Scattered by need and opportunity Donegal’s greatest export has always been its people. Without ever losing their sense of place and identity they have adapted and succeeded around the world.
Two Scatterlings have returned to the Sliabh Liag peninsula with the vision of reclaiming the lost distilling heritage of Donegal and creating a legacy that the whole community will be proud of. They will build the first distillery in County Donegal for over 170 years.
In the 1850’s Donegal was thought to have more illicit stills that the rest of the country put together but since the closure of The Burt Distillery in 1841 the county has been bereft of a legitimate distilling presence.
Driven by a passion for authenticity, the Founder’s calling is to recreate the rich, smoky Irish whiskies from before the industrial revolution and harness the knowledge and legends of the Sliabh Liag peninsula to bring a modern, confident Donegal Gaeltacht to the world through super-premium spirits brands.
Meet the Team
James has held the position of Managing Director with major drinks players SABMiller in Asia, Foster’s in Australia and William Grant & Sons. The grandson of a renowned Poitín man, James has always had a dream of building a distillery in Donegal where his parents hail from and where he spent many happy childhood holidays. In 2014 he uprooted his family from Hong Kong and relocated to Carrick to deliver his vision. James loves sport particularly rugby and golf and is an enthusiastic, if somewhat limited, fisherman.
Moira, a qualified midwife, is a native of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and has travelled the world with James. It was a conversation while picking Dulse at Muckross Head that lead to the concept and development of An Dúlamán, Irish Maritime Gin, which is her passion. Moira has strong design ideas that can be seen in The Silkie and An Dúlamán. Moira will lead the An Dúlamán Gin production and Visitor Centre. Moira is happiest surrounded by family and is an avid reader and walker who does not share James’ passion for fishing!
James has been successfully initiating and managing businesses for 30 years. Operating in a multitude of sectors he has raised finance for start-ups and growth businesses and has undertaken major business improvement projects and SME turnarounds. James brings with him his experience of business planning, major construction projects, and the FMCG sector. Born in Scotland he has strong links to the Scottish whisky industry and is a regular visitor to Donegal, where he would like to do more fishing.
Formed in 2014, Sliabh Liag Distillery is the culmination of two separate visions to build a distillery within sight of the cliffs of Sliabh Liag. Both plans began quite separately, 1000’s of miles apart, but with similar aims to build a whiskey business and enhance opportunity, employment and tourism on the Sliabh Liag peninsula.
James and Moira Doherty, having already produced well-advanced designs for a portfolio of super premium spirits, including brands which they named ‘The Silkie” and “An Dúlamán”, had discussions with Údarás Na Gaeltachta and, with 20 years of experience in the drinks industry behind them, brought their family home to Straleel to build a distillery. Meanwhile, developing an idea first proposed by Mick McGinley to the Lárcomhairle Paróiste Ghleancholmcille (the Parish Council) to build a distillery for the area, local businesswoman Margaret Cunningham identified a site, agreed an investment by Údarás Na Gaeltachta and brought together a team which included Oliver Hughes and James Keith. The two teams met and, following agreement on the use of a single site known locally as the “Bull Field”, they joined forces.
During 2015 and 2016, the designs for the new distillery were developed. The Silkie was launched and the Gin still was acquired and located in a temporary site outside Carrick.
Sadly, Oliver Hughes died in 2016, but his wife Helen Stacey remains committed to the Distillery and is represented by their son Elliot. Margaret Cunningham has since sold her shareholding interest in the Company to James Doherty and the current holders of the Founders’ Shares are James Doherty, Moira Doherty, James Keith and Helen Stacey.
Full planning permission for the Sliabh Liag Distillery was granted for the 20 acre Bull Field site on the banks of the Abhain Bhuí (Yellow River) in 2017. The buildings are designed to use traditional architectural forms and materials and the distillery will initially comprise the still house and first barrel store. A later phase will see the development of a visitor centre, a relocated An Dúlamán Gin distillery and a Poitín museum.
Based on a bedrock of distribution in Donegal, the first exports of the Silkie have commenced and the Gin distillery is now fully commissioned and ready for production in June 2017.
Sliabh Liag Distillery is competing in two rapidly growing spirits sectors; Irish whiskey and super-premium gin.
Irish whiskey has been the fastest growing spirit category in the world over the last 7 years, growing from 4.4 million cases to 6.5 million since 2008, against a backdrop of global growth for alcoholic beverages. In its “Export Performance and Prospects for 2016-2017 report, Bord Bia estimates that Irish Whiskey exports will double in volume terms by 2020 compared to 2015, with a further two-fold increase to 24m cases by 2030.
In 2015 premium gin brand sales world-wide grew 4.1% driven by emerging boutique and artisanal gins that have created debate around intriguing botanical recipes. Gin’s current strength can be attributed to generational shifts in consumption habits, a new-found quest for “authenticity” and a revolution in the way the humble gin and tonic is presented.
Our spirits are very different. Their tastes stand apart, provide something unexpected and rely on the provenance of Donegal ingredients. Their brand reflects a particular story or nuance from local folklore to build an individual identity and prevent replication. Design is striking, beautiful and challenging.
“An Sliabh Liag” is named after the mountain which towers over the distillery. The words of the poet Séamas ÓDoraidheáin of Cill Charthaigh on the mountain of Sliabh Liag could as easily be describing a great whiskey: “Great beautiful Sliabh Liag on which grows long grass / With yellow honey flowing like dew on the slopes of its passes”. An Sliabh Liag will be the flagship product of the distillery. Made as both a Single Malt Irish whiskey and a traditional Pot Still Irish Whiskey, it is intended that these whiskeys will be rich, smoky, peated and intentionally challenging to reflect the community that made them, and authentic in style to the whiskeys of Donegal from the 19th century. Releases will take advantage of differing ages and cask types that will generate conversations and debate.
“The Silkie”, in its classically beautiful bottle and bold labelling, appeals to the consumers of emerging styles of spirits. Inspired by the Gaeltacht legend of the silkies, or selkie seals that came ashore as beautiful sea maidens, the Silkie is straw in colour and has a malty nose and the taste is honeyed with hints of orange, ginger and a pronounced biscuit and butterscotch note. It is super soft and warming to the finish.
“An Dúlamán”, Irish Maritime Gin has a recipe which we believe is largely unique to the gin category and its botanicals include Sweet Kombu (kelp), Dulse and superfood Carrageen Moss. An Dulaman translates as “The Seaweed Collector” and is woven into Gaeltacht folklore. The coast around Sliabh Liag holds an extraordinary bounty for the forager and the centuries-old knowledge of harvesting and harnessing the qualities of these natural products bring an authentic and innovative “umami” twist to the gin category. Production is in a small batch copper still in an innovative London dry single shot process. The result is a taste that captures the dry tang of a sea breeze over a floral coastline.
“An Béal Bocht”, Straight Donegal Poitín, rests on Donegal’s extensive illicit-distilling heritage. Leveraging the iconic book An Béal Bocht, and the now ironic use of the term, we wish to wrestle Poitín back from the modernist contemporary direction taken by other distillers – for the Donegal Gaeltacht – and allow it to become the defining Poitín of the category. Made from a proprietary family recipe the design is deliberately pared back as an authentic take on Poitín.
Ireland has had two golden ages in its 1,000 year history of whiskey making. From myth and folk lore it is understood that the monks brought uisce breatha to Ireland as early as 1000 AD.
Then over the last 250 years perhaps over 1000 legitimate distilleries sprang up across Ireland, with many more illicit ones. 30 main distilleries were believed to have been the backbone of the industry. But by the beginning of the 20th century the Irish whiskey industry was in decline. The loss of its American market due to prohibition, the loss of the British Commonwealth markets following separation and the growth of Scotch conspired to strip Ireland of what was, at the time, the most successful whisky producing industry in the world. In the 18th and 19th centuries Pot Still Whiskey was regarded as the finest.
Whilst Dublin and the east coast hosted the “Big Four” whiskey distilleries during the second renaissance, Donegal is steeped in a history of illicit distillation of whiskey (poitín), and the Sliabh Liag peninsula and the parish of Glencolmcille were among the most prolific producing areas in the County.
Donegal Poitín was renowned for its quality and was largely made using copper stills and barley. The remoteness of the Sliabh Liag peninsula allowed the Poitín men to carry out their trade with little fear of being caught. However, they were not always able to evade the excise men. Local lore tells of the Red coats raiding the parish of Glencolmcille in 1748 to seize distilling equipment. To hinder their path the locals burnt the bridge across the river just below the site of The Sliabh Liag Distillery.
Glen Lough, a lonely valley overlooking the Atlantic and 12 km north of the Sliabh Liag as the crow flies, was the capital of Poitin making in Donegal. You can still see the remains of an old peat-fired malting house dating back to the 1700’s. In the now deserted village spirit was distilled, put into casks and buried in the bog to mature, usually for 4 months. The resulting liquid was excellent and often traded for tobacco and brandy. In 1926 Rockwell Kent famously depicted local poitin characters in the painting “Moonshine, Ireland”.
William Leathem established the last legal distillery in Donegal in 1814 at Bohillion Farm on the way to Letterkenny. To avoid the competition from the illicit distillers he produced high quality grain spirit which he matured for at least a year. By the late 1830’s production was at around 200,000 gallons a year and there were 60 people on the payroll. With predominantly home market customers, the distillery foundered due to a strong temperance movement, declining population through emigration following the Great Famine and a switch of drinking tastes towards beer and porter. In 1841 the distillery produced its last drop.
Sliabh Liag distillery as at the vanguard of the third renaissance. Following on from the large distilleries who “break in” the market come the craft innovators who provide the interest and the premium tastes. In Scotland 50% of the whiskey export market is accounted for by artisanal distilleries. In Ireland the proportion is under 10%. With Scottish Whiskey export sales currently being over 10 times larger than Irish Whiskey export sales, great craft distillers like ourselves have some wonderful growth ahead.
NB: worth a read and with thanks to: The Lost Distilleries of Ireland: John Townsend; Publ. Neil Wilson Publishing 1997.