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The Making of Dunville's Whisky

published in the Belfast News-Letter on Thursday 23 June 1921
drawing: View of the Distilleries

VIEW OF THE DISTILLERIES.

From the most ancient times man, both in his civilised and in his uncivilised state, has comforted himself with the juice of the grape, the "barley bree", and many other forms of fermented waters. The old Greeks had a special liquor which they picturesquely described as the "Nectar of the Gods," and the relics which have come down to us of their high culture in all forms of art and literature show that they must have been almost divinely inspired in their ideals. And so on down the ages nations have had their favourite beverage, and it is a strange commentary that the people who preferred the stronger liquors became the predominant inheritors of the earth. In the old days the strong waters - with some notable exceptions - may not have been of the perfected quality to which science has brought them in recent times, but for several generations past men have had the opportunity of enjoying a refreshing and stimulating drink at least equal to the nectar which charmed the heroic race of a former age.

In this connection one's thoughts naturally turn towards Irish whisky as, perhaps, the nearest approach to the ancient "Nectar of the Gods." In its mature state it is the most wholesome of all liquors, and experts pronounce Dunville's manufacture as pre-eminent in that respect. The bouquet of Dunville's whiskies is reminiscent of of fields of waving golden grain with the scent of flowers, and its quality and flavour are superlative in their excellence. Wherever civilised man has penetrated in all corners of the earth there this celebrated firm's manufactures are known and appreciated.

HISTORY OF DUNVILLE'S FIRM.

A few words regarding the history of this great industrial concern may not be out of place at the present time. Although it dates back to 1808, the present distillery was not erected until 1869, at which time the site it occupies, as well as the surrounding district, were green fields, while the part now covered by the bonded warehouses was a sheet of water, in some places fifteen feet deep. The concern was founded by the original John Dunville and William Napier, whose son, Joseph, afterwards became the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, the firm being described as John Dunville & Co. About 1860 Mr. William Dunville, the then owner of the firm, took in as partners his nephew, the late Mr. Robert Grimshaw Dunville, D.L.; Mr. James Bruce, and Mr. James Craig. These were young men, energetic, ambitious, and under their guidance the business gradually flourished and progressed, until it is now the oldest established, the largest, and the most famous of those great whisky houses whose immense duty payments have gone far to make Belfast the third revenue paying port in the British Isles. This company was incorporated in 1879, the present directorate consisting of Lieutenant-Colonel J. D. Dunville, C.B.E., D.L. (chairman), Mr. H. C. Craig (vice-chairman), Mr. H. L. Garrett, Mr. J. C. Brownrigg, and Mr. A. F. Craig, Mr. H. C. Craig, Mr. H. L. Garrett, and Mr. J. C. Brownrigg being managing directors.

INTRODUCTION OF WHISKY INTO ENGLAND.

It is a peculiar circumstance that sixty years ago whisky was a thing practically unknown in England, the "Sassenach" chiefly drinking brandy and gin, and, of course, beer, whereas in Ireland ... centuries past everyone drank whisky. As Burns put it in happy mood -

The coek may craw, the day may daw',
But aye we'll drink the barley bree.

Commercially speaking, whisky was introduced into England by Messrs Dunville of Belfast. The railways made it easy to carry their products into that country as well as to distribute them there, and from 1860 to 1875 Dunville's sold their Irish whisky in England almost without competition, the English people taking kindly to its mellow, delicious flavour. the result of this enterprise was that Dunville's became the largest distillers in Ireland, and today they are the largest self-contained distillers in the British Isles. With the growth of their trade in England the firm developed connections with every overseas colony and country in the world, and this foreign trade has grown to immense proportions with the passing of the years. It is interesting to note that the particular whisky on which the fame of Dunville's has been specially reared is their "V.R." brand, which was placed on the market in 1837, when Queen Victoria ascended the throne. The young Queen's popularity in all the divisions of her Empire was very little short of adoration, and when the toast of "The Queen" was given it was fitting and natural that Dunville's "V.R." should be the whisky used in its honour. The naming of this whisky was a happy thought, but it would have had little effect in winning such unique favour had the liquor itself not been superlatively fine. The sale of this famous brand went up by leaps and bounds in Ireland, and when, nearly a quarter of a century later, it was introduced into England it took that country by storm. "V.R." was drunk by rich and poor, and was pre-eminently the whisky of the great and brilliant Victorian age - a distinction it holds even at the present day. The firm's "Three Crowns" brand - described as a special liqueur whisky - differs from the "V.R." article chiefly in the matter of its greater age, and to a certain extent in the manner of its maturing, rather more sherry casks being used in the case of the "Three Crowns" brand. Connoisseurs state that sherry casks impart a subtle ... taste obtainable in no other way, and when a man wishes to show honour to a friend he can, and does do it by ordering "Three Crowns." Of course, it adds enormously to the cost of whisky to age it, but then good whisky is always old - five, six, seven or ten years and upwards. In Dunville's great bonded stores the barrels slumber on their supports for long years, and when at last they are rolled from their dark chambers they are veritable Rip Van Winkles - mellow with the fragrance of the years.

A VAST ESTABLISHMENT.

At this time a brief description of Messrs. Dunville's premises may be of interest. The firm possesses four great and separate properties in Belfast - the distillery and the bonded stores in connection with it; the immense block of bonded stores and free warehouses, bounded by four streets, a completely detached block of buildings; the large bonded warehouse in Callendar Street; and the palatial head offices in Arthur Street, which constitute one of the sights of the city, and are the largest, most artistically designed, expensively furnished, and completely equipped offices to be seen anywhere. A very large capital sum has been invested in the business, the firm recognising that nothing but the most modern plant and appliances will meet the requirements of the times. The most up to date machinery is installed in their vast distillery, which is situated close to the terminus of the great Northern Railway, off the Grosvenor Road, and which contains still houses, mills, mash houses, granaries, bonded stores, and other subsidiary buildings crowned by lofty shafts. A huge silo, built in recent years, is a mammoth structure, containing fifty-four bins, with a storage capacity of 6,000 tons of grain. After being screened the barley is distributed by means of electrically driven bands to the pneumatic maltings, mill and kilns for grinding and drying. It then goes through the process described later in the article, everything being done by machinery, while not only is the grain untouched by hand but it is protected by a variety of ingenious devices from the possible introduction of deleterious matter or other impurities through the medium of the air. The most striking feature of the distillery is the enormous quantity of material dealt with at one time in all departments. The fermenting room is an imposing apartment, containing sixteen tuns of from 27,000 to 35,000 gallons each, and outside the chamber in the open air stands a seventeenth tun with a capacity of 53,000 gallons. The still house is large, well-designed, exceedingly clean, and contains three of the finest copper pot stills of great capacity that anyone could wish to see. It is divided into two parts by a gangway or gallery, kept scrupulously clean and bright. After condensation the whisky is carried to the receivers, and from there to the store, where the casks are filled, marked, and weighed before being warehoused.

The output of the distillery frequently reaches the total of 40,000 gallons per week.

ONE OF THE SIGHTS OF THE CITY.

The distillery is one of the sights of the city, and is unsurpassed in the United Kingdom. The Alfred Street warehouses and cooperage constitute an immense block of buildings, detached from all the surrounding houses. It is divided into two parts - namely, the duty-paid side, which contains all the whisky taken out of bond by Messrs Dunville & Co., Ltd., and sold to their customers at what is known as the "long price." The purity and quality of the article are protected by registered labels and capsules, artistically designed and carefully guarded against colourable imitation, the name of the firm being also branded on the cork. In consequence of the exigencies of space only a passing reference can be made to the cooperage, where a small army of men are employed, and other subsidiary departments. The Adelaide Street bonded stores are self-contained. The stock consists of whisky of all ages, which is lying there for maturing purposes. Blending in bond is carried on in these bonded stores on a scale of unprecedented vastness. Large vats, ranging from 1,300 to 6,000 gallons ... stand in the various lofts. In the export bottling department may be seen piles of cased whisky made up for export, and the amount of business transacted is immense.

THE HEAD OFFICES.

The head offices in Arthur Street are handsomely designed and elaborately fitted and furnished. A huge glass dome rises high over the clerical department, flooding them with light, and in the spacious entrance hall there is an interesting object in the form of a complete model of their plant in miniature. On one part of the stairways is a cabinet containing glasses about which clings unique personal interest. From these glasses on notable occasions Dunville's "V.R." has been drunk by such celebrities as the late King Edward VII, Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley, President Loubet, the late Mr. Gladstone, Marshal McMahon, and others. The firm have also offices in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Glasgow, and Dublin, with representatives throughout the United Kingdom, and agents all over the world. It only remains to be said that everything that is done at Dunville's is done thoroughly and well. As long as hard work and a conscientious desire to please their customers continue to command success so long will the firm of Messrs. Dunville & Co., Ltd., continue to flourish, and so long will the "V.R." and other whiskies of this firm constitute a monument more lasting than brass to the genius of the firm's foundersand the industrious energy of the present directors.

HOW DUNVILLE'S MAKE THEIR WHISKY.

The various stages in the manufacture of Dunville's whisky, briefly stated, are as follows:-

  1. The barley is thoroughly cleansed of by fanning.
  2. The barley is put into huge drums, heated to a temperature of about 100 degs. F. to dry.
  3. The barley is then thoroughly soaked or steeped in immense vessels, the water being changed once or twice.
  4. The soft and swollen grain is then carried by pneumatic force to huge drums, where the process of germination or sprouting takes place. Germination converts the starch of the grain into sugar. This sugar nourishes the sprout or rootlet.
  5. Just when the sugar is most abundant in the sprouting barley the mass is transferred to drying chambers, where applied heat arrests the germination and clears the grain of its moisture. The grain at this stage is called "malt."
  6. The matured malt is passed to a mill, where it is crushed, forming a "grist."
  7. The grist is then mixed with warm water in a cylindrical vessel known as a "masher." The water extracts the saccharine matter contained in the grist or malt.
  8. The grist and water are conducted to a "mash-tun," a cylindrical vessel having a false perforated bottom, and fitted with revolving arms, which mash the grist still further.
  9. The saccharified liquor is then drawn off, and is known as "worts." The residue - a moist meal - is used as a cattle or hog food, and is a valuable by-product of the business of distilling.
  10. The wort is run off from the mash-tun through the perforated false bottom into what is known as the "underback." After being cooled it is passed into the fermenting vessels. Yeast is added, and the process of fermentation begins. The fermentable sugar by the influence of yeast is converted into alcohol and carbonic acid gas.
    The fermented wort, known as "wash," is a fluid containing varying proportions of alcohol, unfermentable grain extract and water, and the object of distillation is to isolate the spirit as effectually as possible. This is done by distillation: that is, that is by converting the volatile constituents of the wash into vapour. The boiling point of "wash" depends on the proportion of spirit which it contains. Water boils at 212 deg. F., and alcohol at 173 deg.
  11. The "wash," is then passed into still No. 1 to be boiled or vapourised. The alcoholic vapour is condensed by cooling, and passes into a vessel known as a "receiver," and becomes known as "low wines."
  12. The "low wines" are then passed into still No. 2 and vapourised and condensed and carried into another "receiver." This second condensation of the alcohol is known as "feints."
  13. The "feints" are passed into still No. 3 to be vapourised and condensed. This third distillation produces whisky.

Each "distillate" has its own peculiar flavour, depending on the nature of the grain (barley, oats, wheat, or other cereal) from which the malt is made, upon the quality of the grain, and upon the care taken in the cleansing and handling of the grain throughout the various stages. The foundation of good whisky is good malt, and the malting grain par excellence is, as we have already said, barley.

The brewing quality of barley turns on the the character of the soil, climatic conditions, and the care taken in harvesting and saving it. Good Irish barley possesses specific qualities which render it entirely suitable for the production of Irish whisky. Thus it will be seen that Dunville's Irish whisky has real distinction, and that its superiority is a matter of fact, not claim.

In this article an endeavour has been made to give some little idea of the vastness of Messrs. Dunville's undertaking, but it must necessarily be incomplete, as it would require the space of a volume to properly describe a concern the greatest of its kind - whose operations extend throughout the length and breadth of the world.


This newspaper article was provided by Terry Thompson.

See also:

The Dunvilles of Northern Ireland and Dunville's Whisky

Photographs of John Dunville Dunville, CBE, DL (1866-1929)

Dunville & Co. Ltd. Buildings

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LAST MODIFIED: 9 DECEMBER 2004