Dunville and Company: Whisky Distillers

The firm produced whisky in Belfast until 1936

John Dumvill joined the whisky blenders and tea importers Napier and Company, Belfast, in 1801, aged 16. He quickly became a partner in the firm and the name was changed to Dunville and Company in 1825.

Dunville and Company continued to import tea and were one of the leading tea merchants in Ireland. However, in the 1860s this side of the business was given up to make room for the expanding whisky business. In 1869 a distillery was built next to the railway marshalling yard outside the Great Northern Street Station. An impressive gateway led to the 3 hectare site, consisting of mostly four storey redbrick buildings and dominated by a 50m high chimney. Coal and grain were brought by railway to the distillery’s own sidings, and the railway carried the whisky away. Four hundred and fifty men worked in the distillery.

In addition to the warehouses on the site, Dunville and Company had bonded warehouses covering 5 hectares at Adelaide Street, Alfred Street and Clarence Street, and duty-paid warehouses at Alfred Street and Franklin Street. Fifty clerks worked in the main offices in Calender Street, which also housed the boardroom and luxurious apartments for the use of the directors.

Barley delivered by train and horse-drawn carts to Dunville’s distillery was examined on the receiving floor of the granaries before it was hoisted by elevators to the other floors for storage. The granaries could hold 250,000 bushels of grain. The other major ingredient of whisky is water, whose mineral and chemical properties influence the flavour. The water was supplied from Lough Mourne, Co Antrim, 19km away, and in the distillery there were two wells 50m deep.

The barley was delivered to the malting building for the first stage of the manufacturing process. As the barley was delivered, dust was blown out of it by a steam fan. It was then steeped or soaked in warm water, and turned regularly to ensure even germination. After about ten days, the germination was stopped by drying the malt in the two malt kilns. It was sent to the top floor of the mill, ground by five pairs of stones to form grist, and conveyed to the grist lofts.

The second stage of the process was mashing, during which hot water was added to the grist to dissolve the sugars, starches and other chemicals, producing a sweet liquid called wort. The wort was drawn off three times, using hotter water at each stage, and finally cooled by refrigerators. The water left behind was a weak, watery wort, used to begin the mashing of the next batch of grist. The remnants of the grist were sold to farmers as a cattle feed known as draff.

Fermentation was the third main stage of the process. Yeast was added to the cooled liquid wort to convert the sugar into alcohol. The liquid produced was called wash and had an alcohol content similar to beer. It was then ready for the fourth main stage of the manufacturing process, distillation.

The still house contained three pot stills, heated by fire, and a further two stills, heated by steam. The shape and size of the stills were further influences on the character of the whisky. Also in the still house were eight receivers, two large safes, and some sampling safes.

Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, leaving much of the water and most of the impurities behind. The spirit drawn off first has a high alcohol content and is very pure, but the process was continued and the middle cut collected by the stillman. His skill was to judge the moment at which to start and stop drawing off the middle cut, producing the final spirit.

The spirit was then diluted with water from the same Lough Mourne source as before, reducing the alcohol content to approximately 64%. It was then decanted into wooden casks and the long, slow process of maturation began. After the years of aging, the whisky was skilfully blended to create the end product.

As it was not permitted for a firm to run distilling and blending premises within 3km of each other, William Dunville and Company operated the distillery while Dunville and Company carried out the blending and merchanting.

In 1911 Dunville and Company purchased T and A McLelland Ltd, which owned the Bladnoch Distillery in Scotland, so they could sell Scotch as well as Irish whisky. The Bladnoch Distillery had been in the hands of the McLelland family since 1818 but had not been worked for about six years. Its restoration required considerable investment and the attention it required was not possible during the first world war. The Bladnoch Distillery was still not fully restored after the war and it never became a successful investment for Dunville and Company.

In the 1920s depression and prohibition in the USA reduced the demand for whisky, but the closure of some of Dunville’s competitors cushioned the impact on their sales. However, after the death of Robert Lambart Dunville, no one from the family could succeed as chairman and Dunville and Company appeared to lose its driving force. Although the company continued to operate and make a profit, it was liquidated in 1936 and the stock of whisky sold.

In the 1950s the buildings of the distillery were taken over by a tobacco firm, but were abandoned by them during the Troubles of the 1970s. In the 1980s they were demolished entirely to make way for the M1 motorway. The Distillery Football Club, established in 1880, outlived the Dunville company, changing its name to Lisburn Distillery in 1999 after the location of its current home ground.

© Miles Holroyd 2004