The author with chemist colleague Ronnie Irvine visited The Echlinville Distillery at Rubane, just outside Kircubbin, in the Ards Peninsula in March 2018. Our guide was Graeme Millar, Distillery Operations Manager who explained the establishment of the business, its operation and its success to date.
Ards Peninsula and estate heritage
The Ards Peninsula derived from the Gaelic Aird Uladh, meaning "peninsula of the Ulstermen" separates Strangford Lough from the North Channel of the Irish Sea on the north-east coast of Ireland. It has a rich history and unlike many parts of Ulster it has been relatively untouched by “the troubles”. The peninsula has a mild marine microclimate, with dry and fertile soils that support extensive crop production and dairying. The coast is particularly scenic and home to numerous sea birds.
View of Strangford Lough near Mount Stewart
Graeme outlined the history of the estate that was founded by the Echlin family in the 1730s. This English “Plantation family” were notoriously influential and powerful in Ireland at this time. Bishop Robert Echlin was particularly notable and was the guardian and implementer of the new reformed church in the Diocese of Down and Connor. Charles Echlin, great-grandson of Bishop Echlin, bought the two-story property in Rubane in the early 1700s and renamed it the Echlinville House and estate. The house forms a majestic backdrop to the Echlinville Distillery.
The distillery was established in 2012, the dream of local man Shane Braniff. He had previously created and established a number of other brands, which included Strangford Gold and Feckin Irish Whiskey. The Echlinville Distillery became Northern Ireland’s first licenced distillery in over 125 years distilling its first spirit in 2013.
Graeme explained the philosophy of the owner Shane Braniff including the importance of terroir. While terroir is well understood in wine making we were less familiar with the concept as applied to whiskey. The barley and malt used are grown on the estate and Graeme emphasised their belief that the unique conditions present in the Ards Peninsula along with their distillery expertise is responsible for the production of a unique spirit that truly reflects the area.
The stills for producing spirit intended for vodka, gin and whiskey were located within an impressive glass structure which showcased the craftsmanship typical of the well-known German coppersmith, Carl, a custom-fabricator of artisan distilling, mashing and brewing equipment.
Following an outline of the distillation process, Graeme explained how the ‘heart fractions’ could be isolated using the plate design of the main still and combined to produce a spirit with unique tastes and aromas e.g. peppery tastes to meet the needs of customers.
Author and Graeme Millar
We noted the extensive use of copper and Graeme discussed the catalytic role of copper in both removing and creating flavours and tastes.