Old Comber Whiskey
Old Comber was once a famous brand of whiskey. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) got a taste of it in 1894, and liked it so much that Lord Londonderry presented him with a few gallons of the stuff!
Distilling in Comber can be traced back to the 18th century. James Patterson, who died in 1761, owned a malt kiln and distillery in what is now Killinchy Street. The business was taken over by Alexander Riddle, but by 1767 he was selling out. John Andrews took over, although the whiskey was manufactured by a man called William Murdoch. On his headstone in the graveyard of St Mary’s Parish Church, Murdoch, who died in 1805, is described as the “eminent distiller of Comber”. By this time the Andrews family had severed all connections with the whiskey business, their involvement having ended in 1788.
By 1820 what was known as the Old or Mound Distillery belonged to George Johnston and a Mr Gilbert. Then in 1826 Johnston took John Miller into partnership. Miller lived at a house called “Aureen” in Comber Square, and today his name can still be seen in white cobblestones on the pavement in front of the house. And his grave is at the Non-Subscribing Church, of which he was an influential member.
The business run by Johnston and Miller was successful, and in 1829-30 some 80,000 gallons of Old Comber were produced, leading no doubt to many a sore head. Power was provided by a breast wheel, 14 feet in diameter, on the river, and in summer months this was supplemented by use of a steam engine. Later the Troughs (pronounced trows) were constructed, an aqueduct bringing water from the Glen River into the Distillery Dam, the site of which is now occupied by the car park of Second Comber Presbyterian Church. The Belfast News-Letter of 1839 records how the chimney of the distillery was blown down during January’s Night of the Big Wind.
Johnston died in 1837 and for a time James Cairns joined Miller in the enterprise. However, by 1861 Miller was on his own and had taken over the running of a second distillery in the town, the Lower Distillery on the Newtownards Road. The Killinchy Street premises took on the name of Upper Distillery.
The Lower Distillery seems to date from 1825 when William Byrne took over what was John Ward’s paper mill and began to manufacture whiskey on the site. In 1834 the firm had been enlarged and went under the name of Byrne, Stitt and McCance. This was always regarded as the smaller of the two distilleries, however. Water for the distillery was diverted from the Enler River into a dam (a petrol station on the Newtownards Road now occupies the site). In 1845 the excise collector reported the distiller for illegal removal of spirits.
From 1861 both distilleries were operated as a single enterprise, although the accounts and records of each were kept separately. But by 1871 Miller was growing old and decided to retire. He sold the business to an Englishman called Samuel Bruce, who also bought most of the stock of whiskey at what was described as the biggest auction of whiskey ever held in Belfast. James McCance Blizard was a minor shareholder and it was he who became the resident partner in the town.
Comber Distilleries had around 60 employees, five excise men and an output in 1887 of 150,000 gallons of pot-still whiskey from each distillery. Whiskey was matured for a long time – up to twenty years for the best stuff. But slowly output declined, and by 1914 was down to 110,000 gallons a year. Eventually the Lower Distillery closed down in the 1930s.
However, during the 1920s the Upper Distillery was completely modernised at a cost of £50,000 and was described as the most up-to-date distillery in Ireland. This work had been enforced following a serious fire in 1919 when the still house, brewing plant and grain stores were completely destroyed. Rather miraculously, no whiskey was lost. The latest type of machinery was now installed for cleaning, grinding and dealing with the barley during all the various processes. The granary had a capacity of 6,000 tonnes, and in 1925 electric light was installed.
The Distillery also took over other buildings in the town for storage, including the old Grain Store built by the Andrews family and the Market House just on the other side of Park Way from the Upper Distillery. Incidentally, Park Way was once known as Potale (pronounced potyal) Lane. Potale was the remnant of the barley after the whiskey had been made. Farmers used it as cattle feed. Barley was weighed at a weighbridge in the Square placed in what was rather an eyesore of an old hut erected beside Gillespie’s statue in the Square. This was removed when the Memorial Gardens were laid out in 1952.
Across Killinchy Street from the main buildings of the Upper Distillery was a mechanics’ shop, a forge, a joiners’ shop and a cooperage where the barrels were made. In 1908 coopers received 5s 7d (28p) a day, while at the other end of the pay scale women in the bottling plant only got 2s (20p). Today the cooperage still exists beside Second Comber Church.
The rest of the distillery buildings have gone, however. The Lower Distillery was demolished many years ago, and the Upper Distillery followed in 2003, although the chimney lasted until 2004. The Upper Distillery had closed during the Second World War, but re-opened in 1945. Tastes in whiskey had changed, however, and Old Comber struggled to find a market. An audacious theft of the stuff out through the roof soon after the War didn’t help matters. Last distilling of Old Comber was in 1952, and in 1953 the Distillery was sold to H & D Wines of Inverness, who bought it mainly for the stocks and to sell the plant for scrap. In 1957 it was purchased by Hollywood & Donnelly. At some point the buildings were taken over by Jack Cooke and a small industrial estate was established on the site. This has now been replaced by housing.
The Old Comber brand name and remaining casks of whiskey were bought in 1970 by James McCabe, a wine and spirit wholesaler from Portadown. He bottled some 5,000 bottles in 1993. Some of these are still available – but at a price!