“If we build something right, we could be building something that could be here for 200 years. That’s the kind of contribution we want to make,” says James Doherty, co-founder of the Sliabh Liag distillery in Co Donegal.
Sliabh Liag, named after the eponymous mountain, is the county’s first distillery in more than 175 years. At the confluence of the Abhainn Bhuí and Glen rivers, husband-and-wife team James and Moira produce gin, poitín and blended whiskey with a unique and local twist.
Together, the couple have travelled the length and breadth of the planet, but it’s only in the last four years that Ireland’s windswept north-west has called them back to lead the renaissance of Donegal’s spirits industry.
For James, who was born in the UK to Donegal parents, the return to his ancestral homeland has been particularly convoluted: “I grew up in the UK. I studied agriculture and went off to Malawi and Zimbabwe in the ‘80s. I came back to London and [worked in sales] with William Grant and Sons, the people who own Tullamore DEW. With them, I visited Yugoslavia, Russia. [We sold in] places no one else would go. I worked my way up…and ended up as MD in the International Sales Operation.”
James left William Grant and Sons to join Fosters in Australia. After the company was acquired by SAB Miller, the Doherty family packed up their bags for the buzzing metropolis of Hong Kong. While life in the city was an interesting experience, James and Moira decided to leave the hustle and bustle behind them and planned a move back to Donegal to set up what would become Sliabh Liag.
The journey home
Donegal has a long history of distillation. Irishman Aeneas Coffey, who invented the modern column still in the nineteenth century, claimed that producing spirits—the illicit kind at least—was the “principal occupation of almost the whole population”.
James corroborates this: “My grandfathers were poitín men and when you research the history of distillation in Ireland, Donegal was an amazing area for distilling.”
The Dohertys were eager to bring distilling back to its rural roots. In 2014, they bought a 12-acre smallholding (which, unbeknownst to them, had belonged to James’s great-grandmother) just outside Carrick, a village in the parish of Glencolmcille. There, they began making their gin and poitín.
Keen to stand out from their competitors, James and Moira looked to an abundant local resource for inspiration: seaweed.
“We were picking with my aunt and she wondered if anyone had it in alcohol before,” says James. “We came to the conclusion that gin was the way to do it…. The seaweed we use includes dulse, which is called ‘sea bacon’ because it’s so salty, sweet kelp, dúlamán, carrageen moss, and pepper dulse. Pepper dulse tastes like peppery garlic—we only cut it on a full moon because the tide is at its lowest. We then record the moon phase on the bottle.”
Local is the new luxury
Business is good for Sliabh Liag. The distillery ships its products to bars, hotels, restaurants and off-licences across the country, and exports to international markets. James and Moira have recently acquired planning permission for a brand new whiskey distillery on a separate 20-acre site. Construction is expected to begin in 2019.
“It’s full time at the distillery at the moment,” says James. “We’re down at the distillery from 8am every day. Moira…distils every batch, so she is the operations here. I look at sales and international business—talking to investors and trying to raise money—and I look at the brand. We have six employees working flat out…and we have a visitor centre, too.”
James says that consumers’ desire for artisan products with heritage and provenance is driving demand—and that’s helped to support the local economy.
“People have a sense of ownership over [the distillery] locally. We always thought it was a good idea, but it’s nice to see how people have reacted to it and taken it to their hearts…. [To consumers], local is the new luxury.”