Road to ruin: a gin tour of Northern Ireland

Glenn Patterson heads from Belfast to the shores of Strangford Lough to sip and soak up the work of a new generation of distillers who are resurrecting the craft

Cards on the table here: I have been led astray by strong drink.

A few weeks back, waiting to be served at the Woodworkers Tap Room on Belfasts Bradbury Place, I heard someone order a Jawbox, a name once associated with Belfast sinks, but apparently now shared with a craft gin, conceived in Belfast but distilled, the bartender told me, in County Down, at Echlinville Estate, outside Kircubbin on the west coast of Strangford Lough.

Next day I asked a friend whose in-laws lived out that way whether he knew the distillery. Never heard of it, he said, then added, that road, mind you, is full of surprises. Which was all the invitation I needed, that and the vague notion that Northern Irelands only other gin Shortcross was being distilled in County Down, too, on the opposite side of Strangford Lough. Sometimes the less you go looking for the more you find.

Finding Strangford Lough

Tourist numbers continue to rise in Northern Ireland, but for many visitors seeing the sights means the Antrim coast Giants Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge Titanic Belfast, with a twist these days of Game of Thrones, and maybe a Troubles taxi tour. And no harm in that, but even so

The
The view across Strangford Lough towards the Mourne Mountains

Strangford Lough separates the Ards peninsula that leg dangling into the Irish Sea from the west of County Down, and ends, where most Belfast people would probably tell you it begins, just south of Newtownards. The road from Belfast takes you pretty much the route that travellers have followed since the stone age: down from the Antrim hills, crossing the river Lagan at its most easily forded point (the foot of Belfasts present-day High Street) and on out east, past the Parliament Buildings at Stormont and the suburb of Dundonald, which long ago ate the picturesque village of the same name. Up a hill it goes, then down to Newtownards where there are roundabouts to negotiate, the inevitable Tesco superstore, before, just beyond the Ulster Flying Club, you catch your first glimpse of water.

Instantly the road narrows to two lanes sea wall hard by the one on the right and stays that way for the 20 miles to Portaferry, where the mouth of the lough comes within a whisper of closing on Strangford village.

A sign a little way out of Newtownards reads, Strangford and Lecale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is perhaps the only ugly thing on the entire stretch and surely the most unnecessary, although if I told you the ingredients you might well shrug: low-rise countryside on one side of the road, that wall and the lough immediately beyond it on the other, the far shore always visible with, to the south, the outline of the Mourne mountains.

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Beauty mark sign on the Portaferry Road

The effect is more beguiling than breathtaking, but it builds and through Greyabbey, then Kircubbin builds. The turn off for Echlinville Distillery is about half a mile outside Kircubbin: left at the bus shelter is the best direction I can give, there being, as yet, no signpost. If you find yourself at the Saltwater Brig bar, turn about, but not necessarily straight away. Go in, enjoy the seafood all locally caught, locally as in Portavogie, on the outside leg of the peninsula, but since thats only a few miles away no one would argue or maybe just reserve a table for tomorrow, when according to the blackboard outside there will be free beer.

Echlinville Distillery

Echlinville is a B1-listed house by Charles Lanyon, Belfasts leading Victorian architect. Lynn and Shane Braniff bought it during the recession and began the distillery by reviving the historic Dunville Whiskey name. They have since crafted their own whiskey, or what will be their own whiskey once the three years and a day stipulated by the whiskey gods have passed. Theyve been at the gin since 2015, growing and malting their own barley, making Jawbox, Irelands only single-estate gin. More recently they created an Echlinville Gin, flavoured with whin (gorse) and seaweed, which they have sold into Fortnum & Mason. There was a box on the floor the day I was there. Thats the Echlinville, said Suzanne, one of the staff of six, who was showing me round. Right, I said. No, she said, I mean thats all of it.

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The Echlinville House & Distillery on the Gransha Road, Portaferry

Even the Echlinville tours (15pp) are craft: one group of 12, the first Saturday of every month. Mine was met by Lynn herself (in the library) as well as Suzanne and Graeme the distiller, who introduced us to the Echlinville still, a contraption of such copper and glass wonder helmets, swan necks, line arms and two enormous rectifying columns that you half expect Gene Wilder to pop out Willy Wonka-like from behind it. There are plans for a dedicated visitors centre in the courtyard, even overnight accommodation. For now, if you intended to make a night of it your best bet would be to carry on to Portaferry.

Portaferry

The Portaferry Hotel (doubles from 80 B&B) occupies a large corner site overlooking the harbour. Again Portavogie features prominently in the seafood menu, along with Portaferry cockles and mussels. It seemed only fitting that I should order a Jawbox with my dinner butternut squash gnocchi. A case, I admit, of matching food to drink, but before you question my judgement, try it. Either they were out, though, or they never had it in. They did have Shortcross, served up (as recommended) in a brandy glass.

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Match of the day Glenns lunch of butternut squash gnocchi paired with a glass of gin

Gin makes you sin, a woman said as I sat next to her.

I told her with me it was more like sing, although some would say that is sin enough.

The hotel is barely a minutes walk from the ferry that will take you the half-mile across the lough to Strangford village. The ferry goes back and forth from 7.45am to 10.45pm (11.15pm on Saturday, 7.30am to 10.30pm/11pm in the opposite direction). The eight-minute crossing takes you within spitting distance of the tidal turbine a worlds first when it started generating power for Strangford and Portaferry in 2008, though it has now been decommissioned. Shorn now of its enormous wings, the turbine resembles an oversized red-and-black buoy. John who maintains the ferry told me conservationists and marine experts were arguing over how to remove it, this lot saying it needed chopped off at the foot, that lot that it had to be dug right out. Therell be big money involved either way, John said: divers only have 20 minutes to work in-between the tide finishing coming in and starting to go out.

The Cuan, Strangford

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Cuan Guesthouse

Strangfords population is about a fifth of Portaferrys, much of it concentrated in an arc around the ferry landing. The Cuan Guesthouse (doubles from 95 B&B) is almost the first building you come to on the left-hand side. If you time your arrival right, you might be fortunate enough to find yourself in the company of Marie-Therese Brownlee and Sarah FitzSimons, aka Mrs B and Sally, aged 92 and a dyslexic 78 respectively, sisters who have been coming in every day for the last 11 years.

In the course of the lunch that I spent next to them (scampi to beat the band, though the signature dish is chowder), the conversation ranged over the spelling of the solfge syllables (do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do), misspelt, Mrs B contended, on the programme of a production of the Sound of Music, whether colliding with a man walking down the middle of the street with a herd of cows while reading his newspaper could be considered driving without due care and diligence and why exactly the door to the function room was open when they were being blown away. (It was over 20 degrees outside and hardly a breath of air.) Dale McKibbin, the bar manager, commiserated with me that I didnt get a bit of poetry thrown in.

You could happily spend the hours between lunch and dinner in the Cuan and, having eaten again, sit on into the night it has accommodation too, although if by then you wanted a change of scenery and had the wit to book in advance there are camping pods from 38 a night at Castle Ward, a couple of miles out of Strangford. Castle Ward is one of three National Trust properties flanking the lough (Mountstewart, near Greyabbey, and Rowallen are the others), and has doubled in recent years as Winterfell in Game of Thrones.

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The magical Game of Thrones door at the Cuan Guesthouse

The roads this side of the lough, I get the sense, are a little more travelled by the tour buses; even the Cuan boasts a Game of Thrones door. Turning left beyond Strangford will take you, by way of Ardglass, to Coney Island, which besides inspiring that Van Morrison track (Wouldnt it be great if it was like this all the time?), provided the location for Terry Georges 2012 Oscar-winning short, The Shore. My mission, though, required me to stick to the Strangford shore for as long as possible, heading north to Killyleagh then inland to Crossgar.

Shortcross Distillery

Fiona Boyd-Armstrong of the Rademon Estate Distillery, maker of Shortcross gin, had given me directions involving a left turn at a filling station at Crossgar (the short in Shortcross derives from gar in old Irish), an injunction to ignore one set of gates a mile down the road, but turn left again shortly after and (another quarter mile) left again before the humpback bridge and the tree in the middle of the road. A direction, that last, you would want to follow to the letter.

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Fionas parents own the 500-acre Rademon estate on which she and husband David started the distillery in 2012. David himself is the Shortcross distiller. He grew up between two former Belfast distilleries Avoniel and Connswater and told me the city in the early 1900s produced 40% of all whiskey drunk on these islands. Which made me think there was a marker being set down here, the rebirth of a tradition. (Rademon like Echlinville is counting down the 1,068 days to the Declaration of Whiskey.) Rademons visitor centre is already built the entrance via a stunning slate porch and tours will start later this year, though not, David stressed, like Bushmills: on the hour every hour. This is still a small-scale family operation: small enough that Fionas brother-in-law was signing the labels in the bottling room when I passed through; small enough that when they were taking their first batch of Shortcross out to potential customers they didnt even have a box to put the bottles in.

I dont know whether the tours will take in all of Rademon estate from what I saw it rivals any of the neighbouring National Trust properties but on a rise just beyond the distillery an obelisk is clearly visible, a monument to a previous owner, William Sharman Crawford, a Chartist, champion of Catholic emancipation, founder of the Ulster Tenant Right Association, and a reminder that politics here, like the roads along Strangford Lough, sometimes contains welcome surprises.

Back to Belfast

I finished my own tour back in Belfast, in Muriels Cafe Bar, with a Jawbox served the Belfast way with ginger ale, lime and a wedge of honeycomb. Later in the Crown Bar (OK, I didnt finish in Muriels), I bumped into a group of Canadians who had arrived earlier in the day from Dublin. I asked them what they had seen so far. Giants Causeway, they said, Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. And tomorrow? Black Taxi Troubles tour, Titanic, back to Dublin.

In the nicest possible way, I wanted to say they didnt know what they were missing.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2016/jul/21/gin-tour-northern-ireland-strangford-lough