Whiskey in the jail
Former bus driver Peter Lavery won the lotto, bought a DeLorean car and started a whiskey company which is about to move to the old Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast
Peter Lavery at the launch of his £5 million pound investment to bring a distillery to Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast. Photograph: Bill Smyth
Peter Lavery has left his gull-winged John Z DeLorean car at home, instead driving his Mercedes into the large yard of the old Crumlin Road jail, new home of his Belfast Distillery Company.
He passes the area where the 17 men, hanged in the jail between 1854 and 1961, are buried and parks alongside the old A-Wing where his Danny Boy and Titanic whiskeys and JHP shortly will be distilled.
JHP? Jail House Poteen.
This larger-than-life lottery multi-millionaire is quietly excited. “Irish whiskey is very sexy,” he says, as he brings me inside the prison, soon to be transformed into a distillery and visitor centre.
From the nationalist working class Short Strand in east Belfast, he is the main investor in the £4.8 million (€5.66m) project which is to employ up to 70 people at the distillery and create an additional visitor centre for a city now firmly on the global tourist map.
Some 17 years ago, when he was a bus driver earning £300 a week, he won £10.2 million in the British National Lottery; the numbers ingrained for ever: 4, 12, 13, 33, 40 and 46. As soon as he received the cheque he got out of the country for an exotic holiday to “clear his head”. When he returned his local post office had 14,000 letters waiting for him, most of them begging letters.
“Winning the lottery certainly changed me from driving buses but it hasn’t changed me as a person,” says 51-year-old, who reckons he is onto another winner having recently got planning permission from the Northern Executive to open a distillery at the old Victorian prison.
He has sampled plenty of his own brands, as the whiskeys were previously made, on his behalf, at the Cooley Distillery in Co Louth. He developed a taste for high living with his lottery win in 1996. That included an investment in his DeLorean car, as well as in pubs and property , and he has generally been enjoying the good life.
But he won’t be sampling his own products when, in just over three years, the first whiskeys made at Crumlin Road distillery will be bottled. “
I have borderline diabetes and stopped drinking three years ago,” he explains. “At that stage my doctor said, ‘If you don’t get yourself busy again you will be dead’. He was probably right.”
He’s minding his health now. “You can only go on so many holidays, you can only eat so many dinners, you can only go to so many good restaurants. I could not get up tomorrow morning and do nothing; I just have to do something.”
The imposing grey basalt building was constructed between 1846 and 1850. At the height of the Troubles some 2,000 republicans and loyalists were imprisoned or remanded there, often four to a cell. Inmates included the Rev Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams, the Shankill Butchers, David Ervine, Michael Stone and, further back, Eamon de Valera. The last of the 17 men hanged there was Robert McGladdery, in 1961, for the murder of 19-year-old Pearl Gamble near Newry earlier that year.
There’s a ghost too, of course, in a “haunted cell” where a prisoner hanged himself. It was used as a storeroom rather than a cell, says Lavery. Warders were reluctant to enter. “We were told by paramilitaries and prison officers that the prison dogs wouldn’t go near the cell.”
All this, and the story of whiskey distilling in Belfast, will be part of the narrative of the visitor centre. A-Wing has three floors with an additional long roof space which will house a conference and function room. About 100 of the 180 cells in this wing will be knocked to help accommodate the three large copper stills being manufactured in Forsyth in Scotland: “Forsyth is the Rolls Royce of still-making.”