Titanic Distillers, Belfast

Another piece of Titanic history has come back to life with the renovation of the Thompson Pump House in Belfast. The £8 million project was led by JPM Contracts and converted the building into Titanic Distillers, the first working whiskey distillery in the city since 1935. 

The dock was constructed by the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, opened in 1911 and was named after the Chairman of the Commission, Robert Thompson. The Pump House is a great example of late Victorian architecture, featuring red bricks with a cream façade, arched windows, and a clock tower. The listed building used to house all the equipment to pump water from the dry dock right beside it, designed to accommodate the new mammoth White Star liners at that time: the Olympic and the Titanic. At the dry dock, the ships got ready for fit-out, painting and installation of the propellers.

The dock is 850 feet (259m) in length and is the only location where it is possible to properly gauge the scale of the Titanic. The dock held 23 million gallons of water and could be emptied in 1 hour and 40 minutes, thanks to the three 1,000 horsepower engines. The engines were steam-powered and, as you can see on page 14, the chimney that served the boilers and had been long gone has now been recreated as part of the renovation project in a clever design.

A commitment to heritage

As you will find out throughout the case study in this issue of NI Builder, preserving the fabric of the original building’s fabric was the number one priority for all companies involved in the conversion of the pump house. The project teams had to use artisanal gentle processes and a lot of creativity to protect the roof and walls down to the last brick. 

For example, no spray paint was allowed, and tradesmen had to get acquainted with hand tools and an original gantry crane found on site, which was also operated by hand. The contractors responsible for the new structural work in the interior embarked on an exercise of balance and imagination to install the steelwork while touching the original walls as little as possible.

Those involved in the renovation also came across some nuggets of history along the way. The design team had access to the original construction plans from 1898 and added features to the renovated pump house that hadn’t been included in the building until now. 

While rewiring the Pump House, the electrical contractors found an old toolbox in the basement that probably belonged to the workers at the dry dock, at the time totally unaware of the fate of their biggest resident. 

A toast to the past

The pump house walls were kept in their original hue of light blue, but last April the building opened its doors to welcome a very different crowd from the times when the dry dock was still in operation. Visitors are able to experience a famous part of Belfast’s shipbuilding history but also of the city’s almost forgotten whiskey tradition.  

Titanic Distillers is the city’s first working whiskey distillery in almost 90 years. At the beginning of the 20th century, Belfast rivalled Dublin in the production of whiskey that was exported all over world with brands such as Cromac, Dunville & Co, Avoniel, and the Irish Distillery. However, with the Prohibition in the US and the dip in trade after the Partition, the whiskey industry in the North came to a halt and was over by 1935.

At Titanic Distillers, visitors can choose from a variety of tour styles to explore the sights and sounds of the pump house and taste their award-winning spirits. 

For the full feature on Titanic Distillers, check out NI Builder Issue 34-3 June-July here.