Local businessman Michael McKeown has applied for planning permission for a distillery in Newry with the aim of producing 9000 cases of Newry whiskey per year at the site of the former Matt D'Arcy distillery in the city.

Newry could well be a contender for the location of the oldest Distillery in Ireland with 18th Century newspaper advertisements showing Newry Whiskey ranking only behind Dublin Whiskey.

Plans are now afoot by the local businessman who has resurrected the title of Matthew Darcy & Company, the last distiller who occupied the location at Monaghan Street beside the Armagh Down Bar where the new business venture is going to be established.

There is evidence of a legal distillation of spirits in Newry before the year 1600. Eminent historian Jonathan Bardon writing in the book 'The Plantation of Ulster’ states that when Arthur Bagenal inherited the town of Newry in 1603, "The town had to be largely rebuilt as a result of an accidental fire, caused by a whiskey distiller, in 1600" It is further recorded in the Rent Roll of the Town of Newry in the year of 1575 that there existed "The queen’s back-house and Brewhouse." Further research might reveal that the tradition of distilling was begun in the Cistercian Monastery which preceded the town of Newry. Newry may certainly be a contender for the oldest distillery in Ireland.

The distilling businesses operating in Newry before 1800 were Chapman, D͛arcy, Caulfield and Thompson. Chapman put his working distillery up for sale in 1802 and in 1817 all of the other parties were acting in partnership on two sites, one being the location of the new venture.

Commenting on his path to the new enterprise Mr McKeown said "I created a public company Expert Information Systems PLC. In 1995, upon the sale of Expert, I launched what has become a highly successful business, CRASH Services. In 2015 I sold CRASH and embarked on the present venture.

"To those people who only know this of me, I have to advise that I was born into the wines and spirit blending, bottling and distributing business in Lurgan in 1946. Our environment was one of bottles to be washed, barrels to be decanted, the smell of whiskey, rum and wines. Even when we moved to a bungalow in the country in 1952, when the well failed my father brought home water in old wine or whiskey barrels. I am reminded of the saying of St Ignatius of Loyola who said, "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man." So, my apprenticeship in my formative years qualifies me if nothing else does.

"Surprisingly I am quite the teetotaller myself but I remained actively in the wines and spirits industry until the age of 30 and thereafter as a shareholder in the family business of Reihill-McKeown Ltd which was absorbed into the C&C Group in 1995.

"One of my earliest memories of my father is waiting patiently for my pocket money while he completed the proof testing of whiskey he was blending"

Mr McKeown continued "In December 2015 I was privileged to be elected as President of Newry Chamber of Commerce and Trade. My first action was to embrace the economic and tourism plan of the Newry, Mourne & Down District Council and indeed I see the carrying out of this project to mirror the objective stated in that plan."

The council objectives are:
1. To regenerate derelict areas in town centres;
2. To create tourist attraction;
3. To increase exports;
4. To provide employment;
5. To support the cultural arts.

"We are extremely well placed to be an important stop on the Irish Whiskey Trail being developed by Tourism Ireland half-way between Belfast and Dublin and no more than 5 minutes from the M1"

With the return of Old Newry Whiskey they intend to produce around 9000 cases per year of single malt and to retain stocks for at least 10 years to obtain premium prices. They plan to recruit a master distiller of ability and reputation to achieve that target.

In the intervening years they will market blends of purchased whiskey from other sources under the very attractive brand names registered, which are all inherited from previous occupants of the site, such as Duncan, Alderdice & Company LTD. The brands are: The Blackthorn, The Native, Hand-in-Hand and Killeavey Cream.