Sliabh Liag Distillers is the first distilling company in the county for over 175 years, established with the purpose of reclaiming the distilling heritage of Donegal. Two Scatterlings have returned to Sliabh Liag with their Meitheal (work-gang or team) to create a legacy that the whole community can be proud of. Located on the Sliabh Liag peninsula, the two distilleries are surrounded by one of the world’s most striking landscapes populated by resilient people, steeped in folklore and with a legendary distilling heritage.
Driven by a passion for authenticity, the calling is to recreate the rich liquids and challenging smoky Irish whiskies from before the industrial revolution, harnessing the knowledge and legends of the west coast of Ireland to bring a modern, confident Donegal Gaeltacht to the world through super-premium spirits brands.
With An Dulaman Gin in a temporary home in Kilcar and The Silkie Irish Whiskey and An Dulaman Gin launched, a new whiskey and distillery is un der construction in the historic and beautiful village of Ardara on Donegal’s Wild Atlantic Way.
It lacks any English or indeed Irish translation, but the French have a word, a romantic and mystical term, for the synergy between soil, climate, tradition and terrain.
It is this synergy that creates the finest of liquids. On the Sliabh Liag peninsula, surrounded by blue-green seas and punctuated by ancient imposing mountains, fairy glens and beaches of silver sand, the stunning landscape is home to vast expanses of heather and peat bogs, formed by abundant rainfall over thousands of years.
Mixed with the fragrant sea spray from the wild Atlantic, the air is strikingly fresh, bracing and leaves a slight salty tang of the sea on the tip of your tongue.
Towering over this beautiful and rugged landscape is the mountain of Sliabh Liag. The words of the poet Séamas ÓDoraidheáin of Cill Charthaigh on 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”.
If terroir does have a bearing on spirits, then the Sliabh Liag peninsula is ideally suited to creating wonderful liquids.
Donegal's Distilling Heritage
Donegal is steeped in a history of legal and illicit distillation, and the Sliabh Liag peninsula and the parish of Glencolmcille were among the most prolific poitín producing areas in the County. Aeneas Coffey referred to distilling in the mountainous parts of Donegal as being where illicit distillation "has been carried on from time immemorial and been the principal occupation of almost the whole population".
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.
Glen Lough, a lonely valley overlooking the Atlantic and 12 km north of Sliabh Liag as the crow flies, was the capital of illicit poitín-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 four months. The resulting liquid was excellent and often traded for tobacco and brandy. In 1926 Rockwell Kent famously depicted local poitín characters in the painting “Moonshine, Ireland”.
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 or of confiscation. So investing in the more expensive copper was worthwhile. 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 upstream from where An Dúlamán Distillery now sits.
Sliabh Liag is found “in-thru, in the lands beyond Killybegs where people have historically battled both climate and hardship to fashion a living from an uncompromising landscape.
Seanchaí (phonetically: shan-a-key) were the keepers of the oral tradition, with a strong sense of community. They created and recounted the tales and legends that give the area its distinctive identity.
They told the stories of the Silkie, or Selkie, seals: the legendary shape-shifters who shed their seal skins to come ashore as beautiful sea maidens or handsome men with enchanting voices, only to eventually return to the sea leaving broken hearts. Seanchaí recounted the events of the wrecking of the Armada on the wild Atlantic coast line, and green bottles washed up onto the beaches and found by a seaweed collector immortalised in the song “An Dúlamán. Or the tales of Tuatha De Danann - the old gods of the Gaelic people – who won back control of Ireland by banishing the Firbolg and casting the Fomorians back to the seas - where they continue to reside, waiting for the unlucky fisherman or those who venture that little bit too close to the coast at the wrong place and time.