Sláinte! Royal Irish Tours and Tourism Ireland toast to sold-out tours and ongoing recovery

Sláinte! Royal Irish Tours and Tourism Ireland toast to sold-out tours and ongoing recovery

TORONTO — I’m not much of a drinker but even I could tell this stuff was good.

Called a ‘5 year old’ by famed Irish bottler Belfast Distillery Company, McConnell’s Irish Whisky smelled fruity, citrusy, with a hint of green apple, and looked clear and golden in my glass. And unlike other hard liquors that I’ve sampled in my lifetime, this one didn’t burn, going down smoothly into my belly where it proceeded to warm my insides with a pleasant after glow.

Lucky for me, McConnell’s is readily available in Ontario at the LCBO. And lucky for all Canadian travellers, McConnell’s will be opening its first ever distillery in Belfast – also the city’s first in 100 years – this fall in Crumlin Road Gaol, an iconic building and former jail that had held prisoners from 1846 up until 1996.

Sláinte! Royal Irish Tours and Tourism Ireland toast to sold-out tours and ongoing recovery

John Kelly, CEO of Belfast Distillery Company, leads guests in a tasting of McConnells Whisky

I found myself seated across Belfast Distillery Company’s CEO, John Kelly, yesterday, March 8, at a pre-St. Patrick’s Day trade luncheon in Toronto hosted by Royal Irish Tours and Tourism Ireland. Sharing with me the tricks of the trade (“Scottish whiskey is distilled twice whereas Irish whiskey is distilled three times for a more rounded, smooth product”) and Ireland’s rigid distillation laws (“Irish whisky has to be in a barrel for three years and one day before it can be consumed”), Kelly is counting down the days until the grand opening of the new distillery, which will also feature an hour-long visitors experience complete with a behind-the-scenes tour and whisky tasting, priced at approximately 25 euros.

“Guests will first enter the reception area before going to the boardroom where they’ll learn how to make Irish whisky and the McConnell’s brand. They’ll then move through the milling room, the mash room and the distilling area before enjoying a tasting. And then guests will have the opportunity to even make their own whisky during a blending experience,” said Kelly.

When asked why the company chose an old jail as the location of its first distillery, Kelly said the decision was an easy one.

“It’s an iconic building, it’s like the City Hall of Belfast that goes back to the 1840s. We could’ve easily gone over to a site just outside Belfast but it just wouldn’t have had that same aura, history or beauty,” said Kelly.

Jonathan Sargeant, Director of Sales for Royal Irish Tours, told Travelweek that the company hopes to include the McConnell’s distillery in its product lineup once it opens. This year will mark Royal Irish’s first full season in Canada since 2019.

“Ireland is open for business and we’re excited to get people back. Our coach tours begin again in the middle of April and will run right through to the middle of October,” said Sargeant. “We’re already sold out pretty much from May to September, we’re nearly full for June but there’s still space available for July and August if anyone wants to book a tour.”

Sargeant added that Royal Irish’s smaller sightseeing tours, which were introduced in 2019 and feature a maximum of 16 guests, sold particularly well with little to no spots left available, a clear indication of Ireland’s massive appeal among Canadians, 45 million of whom claim Irish ancestry.

Speaking with Travelweek, Sandra Bailey Moffatt, Chair of the European Travel Commission (ETC) and Manager-Canada of Tourism Ireland, said the outlook for Ireland tourism in 2023 is “definitely positive” following a robust 2022.

“From the Canadian market, we netted out at about 75% of 2019 figures in 2022 and we’re on track to exceed that this year, aiming for over 80% of what we saw last year,” she said. 

Noting the slower start for the Canadian market (Canada didn’t drop its pre-arrival COVID-19 testing requirement until April 1, 2022), Bailey Moffatt added that Tourism Ireland is “really looking forward to our first full year here.”

When Canadians do come, they’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that there’s something to do in every place, at every time of the year, but especially in the fall, she said. 

“A lot of people don’t know that Halloween originated in Ireland. It started with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain over 3,000 years ago, so every year on Halloween, Ireland comes alive with festivals in Dublin, Derry and all over the country,” added Bailey Moffatt.

And, of course, as all TV and film buffs are already aware, Ireland is known for its plethora of filming locations for such blockbuster shows and movies like ‘Game of Thrones,’ the Oscar-nominated ‘Banshees of Inisherin,’ and the upcoming ‘Dungeons & Dragons.’

“Simply put, Ireland is vibrant, beautiful and fun,” said Bailey Moffatt. “We can’t wait to welcome Canadians back to the island.”

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Pictured in top photo: Sandra Bailey Moffatt, Chair of the European Travel Commission (ETC) and Manager-Canada of Tourism Ireland, and Jonathan Sargeant, Director of Sales, Royal Irish Tours

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