Preserving the integrity of a Grade A-listed jail – Felix O’Hare

A structurally challenging project saw Felix O’Hare & Co install a working distillery and fit out the visitor centre at the new £23m home for McConnell’s Irish Whisky while preserving the Victorian architecture of the historic Crumlin Road Gaol…

Ensuring the existing character of Crumlin Road Gaol was not compromised during the complex structural works required to create McConnell’s Distillery and Visitor Experience was no small ask for Felix O’Hare & Co Ltd.

As main contractor, the Newry business was charged with preserving the integrity of the Grade A-listed jail designed by Sir Charles Lanyon and built between 1843 and 1845.

Representing a £23m investment by the Belfast Distillery Company, the production facility and visitor experience is housed in the A-wing of the historic jail, which is also home to another popular visitor attraction open to the public for tours, concerts and events.

Invest Northern Ireland and the Department for Communities contributed a combined £1.9m of support towards the project, with the Department for Infrastructure extending a lease for its development to Belfast Distillery Company. 

Belfast Distillery Company was created in 2020 by a group of US investors to revive McConnell’s Irish Whisky, a historic Belfast brand dating back to 1776 before the ‘e’ was introduced in Irish whiskey.

Expected to attract around 100,000 visitors a year, the new distillery opened to the public on March 27 following a two-year renovation and restoration project.

Extending over three floors, the distillery includes 1,000sqm of floor space for the working distillery, which will operate 24/7, with an open-plan layout showcasing the whole process to visitors.

It is expected to produce an annual 500,000 litres of pure alcohol, equating to around four million bottles of McConnell’s 5 Year blend. Belfast Distillery Company also produces a McConnell’s Sherry Cask finish and will eventually roll out a super-premium range.

A further 1,700sqm for the visitor centre includes floor space for the whiskey tours and a licensed bar, all-day café and gift shop, available for private event hire.

While offering a spectacular setting for the distillery, Crumlin Road Gaol created its own challenges such as the removal of nine cells to airlift in a 30-tonne malt silo and the stills.

Rising to the challenge of the complex project required Felix O’Hare & Co to work hand in hand with design teams at Like Architects and Consarc, and Northern Ireland’s Historic Environment Division.

Stephen Morrissey, Contracts Manager, Felix O’Hare & Co, said, “We installed a full working distillery made up of 30,000l inter-spirit tanks, as well as numerous distilling tanks that make up part of the distilling operation.

“As well as the structural element of the works, we had a detailed architectural fit-out to complete in order to enhance the visitor experience for the client’s whiskey tours.

“The structural element of the scheme posed the biggest headache as we had to make major structural changes whilst not disturbing existing slate walkways, cast-iron railings and cast-iron stairs. This was achieved with careful planning and an experienced workforce and plenty of due diligence.”

Specialist sub-contractors installed elements of the distillery outside of Felix O’Hare & Co’s remit, including distilling tanks, specialist wiring and mechanical infrastructure, and were crucial to the overall completion of the scheme.

“This was a special project for the company, helping to restore a historic building that played such a large part in the history of the north of Ireland,” said Stephen.

“The finished article is just breathtaking and the attention to detail and craftsmanship is a credit to all involved.”

John Kelly, CEO of Belfast Distillery Company, said, “Adhering to the stringent regulations that come with altering a Grade-A listed building presented numerous challenges, further complicated by the strict requirements involved in constructing a distillery. This project required us to meticulously address extensive wear and tear, all whilst carefully preserving the building’s historic features.”

“The construction team at Felix O’Hare understood these challenges but also shared our passion for the project, and we’re beyond thrilled with the

 end result. Looking back at the early artistic impressions, it’s amazing to see how closely the final product mirrors those initial designs.

“The precision and care taken in every step of the restoration not only fulfilled our vision but also honoured the historical significance of the Crumlin Road Gaol, plus ensured we have a brand home for McConnell’s Irish Whisky that does justice to a brand which also has great history in Belfast. We’re proud to have created a remarkable new space in Northern Ireland that respects its past while looking boldly towards the future.”

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