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.”
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.