Through the 18th and 19th Century, Irish whiskey went from strength to strength, but at the beginning of the 20th century, legislation enacted across the sea in the United States practically brought the whiskey industry in Ireland to its knees.
The United States was the biggest international market for Irish whiskey, and that country’s enactment of prohibition forced the steals to stop and the distilleries that housed them often to close their doors.
One such distillery was JJ McConnell’s, a brand that was the darling of Belfast and had existed since 1776. In the decades that followed, the brand lived on only as a memory, a whiskey from another time. But luckily, the brand’s story doesn’t end there.
In 2020, the newest and yet one of the oldest names in Irish whiskey started to be seen again from across bars from Belfast to Boston.
To find out more, we talked to global brand ambassador Sarah Kennedy about legacy, rebirth, and what it takes to recreate a fabled brand.
For more information, go to mcconnellsirishwhisky.com
Through the 18th and 19th century Irish whiskey went from strength to strength, but at the beginning of the 20th century, legislation enacted across the sea in the United States practically brought the whiskey industry in Ireland to its knees. The United States was the biggest international market for Irish whiskey, and that country's enactment of prohibition forced the steals to stop and the distilleries that housed them often to close their doors. One such distillery was Jane j McConnell's, a brand that was the dialing of Belfast and had existed since 1776 in the decades that followed the brand lived on only as a memory, a whiskey from another time. But luckily, the brand's story doesn't end there. In 2020, the newest and yet one of the oldest names in Irish whiskey started to be seen again from across bars from Belfast to Boston. To find out more, we talked to global brand ambassadors, Sarah Kennedy, about legacy, rebirth, and what it takes to recreate a fabled brand. Thank you for joining us, Sarah.
Sarah Kennedy (01:57):
Thank you very much for having me on the podcast. It's a great opportunity to be able to tell the story of McConnell's Irish whiskey from the history right through to, to the prosperous feature of the brand.
Now, speaking of the history, particularly in the 19th century, Irish whiskey was the most popular spirit in the world. Tell us a little bit about the brand's popularity and its history at that time.
Sarah Kennedy (02:23):
Well, not many people are actually aware, but Belfast City played a large part in Irish whiskey to distill in, which is, is quite strange cuz today there is no active distillery in Belfast just yet. But back in the 18 hundreds, it was one of the biggest producers of Irish whiskey on the island. I've even seen data to say that it was the biggest producer of Irish whiskey on the island, which is fascinating because Belfast is a huge industrial city. So it makes sense that Belfast would've produced a lot of Irish whiskey at the time. So McConnell's was really popular during that time. So during the 18 hundreds, right through to the early 19 hundreds, and actually dates back to 1776. So the branch started in 1776 with the McConnell's family, a family from Con in, in Northern Ireland, just outside Belfast City. And the family started the business in Belfast in the late 17 hundreds, but continued right through until the mid 19 hundreds.
So they had 125 years of strong production and a strong brand. But it wasn't until the late 18 hundreds that they actually built their distillery. Before that they were, you would call spur dealers and Spirit grocers and rectify and distillers. So the records that we have find show that the McConnell's family, Hugh McConnell, who was the father of John and James McConnell was noted as, as a spirit dealer and a spirit grocer. Then shortly after that Hugh McConnell sadly passed away at a very young age. So Eleanor McConnell, his wife, took over the business and she was noted as a rectify and distiller in the, in the late 18 hundreds. And she actually ran the business for 20 years until her two sons were old enough to, to take over the business at that stage to keep up with demand of Irish whiskey and also because McConnell's was becoming such a global name, particularly in the United States.
They built their distillery. So it was a large facility in the Raven Hill Road in Belfast where they distilled Irish whiskey, but they also had a brewery. So they had the JJ McConnell's Brewery and Distillery where they made various forms of beer, Irish whiskey, and also they had a whiskey laure at the time called Old Crew. So old c r o after the name of their distillery, which was the Cromack Distillery. But it was really popular across the world, across the globe particularly because the name of the distillery was called The Old Cromack Distillery because the McConnells were really clever brand builders of their time. And the Kmac water was world renowned for being a type of water that was taken from the wells in, in Belfast called the Cromack Wells. It was pure alkaline free water at the time, and it was used in the production of Ginger.
And ginger oil was actually invented in Belfast City. The first recipe came from Belfast, and a lot of people would think that it is actually Canadian because it was adopted quite heavily in Canada. But the original recipe comes from Belfast City and was world renowned for, in the export market. So the McConnells were really clever in that they, they had their distillery, the Cromack distillery, which attached itself to the water that they used in their distillery, which came from the cromack wells. So that, that continued on quite strongly until the early 1900, whenever the McConnells started to fall on quite difficult times, one of them being prohibition, obviously in America, it completely took away over half of their, their export market, which was a lot of their, at the time they were huge in the export market. But slightly before that, the McConnell started to see some tragedies, one of them being small-ish fire, which they managed to keep on top of in 1907.
But then they suffered quite a large fire in one of their bonded warehouses in 1909. And that was in a street called Dunbar Street in Belfast, which today you can still visit. There was a number of different bonded warehouses in the area from a number of different brands that were quite high profile and still are today. Mm-Hmm.
So they did get back up on their feet and they traded right up until the mid 1930s. But because there was a lot of civil unrest in Belfast at the time, there was also a lot of taxation at the time and a mixture of prohibition and the fact that this scotch whiskey market was starting to really take over after prohibition ended. The scotch whiskey market was able to keep up with the demand of whiskey in America because they invented this method of distillation in the, in the coffee still, which wasn't adopted by Ireland at the very beginning. It was something that, that was only later adopted by Irish distillers. So it, it meant that the McConnell's unfortunately closed the door in a time when Irish whiskey was starting to go in the demise. And that wasn't just McConnell's or just Belfast that was industry-wide. Yeah. A lot of distilleries would've closed their doors in the, in the early to to mid 19 hundreds. And that's whenever you start to see the, the real decline in art whiskey.
Tell us a little bit about the comeback. Who is trying to bring the brand to life again? Is it a descendant?
Sarah Kennedy (08:16):
So it's not a descendant, unfortunately. We, we did do a little bit of digging into the history of the McConnells to see if there was any of McConnell's still in Belfast or, or elsewhere in the world, but we were un unable to find anyone who connected directly to the distillery. But the comeback is something that was on the cards from 2016 when there was investors from the US that were visiting Belfast, and they saw the opportunity to, to bring back an old art whiskey brand from Belfast City because there was a real renaissance coming in in Irish whiskey. It was starting to grow. People could see it happening for, for the past 15 years, but it hadn't taken its form that it is today. So there was an opportunity there to, to bring back a brands that had a lot of heritage, but also we had secured a location that was really interesting, a massive part of our story and the investment in the regeneration of the brand and also of Irish whiskey and Belfast.
So it really started off as, as an investment opportunity. And then there was people who got involved in the project as time went on. I, I joined the team in 2020 whenever the product was launched. I'm, I'm actually currently the longest standing employee of Belfast Distillery Company who own McConnell's Irish whiskey. So Belfast Distillery Company are based in Belfast City. We currently have nine employees. We are growing at a really fast rate in terms of size of, of personnel, but also in global scale and global footprint. So really the reason why we're bringing McConnell's back is because we found this incredible brand with a lots of history and heritage. We also seen the opportunity in Belfast City, which for many years a lot of people would've avoided visiting. The tourism industry's really booming here in Belfast because over the past 20 years that's really rectified itself.
And so we're wanting to bring investment and opportunity to Belfast City and also the building that we're restoring, which is, is the Crum and Roge. It's an old Victorian prison in Belfast that has lots of history attached to it. It has prisoners from the famine, the suffragette movement, right up until the political prisoners in Belfast. And it only actually closes doors in 1996 mm-hmm.
How difficult is it, though, to reignite a brand like that?
Sarah Kennedy (11:05):
It's, it's difficult, but difficult. It may not be the right word. It's very rewarding. And there's challenges that you face with bringing any brand back because we don't have as much records. We don't have access to the old mash bills. We don't have records to exactly how they distill. We are going off basically some publications that they had in some articles that they wrote. Also a number of newspaper clippings and also what dial of whiskey would've been in the past. So we, we've taken as much of the research as we possibly could and brought it to life again. And with that, we tried our best to stay true to what McConnell's was in terms of how it looked, what the brand was like. The fact that we spell Irish whiskey slightly different than rest of of the market, but that is because the McConnell's brand always spelt whiskey without the e and before they closed their doors, they never actually adopted the e which, which I'll speak about in, in a second.
But bringing it back was difficult, but it was also incredibly rewarding. So you just need to make sure that you're keeping with history and you're keeping with heritage. You're not deviant too much away from the brand, but also having an understanding that consumers have changed, demographics have changed, people who are consuming and enjoying Irish whiskey has definitely evolved over the past 10 years. So it's about keeping with the market trends and understanding where your product is actually gonna place on the shelf, and from there it just kind of starts to grow bit by bit. You just have to keep trying.
So without the, the mash bills, presumably this is not going to be the same whiskey as was originally produced.
Sarah Kennedy (12:53):
It's one of those things, we don't have the marsh bells. Not very many of the old revival brands do have the marsh bells of their original Irish whiskey product, but that is because in history, the, the marsh bells would to change quite frequently due to availability of grains. Right. Also, taxation played a massive part, and also back in the 18 hundreds, it wasn't necessarily common for people to keep records as rigorously as they do today. Right. So there is a lot of research going into old Mashbill at the minutes in, in the Irish whiskey worlds. There's, there's people here are dedicating a lot of time and effort into researching old art whiskey mashables. So it's not uncommon for a lot of brands to not have the records of their old Mashables, but what we have tried to do is keep it true to art whiskey style, make sure that it's a brand that we release, that there's more to the story than just this one product, that there is a journey here, and that we have a long journey ahead of us where we can experiment and we can look into different finishes, different styles, single mots, different ages.
We're here for a long time. We're the McConnell's five year on the Sherry Cask finish that you see today are not the end of what McConnell's is gonna be in the future.
Apparently at auction, occasionally you can come across old bottles of McConnell's that are incredibly pricey. Has the brand actually bought some of the old bottles to sort of test out.
Sarah Kennedy (14:27):
We've actually only ever come across one of these bottles,
If you look at our whiskey today, most of the distilleries are in Dublin. But you were saying earlier that the stronghold of Irish whiskey in its heyday was actually Belfast. Why do you think it is changed cities like that? Why are you the only people coming back to Belfast?
Sarah Kennedy (15:43):
Well, Belfast has always been known as industrial from the linen mills, the ship building. Belfast built the Titanic. Harlem and Wolf built the Titan Titanic. It's because we are built on Belfast Lock. So it is an industrial city. Yeah. At the time, you can see why Belfast would've been quite world renowned for production in any way. So whiskey distilling was a big part of that. Some of the distilleries did adopt the column still, and so there would've been more bulk whiskey coming from Belfast as well. Yeah. There was only a, a few distilleries that survived, and whenever they joined together, the rest of the market basically didn't have any distilleries there. So whenever they started to boom again, you know, you had John Tilling who really is, is seen as someone who has brought Irish whiskey back to, to the form that it is today when he had the Coli distillery.
And, you know, a lot of, they saw bulk liquids, and then also you had the Great Northern Distillery, which has played a huge part in the revival of Irish whiskey. And then you have other brands that, that have sort of started to, to distill over, over time in all areas of Ireland. But it's starting to boom, not just in Belfast, you know, back 15 years ago, there was only three, maybe five distilleries at that stage around 15 years ago. And now you're coming to the stage where there's tech, like there's reports of 47 distilleries. I don't know if that's the exact number because some of them are technically gin distilleries. Some of them haven't moved into whiskey yet. Some of them haven't like commissioned their stills just yet, or are even our distillery. We are, our stills are only coming in in the next few months.
So there is still room for growth in the Irish whiskey world. So you're, you're talking over 40 distilleries now, so it's not just Belfast where this revival is happening. You're getting cork, Wexford all up north in, in in county di yeah. I mean, there's tons of distilleries that are starting to, to grow and to open their doors and start to distill in their whiskey. Right. You're getting it north, south, east, west of Ireland at the minutes where there's huge growth. But I think we decided to bring the distill back to Belfast because Belfast City did play a massive part in the whiskey world, and there was no distillery there. And at the minute there is direct flights coming into Dublin continuously from America, from other countries across the world. Tourism is really booming here. The hospitality industry is booming here. So if people are coming to visit, they should be able to come to Belfast to experience the whiskey experience as well, as well as Dublin. And I think the two cities are extremely close together, especially nowadays when you come off a flight Yeah. In Dublin, and you get up to Belfast within one hour, 40 minutes, it's, it's a really fast one road trip from Dublin airport to Belfast. So there's every reason why you should come visit Belfast for, for the whiskey experience as well.
Tell us a little bit more about the distillery that you are opening. When is it opening and what are the details?
Sarah Kennedy (18:52):
So as I mentioned before, we are open in our distillery in, in an all Victorian prison. It's a really awesome signed in project. It is really cool, but it's also because we wanted to regenerate a building that was already in existence that has a lot of heritage attached to it, and was, was basically sitting empty. Yeah. with no purpose for a long period of time. The actual gel itself closed as a gel in 1996 in the lead up to the, the Good Friday agreement in Belfast, where you've seen a lot of peace come into the city. So what we are trying to do is to open a distillery visitor experience and also to bring back this wonderful brand. So these three things come together. So the distillery is playing a huge part in the story of McConnell's. We are bringing distilling back to Belfast.
So it is going to be a single malt distillery, triple pot still malt is coming from our, our distillery. And the capacity of that is 500,000 LPAs a year. So it's actually currently more whiskey than what we could actually sell that capacity of the distillery. But on top of that, we'll have a visitor experience. So that starts with you come and visit the distillery. There's, there's different experiences that you can have while you're there. There'll be a blended experimental room where you can learn about blended art whiskey, because there are four categories of Irish whiskey. There's single malt, single pot, still single grain and blended Irish whiskey. So you can learn how to blend your own whiskey and how it can affect the flavour profile of, of Irish whiskey just by mixing different styles of Irish whiskey together and also different finishes of Irish whiskey.
So it's a really interesting room. It's educational. There's also a cocktail experience because we do, especially with our McConnell's five year, the, the green label bottle, it is a very versatile whiskey which means that it makes for an exceptional cocktail. The flavour profile of the whiskey is citrus, floral, honey, vanilla. Those notes marry quite well with cocktails. So with Alda Florida Cure with coffee in simple old fashioned serves, or in a Manhattan style, some of your traditional Irish whiskey cocktails are, are, are bourbon cocktails swapped that out for, for Irish whiskey. So the, the cocktail experimental room is somewhere where you can actually have a masterclass into the importance of cocktails and how they, wow. They have really helped the Irish whiskey introduce new people into the category. New consumers, people who are more skeptical about trying and neat spirits. Cocktails have played a huge part in that for us.
And on top of that, they'll be the third experience where you'll learn a high Irish whiskey is distilled right from grain to glass. And then also we'll have multiple function rooms where people in the area, or our distributors or our partners, or even along the lines, some weddings and functions could be held at the distillery. Mm-Hmm.
We aim to be open by October. I told you that this project started in 2016. I started in 2020. It's now 2023. So you can imagine it's been a long journey for us. We are restoring an old building, and with that comes a lot of work time, effort. You have to make sure that, that you're keeping the structural integrity of the building and also that you are maintaining the, the look and facade. It's a, it's a greati listed building. So there was lots of work done in the background until we got approval simply to, to build our distillery at that site. So it was an incredibly exciting day for us in, in August last year when we were eventually allowed to put the shovel in the ground and start to do some work. So it's an 18 month project altogether. And we, we started in, in July last year, and we hoped to be finished by the beginning of October of this year.
As you mentioned, you've released two products so far. Why did you choose the sherry cask expression as your second release?
Sarah Kennedy (23:41):
The two most common expressions are the bourbon finishes because we take a lot of the secondary bourbon barrels here in, in Ireland and also Sherry Cask finish for, for a number of reasons. It's a cask availability and also flavour profile. Bourbon casks are usually used in, in the maturation of, of, of a whiskey. And it needs to be at least three years to be in our Irish whiskey. Our product is actually five years old, but as a step in a slightly different direction, and we're in the innovative innovation direction, we decided to try our current blend, but finished in all ourso sherry tasks. All the, also sherry casks typically give off flavours of dark fruits, dried fruits, tobacco, some leather notes, and also less cinnamon spice. So it makes for a very different flavour profile than our original five year olds plant. But what's interesting about the two liquids is it's the same dis distillate, it's the same bland.
The only real fundamental difference is that it's finished in all roso sherry casks for six months to a year, depending on the batch and depending on the flavour profile, because it is done in all dollar roso cherry butts, it's done in batches rather than with the five year, which is not a small batch product, it's also non chill filtered. So it has more of a texture and a mouth feel to it. Mm. It also has a little bit more of a sensation on the pallet because it is a higher A B V whiskey, it's 46% A B V as opposed to the 42% a B v that, that the original blend is. So it is a bit more the step towards end of whiskey, but also it is one of, it's, it's in the, the cask finishing category as well. So that's why we chose a sherry cast in the first instance. But it's not the, it's not the end of our finishing series. We will have other, other finishes as time goes on. And we are already looking at our task management program where we're gonna be sourcing some really interesting tasks for some quite interesting whiskeys in the future.
Before we finish up, you were talking about adding or not adding the E to whiskey. Why did the McConnell's choose never to add it?
Sarah Kennedy (26:04):
The question I get asked a lot,
They were all spelt without the E and it was actually a change that was made in the 18 hundreds. And that was whenever the scotch whiskey market started to use this new method of distillation in the colon stills called the Cofi stills. And the Irish whiskey market actually had a bit of a fight against that and decided that this was whiskey and that whiskey was made in Potstills only. So a lot of the Irish whiskey distilleries of the time started to change the spelling of their whiskey to include the E and that was a differentiation point between the scotch whiskey and Irish whiskey. So there's no real definitive answer to why that happened, and there's no real record of it. But it became a trend for Irish whiskeys to be peled with the E. But this wasn't until after the McConnell's whiskey distillery actually closed their doors that that spelling made its way up north because it started off in Dublin and never actually made its way up north before the McConnell's stopped distill in whiskey. So they, they never actually adopted the E So to your point, in bringing back an old whiskey brand, we tried to stay true to the history and we didn't add the E to Irish whiskey, but it, it's not something in the technical file that is of significance because it actually says that you can spell it with the E and without the nice for Irish whiskey. So yeah. But it is a question we get asked a lot
Now you've shown us the bottle a couple of times. Is there any significant, I mean, you've kept as close as you can with the label from what I understand, but the shape of the bottle itself is quite interesting.
Sarah Kennedy (28:38):
It is, because if you look at everything on this label and I was to show you a picture of the old McConnell's bottle, the way they have separated the two labels like this in the design process is very similar to what it was back in history. And at the bottom of the old bottle you would've had some recommendations for the product. And those recommendations actually came from doctors. It was quite commonplace back in old Irish history to even write prescriptions for Irish whiskey. I've seen some pediatrician docs where it has been people who've, who have written way back in the early 18 hundreds. And obviously that is not something that, that we would do today in modern life. But back in history, whiskey was seen as medicinal, nearly Uisge Beath the water of life. Mm. and, and like any spirit, they started off in medic for medicinal purposes.
Mm. it wasn't about consumption in the way that we enjoy alcohol today. So as times went on, of course, number one, those doctors are not around anymore to tell that story or to recommend the whiskey. Yeah. And secondly, it, it, it wouldn't be right to put doctor's recommendations on, on a whiskey, but as a nod to history, because it is a part of history. It may not be right in today's terms, but it's a nod to, to history and we ship the bottle like a pill capsule. So that's the significance of the ship, of the bottle. But it is an interesting question because a lot of people do ask a lot of questions about the ship of our bottle. It's fully bespoke. We also put our Belfast badge on here where they're all hand placed. That's a metal badge and it is a nod to the docks and the shipbuilding of Belfast cuz it shipbuilding played a huge part in Belfast history. So yeah, there's, there's lots of little elements of history on this bottle.
Generally, what has the reaction been to the revival? Both by bar bartenders and the public alike.
Sarah Kennedy (30:39):
So it, it, it's hard to penetrate any market. There's always areas where you've got opportunities and there's also areas where, where there's tons of competition. But what we've tried to do and what we've focused on is trying to differentiate ourselves and what makes us unique. And a lot of people do appreciate the story and the history. They also really appreciate the flavour profile. So when actually you get liquid de lipe, like I, I have, I've had very little pushback on the flavour profile of the whiskey on both expressions. So I've generally had a really positive experience with McConnell's. We started off, we launched the product in, in Belfast and in Northern Ireland and then also we launched at the same time in America. And from then we're nine 30 markets globally. And that's growing at a, at a very fast pace. Last year we tripled the size of our business the previous year to that. We doubled it, we to triple it again or even more. We have huge plans for the brand and we hope that the brand continues to grow from strength to strength the way it has done over the past three years.
Can you tell us anything about the plans for the future? I mean, aside from opening the distillery,
Sarah Kennedy (31:50):
Of course. So we intend by the end of this year to have 40 employees from 10. So that is hiring people who are going into distillation, going into tourism, and also hospitality. And we also have marketing rules available too as well as commercial rules. So we are growing as a business and we're obviously built on our distillery. We're also looking into new expressions. We are looking into single malts and we're also looking to expand our blended series. So there's a lot to be, a lot to be on veils about McConnells over the next year. So I can only really hint at the fact that you're gonna see some new releases, you're gonna see the team grow, you're gonna see the distillery open. And also we're gonna start increasing our visibility and our marketing. So you, you should start to see the McConnell's brand more frequently in your bars, in your restaurants, on the shelves of your off sales and also online. So there should be a huge online presence for McConnell's as well.
If people want more information on the brand, they can of course go to the website, which is McConnell irish whiskey.com, spelled of course without the e or connect with the brand via your socials.
Sarah Kennedy (33:12):
We have actually two social media. The reason for this is that the American market is half of our market. It's huge. So we have a, a page that is run for events and, and different activations that we're doing in America. And then we also have our page for the rest of the world. So we have at McConnell's Irish Whiskey, which is the US platform. And then we have at McConnell's Irish Whiskey underscore i r l, which will give you all the activities surrounding the distillery and also all of the trade shows, events, travel plans that we are doing outside of the us. Then I also, I also have a brand profile McConnell's underscore whiskey underscore Sarah, which is basically where I, I travel a lot with the brand and it, it really is what I do on a daily basis as a brand ambassador. And also the, as our brand ambassadors grow, we have a global brand ambassador at the minute. I'm now a brand manager, but I still act as a, as a brand ambassador and always well for the brand. And then we are also hiring another brand ambassador who's gonna focus specifically on our home market. Cause it's a hugely important market for us whenever we have visitors to come into the distillery. So we try our best to have as much of an online presences as as we can because it helps to, to build the brand identity.
Alright Sarah, well look, thank you so much for taking the time.
Sarah Kennedy (34:38):
No problem at all.