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
An adjoining wing, a separate enterprise, is a museum where visitors can learn about the history of the prison. Between November and May, it attracted 40,000 visitors – “And that was 40,000 visitors when the flags protests were taking place,” he stresses. He envisages 100,000 people visiting the distillery each year, a decent percentage of them taking home a bottle or two of his whiskey. “We believe we have a £3 million business, plus the sales of the matured whiskey,” he adds. “Not a problem.”
A single man with no children, Lavery is shrewd but also a gambler and natural optimist. In terms of attracting so many visitors, selling all his product and building up stores of top-class blended whiskey and single malt, he simply repeats his mantra: “Not a problem”.
He is getting bourbon casks from Kentucky, supplied by Jim Beam, to hold the whiskey. For whiskey to be declared as Irish it must be laid down for three years and one day and be fully distilled on the island of Ireland.
Some of the casks will be held in the cells, some in a store outside the old prison. At one of the cells, Lavery, acting like a judge, intones what he will say when the first cask is ready: “You are sentenced to a minimum of three years and a day with no remission and you will be mature by the time you get out.”
The Belfast Distillery Company will produce 300,000 litres of pure malt alcohol each year. One-third of that will be blended with hundreds of thousands of litres of pure grain alcohol from a number of sources to produce 160,000 cases of blended whiskey and JHP annually.
The remaining two-thirds will be left to mature to produce pure malt whiskies ranging in age from three to six, to 10 years and older. The three-year-old malt will be of limited production as a “novelty thing”. Most will be six years and older. Selling the blended bottles will allow the distillery to “hang on to as much malt whiskey as possible”, says Lavery.
The distillery will have a Clink Bar and restaurant and each visitor will get a glass of whiskey at the end of the tour. “There will be a wow-factor. I don’t think there will be anything else in Belfast that will match this,” says Lavery confidently.
The whiskeys already have a foothold in the US and parts of Europe as Jim Beam, the owner of Cooley Distillery, continues to make a limited number of cases of Danny Boy and Titanic until the Belfast distillery is in full production.
Lavery has surrounded himself with people who know the business, such as the former general manager of Cooley Distillery, David Hynes, and Michael Morris, also formerly of Cooley, who is his globe-trotting international sales director.
“This is also about selling Northern Ireland,” he says. “I hope and pray this is a major success for us because the more things tourists have to do in Northern Ireland the more time they will spend here. Titanic Belfast visitor centre proved that point.”
So will his Titanic and Danny Boy whiskeys, he reckons.