The history is in the making at these Northern Ireland landmarks.
The drinks have long flowed freely in Northern Ireland, home to some of the oldest distilleries anywhere and, pandemic times aside, to a robust pub culture. Bottles of native spirits bear hundreds of years’ worth of heritage on their labels. Many bars in and around Belfast aren’t much younger. Until recently, however, primarily locals appreciated this history, but the region’s status as a Game of Thrones set has attracted visitors and added to the capital city’s status as an incubator for creativity. Now Irish whiskey is the world’s fastest-growing category of spirit. As such, Belfast finds itself hoisted onto an international stage, with new drinking establishments joining classic haunts. Pull up a seat and enjoy the show – just make sure you come thirsty.
The Stalwart: McHughs
Built in 1711 as a hostelry, this Queen’s Square building witnessed the city rising up around it. A lengthy renovation in the twenty-first century expanded the bar while preserving the original fireplaces and the eighteenth-century spiral staircase that leads to a private dining room.
You can still sit in front of the fire and sip on a pint, tapping your feet to live trad music, or look for Titanic-related ephemera (the ill-fated ocean liner was constructed at the neighboring Harland & Wolff shipyard in 1909). But nowadays it’s all accompanied by upscale pub food and local craft beer on draft.
Industry Favorite: Bootleggers
At this U.S. Prohibition-inspired watering hole a couple of blocks south of Queen’s Square, owner Chris Wolsey has stitched together innovative offerings from unexpected combinations: Bushmills finished in Caribbean rum casks, pineapple kombucha, grapefruit-and-cardamom sherbet, and cinnamon go into the Craic Sparrow, for instance. He designs many of the cocktails around a base of poitín. Pronounced POT-cheen, it’s a distinctly Irish spirit made of grain mash, akin to “white dog” (unaged) whiskey in the United States. Bartenders love working with it. And drinking it too, apparently: “Most midweek nights, it seems that half of our drinkers are bartenders from all over the city,” Wolsey says.
The Bellwether: The Cocktail Bar at The Merchant Hotel
Belfast’s craft cocktail awakening can be attributed to this stately parlor, a sanctuary set in the boisterous Cathedral Quarter. More specifically, the credit goes to early bar employees Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry. The duo took home a coveted Spirited Award for World’s Best Cocktail Bar at the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail – the Academy Awards of the beverage industry. Shortly thereafter, they opened the famed Dead Rabbit in Lower Manhattan. While the duo has moved on, their spirit endures at The Merchant in a 44-page cocktail book that breaks drink styles into chapters, such as The Icons (inspired by cocktail creators of yore), Classic Cocktails, and Champagne Cocktails.
Nod to the Past: Sunflower Public House
Traces of “The Troubles” that once dogged the city remain – and this bar chooses to remember. On the corner of Kent and Union, the historic watering hole is instantly recognizable by a green-lacquered security cage surrounding the entrance, a remnant of 1980s protective measures. Inside is a far cheerier affair: Friends pass local ales and ciders around a dog-friendly beer garden, servers pluck fresh pizza out of the oven, and musicians strum along nightly.
Day Trip: Old Bushmills Distillery
Whiskey lovers visiting Northern Ireland should make the pilgrimage to the town of Bushmills, about an hour’s drive north of Belfast. Makers have crafted whiskey here since at least 1608, when local landowner Sir Thomas Phillips secured the first royal license. The famous distillery is a mere baby by comparison, born in 1784. But the time-honored distilling process has changed little since then, and daily tours walk visitors through most of it, from grain to glass. The best part, a flight of several single malts, awaits in the tasting room.