Sliabh Liag Distillery Donegal
There is a special magic about Donegal that lodges in the hearts of those who are from there or those (like me) who have been lucky enough to live and work there at some stage in their lives.
For me it was my first five years after college when I worked and lived between Ballyshannon, Lifford and Letterkenny. It was here too that I was first introduced to Irish Whiskey as a young twenty something year old by a man called Kevin Mac.
“Uncle Kevin” was a work colleague and mentor to many of us twenty something year olds. He was also a Black Bush aficionado. He taught us all how to appreciate whiskey (well, Black Bush!), to add water, not ice and most importantly, how to enjoy whiskey responsibly.
Kevin inspired my whiskey career.
Having grown up in West Cork, my first impression of Donegal was that it was just like West Cork but with different accents. Of course, it is much more. The scenery might be similar, but the culture, mindset and people are so, so different and really very special.
It’s a huge county. It’s over an hour to drive from Bundoran to Letterkenny. It’s another hour to Buncrana and it’s nearly another hour again to Malin Head at the Northern tip of Donegal and the island of Ireland.
West Donegal is equally expansive and features some of the most stunning coastal scenery in Ireland including the towering sea cliffs of Sliabh Liag, the tallest sea cliffs in Western Europe.
Sliabh Liag is also home to Donegal’s only distillery, the Sliabh Liag Distillery and their An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin and The Silkie whiskey brand.
Sliabh Liag Distillery is the brain child of James Doherty which is as Donegal a name as you can get. James who was born in the UK, is a second-generation Irishman who has returned to his roots in the south-west Donegal villages of Carrick and Kilcar. His Grandad who was a poitin maker, had like many Donegal men of the 1930s and ’40s, sought work in Glasgow before eventually moving to and settling in England.
As James told me in a recent interview, “I grew up like a lot of first generation emigrants, a bit rootless and Kilcar was always where I felt at home.”
Having studied agriculture followed by a Masters in Irrigation, James and his wife Moira worked for 6 years with tea plantations in Malawi. As he says himself,
“6 years in tea teaches you patience. A tea bush lasts 100 years or more so what you do in the early years determines its yield and longevity – Very like brands really”.
James then returned to the UK to work for William Grant and Sons. He started in commercial roles in the Balkans and former Yugoslav republics, Central Europe and the CIS before taking up a marketing role – creating the Rare Whiskey Collection which developed the aged variants of Glenfiddich and Balvenie (the 21 Plus range). He was particularly proud of his involvement in the Glenfiddich Havana Reserve, Glenfiddich 1937 and Balvenie 191, which all delivered profits of several million pounds in just a few years.
He became MD of International Markets with responsibility for Eastern Europe, The Middle East and Latin America and he was a board member when William Grant and Sons acquired Tullamore D.E.W.. He then moved to Fosters International, working with breweries in Fiji and Samoa and a cidery in New Zealand before moving to Hong Kong to open up Peroni in Asia.
So what led James to develop a distillery in Donegal?
“I guess I am an unusual mix of commercial and creative……
The itch to build my own distillery got too much, so three and a half years ago we came home. Bought a house off the internet which turns out to be my great grandmothers homestead – perhaps that’s serendipity ………….”
He expands on these sentiments at SliabhLiagDistillery.com
“I have always needed a cause, to make a difference and make things better than when I found them. For much of my career I have managed to find that. Latterly, though the companies got bigger and the roles increasingly became risk management, not capturing opportunity, not about making a difference, not about people, not about being decisive, not about an ambitious future. Too many nots and as I am neither a sailor nor a boy scout it is time for a change.
For 4 years I had been pondering with the idea of setting up a distillery in the area my parents hail from. The ideas, hypotheses and plans coalescing and crystallising, slowly sharpening up in focus and gaining edges. Right up to the point where we made the decision to act.
Well it’s all changed now. Having stepped off the corporate merry-go-round the reporting rhythms, the meeting schedules, the objective setting, the performance measurement has all gone. It’s all up to us from here on, no longer part of one unwieldy risk management portfolio of box ticking.
Ironically everything is at risk now…”
Well, I suppose it might be a bit of a risk to decide to focus all or nearly all of your efforts into building the very first whiskey distillery in Donegal in over 175 years. But it’s also a great adventure and story.
James’ and Moira’s dream is to build a state of the art Irish Whiskey Distillery and Whiskey Tourism Visitor Centre in James’ ancestral home near the mighty sea cliffs of Sliabh Liag where his Grand Parents distilled Poitín almost 100 years before.
As you can see from the architects drawings, the vision is both ambitious and impressive. But risky? I don’t think so, when you consider the wealth of experience that James brings to the project from an entire career operating at both operational and strategic level in the global drinks industry and markets.
This will be one of the most significant tourism projects to hit Donegal in recent years. In particular, it will be a major traffic magnet for Southwest Donegal which up until now has been one of the quieter corners of the Wild Atlantic Way coastal road route along the west coast of Ireland. Donegal tourism is indeed fortunate to have attracted investors with James’ and Moira’s vision and experience.
Building of the new distillery on the banks of the Abhainn Bhuí (Yellow River) should commence in 2019. As you can see from the architects drawing, three new copper pot stills commissioned from Forsyths will stand over three stories high and look out though a glass wall across Donegal Bay. The distillery will distill, mature and bottle peated Sliabh Liag branded Single Pot Still and Single Malt Irish Whiskey as well as Gin and Poitín. An architect designed visitor tourism center and whiskey tasting suite will guide visitors and whiskey tourists through the distillery and distilling process with particular focus on the history of Irish Whiskey and Donegal Poitín.
In the meantime, James and Moira have been operating a very successful temporary Sliabh Liag distillery for the last year in Carrick village where they distill and bottle their award-winning An Dúlamán seaweed infused Gin. The 500 Litre hand beaten copper pot still at the heart of the present distillery also came from Forsyths. Moira has christened her Méabh after the Irish High Queen Méabh (pronounced Maeve) who ruled over the ancient Irish kingdom of Connacht some 2,000 years ago.
The name Méabh means “she who intoxicates” and sometimes “bringer of great joy”. Moira explains that
“Méabh has her idiosyncrasies and we have found her at her most benevolent when we distil slowly and at an unusually low ABV.”
The ancient kingdom and now modern province of Connacht consisting of counties Sligo, Mayo, Leitrim, Galway and Roscommon is due south of Sliabh Liag across Donegal Bay. Queen Méabh’s stone cairn tomb on the summit of Knocknarea mountain on the Sligo coast can be clearly seen from the cliffs of Sliabh Liag on a clear day. What a lovely and tangible connection between past and present.
An Dúlamán Maritime Irish Gin
Méabh and Moira have been busy for the last year or so distilling Sliabh Liag’s signature Irish Maritime Gin An Dúlamán which is believed to be the very first Gin to have been distilled in Donegal. Sliabh Liag Distillery capture what they call Draíocht na Farraige (magic of the sea) by using five locally harvested seaweeds as well as six botanicals which are juniper, angelica, cassia, coriander, orange and lemon peel. The five Donegal seaweeds are Channel Wrack (or An Dúlamán in Irish) which is tannic, Sugar Kelp for sweetness, salty Dulse, sweet Carrigeen Moss and the aptly named spicy Pepper Dulse. All are harvested on the full moon when uncovered and revealed once a month by the low or neap tide.
Méabh is run in a very narrow temperature band and low abv to capture the full character of the seaweed. In addition, only a very narrow cut is taken from the distillation to ensure maximum flavour. An Dúlamán is a small batch Gin with just 600 bottles produced from each distillation run.
An Dúlamán is bottled at 43.2 % abv in a dark glass bottle reminiscent of the bottles washed up on West Donegal beaches in the aftermath of the Spanish Armada. Each bottle has the bottle number, batch number and moon phase when the seaweed was harvested hand written on the neck label which carries the signature of Moira as “Bannríon an Gin” or Queen of the Gin. The map coordinates of the distillery are included on the neck and the cork is finally wax sealed by hand. It really is one of the most beautifully presented bottles of Gin available on the Irish market.
Sliabh Liag tasting notes for An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin
The palate has incredibly bright and soft juniper to the fore and as it subsides An Dúlamán’s complexity is revealed in rich umami, brisk salt and then a buttery oyster smoothness with hints of chestnut and firm tannin. Given time, sweet notes of turkish delight ebb to a comforting warmth.
An Dúlamán works well with any premium tonic water, especially with lemon tonic or bitter lemon. A dash of elder-flower cordial and An Dúlamán topped up with soda water is a tasty alternative.
Stuart’s Tasting Notes
Nose: Juniper and Coriander at first with gentle notes of seaweed botanicals and ozone emerging from the shadows.
Taste: Juniper is a soft base flavour, but orange and coriander on the front of the tongue lead. As it reaches the back of your mouth, the seaweed botanicals reveal themselves, lock in and hold.
Finish: The finish is long and balanced with the maritime botanicals slowly building at the back and roof of the mouth before fading gently, leaving a lingering and quite pleasant saltiness on the lips and tongue.
I grew up on a beach in West Cork where I sailed, snorkeled, fished for Mackerel and foraged for seaweed and shellfish. As anyone who has sailed or dived in shallow coastal waters on the west of Ireland will know, the taste of the sea from the water while diving, or sea spray while sailing, can stay with you for hours. An Dúlamán captures the taste of the sea to perfection. An hour after my tasting session, the pleasantly mild, salty taste of the sea remains. Incredible.
I have awarded An Dúlamán an honorary (It’s Gin not Whiskey!) 3 Pooka Rating.
The Silkie Irish Whiskey
Sliabh Liag have also produced a wonderful blended Irish Whiskey brand called The Silkie which is currently distilled for Sliabh Liag by a third-party Irish Distiller. Silkies or Selkies are the mythological sea beings of the North West Coasts of Ireland and Scotland said to have seal and half human form. The Silkie stands out in the Dublin Airport retail shops as the tall, slim and elegant whiskey bottle of Irish Single Malt with its Silkie image suspended in a sea of blue-green ocean reflecting the colour and depth of the ocean from the sea cliffs of Sliabh Liag. That elegance carries through to the whiskey.
Sliabh Liag Distillery tasting Notes for The Silkie
Nose – Fresh and malty, brisk like green apples, opens to be more honeyed with a gentle butteryness.
Taste – Super soft, honey to the fore, bright, hints of orange zest, digestive biscuits, brioche, butterscotch and stem ginger.
Finish – Warming, elegant and gently melts away.
Stuart’s Tasting Notes for the Silkie
Nose – Freshly baked hot buttered brown soda bread. Very gentle maltiness.
Taste – Warm sweet honeyed gingerbread and yes, stem ginger. Really lovely deep and velvety mouth feel. Peppery tingle. Is there single pot still in the mix? If not, (and I know that there is not!) there is a quite unique and very special Irish Single Grain Whiskey both taming and enhancing the very good malt in this blend.
Finish – Lovely long finish with lingering notes of salted caramel and hot buttered hot cross buns.
What a wonderful new Irish whiskey. Bursting with character and flavour and elegantly dressed and presented in a beautifully tactile bottle and branding. It not only tastes terrific, but it has that all important “Feel Good” factor as well for the buyer. My friend Kevin would have loved it!
I have awarded The Silkie Irish Whiskey a 3 Pooka Premium Irish Whiskey Rating.
Sliabh Liag Distillery Focus on Excellence
Over the years, I have reviewed many new Irish Whiskeys and spirits and have reported on many new Whiskey brands and distillery projects associated with the Irish Whiskey Renaissance. All are interesting and worthy stories, whether they are about a small local brand from an independent whiskey bonder or bottler or a new Irish Whiskey Distillery back funded by a huge multinational.
What sets Sliabh Liag Distillery apart is the experience and skill sets of their team and more importantly, the way they do business. Their spirits are superb. I could have written a complete article just about the quality of their branding and presentation which is probably some of the best that I have ever seen in Ireland. This is all down to the vision and leadership of James and Moira Doherty and the passion and enthusiasm of their team in Sliabh Liag Distillery. James is well-known as one of the kindest of current Irish Whiskey leaders who regularly, willingly and generously gives of his time, wisdom and experience to assist new entrants to the Irish Whiskey sector.
Sliabh Liag is an incredible journey and story and James tells it much better than I ever could in his enjoyable and incisive blog at SliabhLiagDistillery.com/journal/
Huge Tourism Opportunity for South and West Donegal.
Their design and positioning of their new Sliabh Liag Distillery and Whiskey Tourism centre reflects that same vision and attention to detail. When completed in the next year or two, it will without doubt attract many tens of thousands of new tourism visitors to South West Donegal. More importantly it will lead to more of these visitors staying in the local area rather than driving through.
Look at the synergy between the Giants’ Causeway and Bushmills Distillery. Tourists will drive to the area from Dublin and Belfast to see the Sliabh Liag Cliffs, but once they have seen them, they drive on to the next attraction without spending time or money locally. But give them two major tourist attractions in the one area and many will decide to stop longer and use the area as an accommodation base with consequent increased spending on food, drink and other local products. The potential for local job creation in hotels, B and B’s and restaurants for South West Donegal is huge. This is a significant tourism development opportunity for south and West Donegal and the North West corner of the Wild Atlantic Way.
My friend Kevin would have been very, very proud that Irish Whiskey from Sliabh Liag Distillery could be a major part of the future of Donegal Tourism.