As the story of Irish whiskey has grown, Belfast and its famously friendly locals have rallied to welcome fans of the dram.
Sure, the area is home to some long-standing whiskey institutions, but the capital in the North is fast becoming popular for new distillers, experimental cocktail makers and budding restaurateurs, all keen to further the story – as narrated here for Whisky Wednesday by Stuart Irvine of Whisky Belfast.
What’s the best place to have a dram?
Whilst most tourists flock to the classic surroundings of The Crown Bar on Great Victoria Street, I prefer to head to Bittles Bar. Being Belfast’s only ‘flatiron’ building (see picture), this place oozes character. Head inside and you’ll find, in my opinion, one of the best selections of whiskey in Belfast. The owner, John Bittles, is ahead of the game when it comes to newly released Irish whiskeys, making sure his bar has a new bottle before any other in Belfast.
Where would you go for a whiskey cocktail?
Mixology is coming to the fore across the world and many bars in Belfast are getting in on the act, but if I had to pick one venue to enjoy a fine cocktail, then it would have to be The Merchant Hotel. For me a great cocktail starts with great ingredients, and at The Merchant Hotel you are not disappointed. Once inside you are surrounded by luxurious décor and what better way to enjoy such surroundings by treating yourself to a whiskey cocktail like no other you’d find in Belfast.
What about restaurants with a good selection?
This is a tricky question as Belfast, in my opinion, is still learning to combine food and drink. There are many fine restaurants but when it comes to the whiskey side of things, they often let themselves down with a standard selection of drams. An exception, however, would have to be The Hudson Bar. Whilst the food may not be the fanciest you’ll ever see, it’s guaranteed to leave you satisfied and ready for the night ahead.
How about a local tipple?
Local distilling used to be exclusively summed up with one word: Bushmills. But in recent times things have started to get a little more exciting. Already up and running is The Echlinville Distillery, which is based about 20 miles outside Belfast down the County Down coast. They have been instrumental in bringing the Dunville’s brand back into the market and I expect great things from them in the future. I’d also mention Shortcross. Based in Crossgar, a little south of Belfast, they have hit the ground running with their much revered gin, and already begun laying down new make whiskey spirit into barrels. All-in-all it’s an extremely exciting time for Irish whiskey, and specifically Northern Irish whiskey. Long may it continue.
Where would you shop for whiskey?
There’s only one answer for me and it’s The Vineyard. Whatever your taste in alcohol, this is the place to be. They boast a carefully selected range of whiskey and they have most styles covered from Irish to Japanese and blended to single cask. Staff are knowledgeable beyond belief and they’ll take the time to make sure you find that perfect bottle. If whiskey isn’t your thing, then you can also find a fine selection of wine, beer and other spirits. A top, top retailer.
What about a hidden gem?
For this I am going to choose something that’s brand new to Belfast. Taste & Tour, along with Whiskey Club N.I., have created Belfast’s first ever walking whiskey tour. Literally launched this month, the tour will run once a month and will take punters on a tour of five Belfast bars whilst treating them to eight very different drinks. Operating around Belfast’s ‘Cathedral Quarter’, the tour takes participants through the history of Irish whiskey, bringing people together to talk about it. For too long Belfast has been crying out for something new to introduce people to whiskey, and now they have it.