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A love letter to the Donegal coast

A love letter to the Donegal coast: How a seaweed gin is reviving a local distilling tradition

Gin is now the flavour of the month, year and arguably the decade but one side effect of its popularity has been the emergence of a wave of new distilleries across Ireland.

A new breed of Irish craft distillers are now serving their own distinctive takes on the popular drink and bringing local flavours to a wider Irish and international audience. Gin enjoyed a 32pc growth in sales in 2018 and it remained the fastest growing spirit in Ireland last year.

Based in Carrick in south Donegal, Sliabh Liag Distillers is just one of the many craft gin operations reviving ancient distilling traditions in rural areas. Founded by husband and wife team, Moira and James Doherty, it is Donegal’s first distillery since 1841 and its flagship drink is An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin.

Flavoured with locally-harvested seaweeds, this unusual gin captures the essence and taste of the region in every bottle. Even the design of the packaging harks back to bottles that were washed up on beaches following the wreckage of the Spanish Armada in Donegal waters.

Sliabh Liag Distillers founders, Moira and James Doherty, at their distillery in Carrick, Co Donegal
The inspiration for a seaweed-flavoured gin originally came about when the couple were harvesting fresh dillisk with James’ aunt at Muckross Head.

“At the time, my wife Moira asked has anyone ever done anything with this in alcohol?” he recalls.

That was a lightbulb moment for James, who had acquired extensive experience in the drinks industry while working with major players like SABMillar and William Grant & Sons. Raised in the UK by a family with strong Donegal roots, he had always dreamed of setting up a distillery in the place where he had spent his childhood holidays.

Making a seaweed gin on the coast of Donegal seemed like a perfect fit for this new venture.

“It was the moment where we went ‘You know what, the scary thing is that this could be a big idea and not a little idea,’” he explains.

“We wanted to do something that could have a legacy, rather than just be a little lifestyle business. With people looking for local stories, people wanting innovative brand ideas and people doing different things and clever things, we thought we can build a hyper-local story on the Donegal coast.”

“Distilling is in the soul of this place”
The grandson of a renowned local poitín maker, James was also keen to revive the ancient distilling tradition of a county that was synonymous with this home-brewed drink for centuries. Donegal’s hills and valleys provided a perfect hiding place from revenue forces so expert distillers developed their craft in the county’s wildest corners.

“To me, it’s the county that should be distilling and we try to tell a Donegal story as opposed to just a generic Irish story. It’s a place apart politically, it’s a place apart geographically and I think culturally it’s incredibly proud of its sons, wherever they end up in the world. Distilling is in the soul of this place.”

Sliabh Liag Distillers now operates a distillery in Carrick, distilling An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin and Assaranca Vodka. They also bottle their Silkie Irish Whiskey on site. An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin is currently being sold in 15 countries and there are plans to expand to a larger distillery.

They are currently seeking investment for a new €6.4m whiskey distillery in the nearby town of Ardara. This would be capable of producing 400,000 litres of pure alcohol per annum and a number of major investors have already come on board.

The new distillery will provide a significant boost to the local economy and help to create much-needed employment opportunities. James says that the new enterprise is also about giving something back to a community that has been hugely supportive to the emerging business.

“The idea is to build a sustainable business that’s here for the long term. Can we build a branded spirits company that’s based in Donegal, as opposed to a Donegal spirits company if you like, so it’s more of an international business? We believe that is the way to generate the most employment, to build an ecosystem of businesses that support each other up here.

“It kind of works on a smaller scale already with the gin. All the local businesses engage with us and we engage with them. The community seem to have taken the brands to their hearts in a very positive way and people gift our stuff to friends and family. It’s wonderful to see how people are taking your story and then making it their own and then telling it to other people.”

Donegal is a county that has traditionally suffered from high levels of emigration so it’s a welcome change to see new businesses setting up in the area. James points to the example of Scotland, where entire communities are sustained by the employment and business opportunities that are provided by indigenous distilleries.

“Donegal’s best export has been its people, sadly. And they’ve had a positive influence on other areas of the world but you see communities getting progressively older. We thought – and still believe – that we can create a business here that is fundamentally rooted to a sense of place.”

The Scottish whisky model offers an enticing example of how this type of business can boost the local economy and provide wider social benefits, according to James.

“If you look at Scotland and smaller towns in the Highlands, some of those have had no unemployment in 30, 40 or 50 years and that’s all based on the fact that there is a large distillery there that’s producing alcohol and exporting it around the world.

“The support businesses that spring off these distilleries are all helping each other or giving each other opportunities and reasons to stay rather than leave, which is I think is really important.”

With tourists constantly seeking out local stories and unique experiences, a distillery on the Wild Atlantic Way is also a perfect way to compliment the area’s existing attractions.

“I think all of those tourists are looking for that experience, that localness and trying to get something that they can’t find in another high street. It all plays to that sense of place.

“When you have the cultural identity that this place has, that’s so rich and so strong, we can keep people in the area for an extra hour. We’ve got Sliabh Liag cliffs up the road and if they can get an hour at the cliffs and an hour at the GlenColmcille Folk Village and an hour on the Sliabh Leag boat trip and an hour with us, then you’ve kind of built a two-day stay in a little village as opposed to driving to see something, having a coffee, and then driving out.”

For James, the unique selling point is Donegal itself and their various drinks all tap into that ethos, whether it is a gin that captures its coastal flavours or a whiskey that is smokier than other Irish varieties, because it reflects the historical distilling methods of the region. It’s all about creating something that mirrors the unique qualities of the place itself with distinct tastes that set it apart from the competition.

“For me, it’s about how do you build this thing that’s here in 200 years, that’s sustainable, and that’s enduring.”