NI Food Stories
Belfast and Drink
In contrast to its famous natural produce, Belfast’s remarkable drink heritage is less well known. It’s surprising really, because Belfast made full use of its natural spring waters to become a world leader in mineral waters, soft drinks and whiskey.
World Leading Minerals
During the 19th and early 20th centuries Belfast mineral waters were sold around the world and were a byword for quality. Several soft drinks, such as ginger beer, were perfected here too. The presence of the artesian wells around Belfast’s Cromac district, which were non-alkaline and could absorb the pressurised carbon dioxide gas required by the product, allowed the development of a flourishing industry producing and bottling mineral water.
Quinine for the Tropics
The first manufacturers of soft drinks, Grattan’s, were actually local chemists. They earned their fame after their Quinine flavoured tonic water became a staple drink in the tropics after it was found to be beneficial in combating malaria. Indeed the poor quality of much drinking water, especially in the tropics, was a great boon to many other Belfast companies, such as Ross and Co, who exported gingers ales and aerated waters and tonics in great quantities.
Belfast Ginger Ale
Ross’s ‘Dry Ginger’ could, at one time, be obtained in virtually every major city of the world, and even in many of the remotest places. Other firms such as William Corry and Company and Wheeler and Company Ltd were also active in this field.
Cantrell and Cochrane
The origins of one of the world’s most famous soft drinks companies lie in Belfast too. In 1852 Dr Thomas Cantrell opened a shop here, which included the manufacture of aerated waters and sweet beverages. He is also said to have perfected his own version of soda water here too. In 1868, he went into partnership with Alderman Cochrane and they opened a factory in Dublin the following year. Cantrell and Cochrane were born.
So famous was Belfast ginger ale it became known worldwide as denoting a particular style. The prototype of the famous Canada Dry version of Ginger Ale was developed in 1907 by Canadian John McLaughlin from the heavier and darker Belfast Style Ginger Ale he had sold since 1890.
The Belfast whiskey story is just as remarkable. Until the dark days of the US Prohibition, Irish whiskey was the world leader, and recognised for its unrivalled quality. 60 percent of Irish whiskey passed through Belfast on its way to the rest of the world. Much was distilled here too, using the same artesian springs as the mineral water companies.
One of the most successful companies was Dunville’s, who donated Dunville Park in West Belfast to the city. In 1895 Dunville’s sent the largest cheque yet for duty to the inland revenue either through customs or revenue - £50,000, the duty on nearly three quarters of a million bottles of their whiskey!
United distillers had a distillery in Connswater in East Belfast, where they had their own artesian springs, while the Cromac Distillery flourished in Sailortown, near the docks.
It wasn’t just the whiskey. Caffrey’s Irish Ale, which you can still buy, had its origins in the 19th century when Thomas Caffrey established the Mountain Brewery on West Belfast’s Glen Road in 1987.
Locals could enjoy all these drinks in some of the most atmospheric pubs in Ireland or the UK, many of which remain to this day.
Belfast’s First Pub
Belfast’s love of pubs goes back to the time when it was barely more than a collection of houses. The very first recorded pub of all was the Sir Moyses’ Cellars, named after an adventurous young soldier, Sir Moyses Hill, who arrived in 1573 in the army of the Earl of Essex and whose descendants founded the village of Hillsborough. It was said to be serving visitors for at least another two centuries!
Long renowned for their atmosphere, Belfast once boasted one pub to every 17 households. The most dangerous enemy for the city’s drinking haunts, however, was the ferocious and long-running temperance movement, whose Saturday night sing-songs outside pubs were often rowdier than those inside.
You can spot an historic pub in Belfast by its location on a street corner. They take their addresses not from the main road but from the side street so they can be easily identified.
Women were only rarely seen in Belfast pubs until well into the 20th century. Those that did venture inside, usually took advantage of the snugs that became popular in the latter half of the 19th century, to shield the few women brave enough to venture out for a drink. The Deer’s Head in Lower Garfield Street still has five of its original Victorian snugs, while the Crown Liquor Saloon (see below) has several.
If you’ve never seen a triangular pub, make for the literary themed Bittles bar, near Victoria Square in the city centre. Dating from 1869, Abercorn Buildings, in which it is housed, is known as a ‘smoothing iron’ because it resembles a household clothes iron. The tri-cornered lounge is decorated with portraits and pictures of Ireland's most celebrated literary figures, including Wilde, Yeats, Joyce and Beckett.
Crown Liquor Saloon
Dating to 1826 when it was known as the Railway Tavern, beautiful Crown Liquor Saloon was transformed by some of Italy’s finest craftsmen, in Belfast to work on Catholic churches and the White Star liners, in the 1880s. In 1947, its exterior was filmed for the film ‘Odd Man Out’, starring James Mason, while its interior was recreated in the studio. The pub is famous for its stained glass windows, gas lighting, intricate Italian tilework and glass carving and opulent marble. It is said that its ten atmospheric wood panelled snugs, with push button bells to summon staff, were used by ‘ladies of the night’ from adjoining Amelia Street for assignations.
The Garrick Bar
The Garrick Bar in Chichester Street is one of Belfast’s oldest pubs. Dating from the 19th century, it is probably named after the famous actor David Garrick, who appeared in Belfast during the 18th century.
Henry McCracken, northern leader of the United Irishmen, is said to have hidden under the bar counter to escape redcoats at Belfast’s oldest continuously run pub, Kelly’s Cellars in Bank Street. It has been serving visitors, including football legends Stanley Matthews, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly, and world heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston, since at least 1780.
The Kitchen Bar
Before its move to nearby Victoria Square, the Kitchen Bar was located next to the site of the Empire Theatre of Varieties, and was used as a watering hole by numerous stars of the time, including Charlie Chaplin, Lily Langtry and Laurel and Hardy.
Belfast’s most renowned pub for traditional music sessions, Madden’s in Berry Street, earned its name in the 1870’s when it was bought by Michael Madden, but it’s been serving drink since 1751, especially to the stallholders of nearby Smithfield Market.
McHugh’s bar in Queen’s Square, is housed in what is believed to be Belfast’s oldest extant building, which once would have overlooked ships docking at the, now covered, River Farset. A pub has been at this address since the 18th century and the original façade of the building has been retained along with the listed staircase.
A beautiful 1920s horseshoe bar is the pride and joy of the Morning Star in Pottinger’s Entry. The pub’s acclaimed but unusual gastro fare includes emu, ostrich, kangaroo and crocodile. It was outside the pub, where 19th century travellers caught the coach to Dublin, that United Irishmen leader Henry Joy’s body was brought by his sister following his execution. She had enlisted the help of a surgeon in the hope he might be revived, but was to be disappointed.
Used as a spirit warehouse back in the 18th century, White’s Tavern’s in Winecellar Entry, has links with the drinks trade going back four centuries. You can check out a fascinating display of framed newspaper clippings dating back to the 19th century.
The stylish Soviet-themed Northern Whig bar is based in the Bridge Street building which were once the offices of the Northern Whig newspaper, which closed in 1963. The bar is famous for its Soviet-era statues, which were originally commissioned to celebrate the 1917 Russian Revolution and were formerly housed in the Prague Communist Party headquarters.