It’s been a long process for James and Moira Doherty bringing Irish whiskey back to James’ parents’ home of Donegal, but progress has been made and the future is looking bright. Here the co-founder of Sliabh Liag Distillers discusses new distillery details, why he favours a traditional peated style and the lessons he learned being the grandson of renowned poitín men.
If you’re a fan of Irish whiskey or The Nightcap, you probably will have seen the good news. Sliabh Liag Distillers (phonetically: Slieve League) has received planning permission to build its new €6m distillery in Donegal, the first there for 177 years. For managing director and co-founder James Doherty, a former tea planter and executive with William Grant & Sons, Foster’s and SABMiller, this is the realisation of a dream to return to his ancestral homeland and make whiskey. He and Moira, co-founder and wife, left Hong Kong in 2014 to create Sliabh Liag Distillers, which currently produces An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin in a 500 litre copper pot from Forsyths. Production of this will move to the upcoming Ardara Distillery which is set to produce heavily-peated single malt and pot still Irish whiskeys.
This is all very exciting, which is why we had to find out more from the man himself…
MoM: Hi James! What’s the progress on Ardara Distillery?
James Doherty: The planners have been very positive, there’s still some challenges but we’re working through them. The planning permission is in at the moment for a 400,000-litre whisky distillery, which is roughly Teeling-sized and equates to approximately 1700 filled casks, and over 1.2m bottles of whiskey when the spirit is sold. We want to start building in October and then with a bit of luck and a fair wind, we could be distilling Christmas time 2020. Which would be going some! It was back in 2015 that we bought our first piece of land to build the whiskey distillery on, but that subsequently fell through. In the very early days, someone said to us ‘this will cost twice as much and take twice as long as you think’ – and we’ve kind of learnt that they’re right!
MoM: Tell us about Ardara, the distillery location.
JD: Ardara is a mercantile town. It was a town of weavers, shopkeepers and bars and what-have-you, and a proper tourist hub. It’s actually enabled us to design something that works for the village. Our design is a whiskey distillery and a gin distillery that you can visit, not a visitors centre with a distillery attached, which for us is really important. We have no restaurants, no food, it’s all about ‘come and see us as a working distillery and then get yourself into the village and try some of the great pubs, try some of the restaurants’. Rather than you hoover up all the money as a destination, it’s ‘let’s make sure that the money is evenly spread and that we’re all feeding an ecosystem together’. For me, it’s a fascinating part of the world where, I suppose, culturally I’m imbued with it but it also felt to me like an area that was unexploited. Irish whiskey today is a post-industrial revolution and a city-based, post-tax reform pedigree. So we focused on how could you build something that was differentiated, rooted in a place that plays a part, so somewhere very different.
MoM: How did you come to form Sliabh Liag Distillers?
JD: When I was with Grants, Moira and I started talking about ideas for brands that we could do ourselves. My parents are from Donegal, from the west coast, but left in the sixties and came to the UK. We put together this idea of taking the stories of the Donegal Gaeltachts. The idea of doing a seaweed-based gin actually originated in 2010, but we didn’t do it straight away because we were trying to get the money behind us to be able to do as much of it ourselves as we could. We left Hong Kong in 2014 to live in Donegal, in the village that my mum and dad are from and put a team together to build a distillery with a local businesswoman, Margaret Cunningham, as well as Oliver Hughes from Dingle and Porterhouse, and James Keith, a guy who’s got a construction background but also really good at business modelling and raising finance for early-stage companies. The finance director of SABMiller, Don De Lorenzo, and the legal counsel from SABMIller, John Davidson, were also on the board. From there we kind of then started to pull the whole thing together in terms of how you would tell the story of Donegal, which is probably the illicit distilling capital of Ireland, through a modern spirits brand. It was never just about making one thing, it was always about how do you build a branded business that you can do a lot with all rooted in the authenticity of the area. So not the city-based flavour but profoundly peated single malt and pot still whiskey.
MoM: Can you tell us more about why you wanted to make peated whiskey?
JD: We’re looking to recreate the taste of what would have been the 1850s. If you look at Irish whiskey as it is today, it can only be a city-based flavour because of the lack of peating in my view. If you look at the old mash bills, that’s what we’re going back towards. My grandfathers, both of them, were poitín men and we know from the way that they used to produce their poitín that they actually used peat to dry their barley because they would have had nothing else. I suppose it’s not an Islay style. It’s not about that kind of seaweed, iodine profile, it’s about that dry smoky character. In Donegal when you drive in, with the peat fires and the chimneys there’s a dry smokiness that you get, a kind of dusty smoky aroma. We want to try and get that onto the inherently sweeter styles and smoother styles of Irish whiskey. That’s where it’s coming from.
MoM: We haven’t seen much from peated whiskey from Ireland, Connemara aside, do you think there’s going to be a market for it?
JD: I think there will. I personally would have liked the whole of the West Coast to be peated and have it as a kind of West Coast identifier. I know that Powerscourt is also looking at it and Peter Mulryan at Blackwater is already using peated malts. I suspect though that most people will go for a kind of safe level of peating, so they’ll try and make it ‘a hint of peat’ rather than profoundly peaty. We’re looking at 55 parts a million, but with triple distilling, you end up at about 35ppm as the net effect of that.
MoM: You’ve settled on triple distillation then?
JD: That’s right. The two spirit stills are inspired by Macallan, while the wash still is a unique one that Richard Forsyth and myself drew up. They will have quite short, quite large balls on them so we can try and drive through as much flavour as we can. You can find that triple distillation can strip out a lot of flavour. Having put all of the effort into creating it, we want to carry as much flavour through as possible.
MoM: What about raw materials, do you know where you’ll source your barley?
JD: The eastern side of Donegal is an enormous grain growing area. We’ve already spoken to Grianán Farm, which I think is the biggest single farm in Ireland, and they’re already talking to us about growing for us. We will do as much as we can in Donegal. We already buy and source as much as we can in the area, which is a challenge because it is remote! So the challenge will be whether we can get enough.
MoM: Have you decided what your cask profile will be?
JD: Yes, we’ve looked at 70% bourbon casks, 25% sherry casks and then 5% specials that are just newsworthy and interesting things. We need the sherry profile to be quite dominant I think in order to get that peated dry smokiness. I remember from my time at Grant’s how Ailsa Bay perfected getting that. So, fortunately, I learned some of these things.
MoM: Your grandfathers were poitín producers. What did you learn from them?
JD: It was my gran who sat with me and gave me some recipes. To my knowledge, talking to my cousins, she never talked to anyone else about it. My mum would tell you that my gran wouldn’t hear talk of it in the house and up until her death, there were people that she didn’t talk to who had shopped grandad to the police and stuff over the years. She told us how he was using molasses to increase the sugar content, and how he was using barley and oats. Unfortunately my grandad had already passed before he gave me the recipe, but we had enough of the recipe and insight into how he did it from my older surviving uncles and gran’s stuff to be able to kind of rebuild grandad’s poitín so we’ll do that anyway as a matter of course, it would be rude not to! My mum is from a farm and if you go up the hill, according to my uncles, grandad disposed of the worm up there somewhere but we’ve been up and had a look and can’t find it… everyone’s being pretty coy about where stuff is!
MoM: Why is Irish mythology a key part of your branding?
JD: It’s an oral history that’s seldom captured. I suppose that, to some extent – and I don’t mean this in a pejorative way – but lots of Irish whiskey is a round bottle with some fella’s name on it, a couple of dates and it’s kind of rooted to a place. We felt that there was an opportunity to build a richer story using the legends and folktales as one element of it. If you look at the illicit distilling heritage of the area, of which my grandads were obviously part of, in 1815 there were 500 and something still seizures in Donegal. And the next nearest county was about a hundred! So this was an area where it’s clear the illicit operations are massively documented. People were part-time farmers and full-time distillers I think, rather than the other way round. If you talk to ‘the old boys’ in the area, they will tell you all of this stuff but they still talk about it as if the police are listening. There’s an element of it which is like distilling is in the soul of that county. My desire was to be back to where my roots are from and tell that story of that place, in a modern way, through spirits brands. So we were trying to do it in a way that takes the Book of Kells and stuff like that but doesn’t do it in a kitsch way. We’re trying to build on the elements of Irish heritage that are rich and newsworthy and interesting and build our story into that and tell it that way. Donegal is a place apart, geographically in the North, politically in the South. It’s a unique place. We live by a mountain and the weather we have is unique. The soils are unique and there’s incredibly soft water. To us, it felt absolutely right. If you’re going to put it somewhere, this is the right place to put a distillery, for sure.
MoM: Speaking about the weather at the end there and it being unique, you must have a mindset towards maturation and how that would affect it?
JD: What we know is that the mountain has an impact. So if you look at the peninsula we live on, it’s southwest of a 600-metre mountain. The weather in that corner of the peninsula is unique to that area. You get low evaporation rates and a kind of slow maturation that would give you really interesting whiskeys. I hesitate to say ‘terroir’ because Waterford have that done so well. It’s more about that unique place and the impact of the environment on that place. It’s where our heart is, it’s this amazing distilling capital that’s had a history that’s almost been lost or being lost. As it’s a place apart you can be polarising, you can be different, you can try and do different things.
MoM: What do you think the future holds for the Irish whiskey category and where do you see yourself in it?
JD: There’s a couple of things that are at play that are quite interesting. One is that if you believe the numbers that the Irish Whiskey Association is putting out there, if you think those are realistic, then there’s not enough capacity in the industry. We’re not putting in enough scale, very few people are. John Teeling is putting in scale. I suppose Royal Oak has got some scale to it but actually nobody else really is. So there isn’t enough capacity. The other thing that strikes me is that, if you look at the way spirits companies grow generally, they either stay as a boutique business that don’t grow fast enough because they don’t have the capacity to go further or their positioning is not one that communicates well enough to a wide enough consumer group, or you’re going to get businesses that are built to grow rapidly, to scale. Hopefully, that’s kind of what we’re building. There comes a point where that kind of brand either catches fire and it goes into mainstream distribution, Hendricks would be a classic example or Monkey Shoulder, they suddenly just take off. Undoubtedly there will be a shake out with some of the guys who are undercapitalised or just ran out of cash. With distilleries, generally, that’s what happens – they run out of cash or they can’t sell what they make. The challenge is you can get a route to the markets that are owned by the bigger players, but what happens then? Are you different enough that they can live with you in their portfolio? Do they come after you? Maybe you become like Teeling and Bacardi, people take small stakes because they want a piece of you but you’re very clear that you’re not for sale. At the moment we’re all straddling around to win 5% or 7% of the category, but you would hope that Jameson, Tully and Bushmills would build the category. Then we keep it noisy and relevant so as they continue to grow, we continue to grow. But the share of our share overall is 25%, 30% of the category. I can’t see it being like malt whisky where Glenfiddich had 100% of the market and now it has 20% of a massive market – I don’t see that kind of change. But that’s a 50 year change. But that’s because I probably won’t see 50 years so I could be wrong!