us we were crazy, that no one wants smoky Irish whiskey. Eight years later, it's one of the hottest categories on the island.”

David and Fiona’s decision to risk a smoky, peated whiskey – not a common beast in Ireland – reflects a wider experimental boldness which has characterised Shortcross’s development, and earned it an ardent following.

“We've done a lot with peat over the last few years, but we’ve also experimented a lot with different mash bills, which is the other thing I guess we’re known for. We have a single pot still Irish whiskey, but we also do a whiskey that's unique to us, which is a rye and malt; we’ve been laying down casks of that style for about six years now,” says David.

“The idea for that came when we were back in the US, in Maryland, for a distilling conference. I got really interested in American rye whiskey, and the history of German and Dutch settlers bringing that traditional brewing with rye. The Irish and the Scots basically have this heritage of distilling anything we can use to brew beer, and that became the foundation of what would become our rye malt Irish whiskey.”

This seems key to the journey that Fiona and David have taken more broadly; from a fascination with an all-but lost regional craft, through the revival of that craft, and quickly onto evolution, drawing from their own experiences and from the idea that tradition can be shared, remixed and renewed. 

“We're very much an Irish distillery at heart,” he says. “But we take inspiration from our travels. After all, what is Irish Whiskey but a grain-based spirit that's distilled and matured in wooden casks, for a minimum of three years, on the island of Ireland? When you strip it back, it’s such a simple thing. The ability to influence it by your own tastes, ideas and experiences, that's what makes it interesting, that's what makes each distillery unique.”

Enjoying rather more creative freedom than their peers in the Scotch Malt Whisky industry, Irish distilleries are evolving rapidly, and part of Northern Ireland’s whiskey renaissance has undoubtedly been driven by the ability to pursue new ideas and bold flavours. 

“People don't realise that large chunks of Belfast city centre were dedicated to bonded warehousing for whiskey production. From Cornmarket Street, along Skipper Street, right down in the Customs House Square, Belfast was a whiskey city as much as it was shipbuilding and linen. So I think being part of bringing back something that's uniquely ours, that'd be great. The beautiful thing for us though is that food and drink knows no flags and knows no borders, and we do those things really, really well on the island of Ireland. I think everyone distilling in Northern Ireland today would agree with that, which is what makes it so exciting.” 

Killowen Distillery

In the heart of the Mourne Mountains, Killowen Distillery embodies the essence of traditional Irish craft distilling, earning it a passionate following. Renowned for its commitment to quality, Killowen's offerings include an excellent single cask poitín and rare whiskey Barántúil.

Take a sip: Killowen Belgrove Rye (buy here)

A collaboration of sorts with the renowned Tasmanian distillery Belgrove, this whiskey packs a big, sweet punch, with dried fruit, spice and boozy rum notes.

Echlinville Distillery

Echlinville, Northern Ireland's first licensed distillery in over 125 years, is an independent family-owned business, best known for producing Dunville’s Irish Whiskey. The distillery sets itself apart with a true ‘field-to-glass’ ethos, overseeing every stage of production. Its whiskeys, known particularly for their exceptional sherry cask finishes, have garnered global acclaim. It’s also got a cracking tour and visitor centre.

Take a sip: 21 Year Old Palo Cortado Sherry Finish Cask 1197 (buy here)

From a rather dizzying portfolio, Dunville's 21 Year Old Palo Cortado Sherry Finish Cask 1197 stands out as a clear winner. Pricey, but well worth it for the winner of the 2022 Irish Whiskey Awards.

Rademon Estate Distillery

As Northern Ireland's first craft distillery, established in 2012, Rademon Estate is renowned for its Shortcross Gin and more recently, its Irish Whiskey. The distillery has earned a reputation for innovation, pushing the envelope of Irish distilling with innovative techniques, unusual mash bills, and even a peated whiskey. 

Take a sip: Shortcross Single Malt Whiskey, 5yo, Inaugural Release (buy here)

Yes, it’s £300 for a 5yo whisky, but this is really special. Double distilled on Rademon Estate Distillery’s tiny original 450L copper pot still, matured fully in Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux Red Wine casks before being finished in chinquapin oak, the first time this unique cask combination has been used in Irish Whiskey.

Bushmills Irish Whiskey

Established in 1608, Bushmills claims to be the world's oldest licensed whiskey distillery, and is undoubtedly one of the most iconic alcohol brands on the island of Ireland. This historic distillery produces a smooth, triple-distilled single malt whiskey, in a range of classic and innovative styles. Its portfolio spans everything from accessible blends to rare and aged single malts.

Take a sip: Bushmills Single Malt Aged 12 Years (buy here)

The distillery’s age statement whiskies are a step up from its standard expression, and the 12yo hits a sweet spot between quality and price. Finished with a few years in a marsala wine cask, it's spicy and nutty, with clear apple notes – blossom and dark cider.

Copeland Distillery

Copeland Distillery, founded in 2016 on a historic maritime site in Donaghadee, produces a diverse range of spirits, including Irish gins, rums, as well as whiskey. The distillery sources its ingredients locally, creating unique blends that echo the region's culture, traditions and history. Copeland's commitment to community and heritage, coupled with its inventive philosophy, makes it a distinct presence in the Irish spirits landscape.

Take a sip: Copeland’s Merchants' Quay Irish Whiskey Barolo Finish (available via Amazon)

 As the name suggests, this mouth-watering dram is finished in Italian Barolo barrels, lending it layers of spicy, fruity sweetness. 

Hinch Distillery

Situated among the rolling hills of County Down, Hinch is a thoroughly modern outfit, harnessing the latest technology and distilling science to make some truly innovative, high-quality spirits, including Hinch Irish Whiskey and Ninth Wave Irish Gin.

Take a sip: Aged 5 Years Double Wood (available via Amazon)

A hallmark of Hinch’s whiskies is how good they are even at a young age, so our pick is its 5yo double wood, a blend of single malt and grain whiskey, matured in first fill bourbon casks followed by a further year in Virgin Oak casks. Smooth and delicious, perfect for sipping or mixing.

Titanic Distillers

Inspired by Belfast's shipbuilding legacy, Titanic Distillers, established in 2021, is situated in the historic Titanic Quarter. The brand is a tribute to Belfast's industrial heritage, offering a unique visitor experience that showcases the tradition and innovation of Irish whiskey production. 

Take a sip: Titanic Premium Irish Whiskey (buy here)

This sure-fire crowd pleaser combines the light, vanilla sweetness of Irish grain whiskey with the rich spice of malt, and just a whisper of savoury peat smoke.

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