Ardara Distillery in Donegal.

The Irish have a long history of emigration. It pre-dates the Famine years of the 1840s, but that confluence of a failure of the potato – the staple crop for much of the impoverished population – and the subsequent failure of the ruling British government to properly react to the crisis pushed millions into flight. By 1890, 40% of Irish-born people were living abroad. The War of Independence, a brutal Civil War, and an economic slump which ran until the 1980s kept a steady flow of outbound traffic – in flight from poverty, and in pursuit of opportunity. The descendants of those who left number in the region of 70 million worldwide, a remarkable figure not simply for its size but as a testament to the power of memory and identity. Where the Irish went, Ireland travelled with them – or at least a version of Ireland, captured at the point of departure, then molded and reformed as it was passed down the generations. Sometimes returning emigrants, or their descendants, find a different Ireland to that which they carried in their hearts when they come back to these shores.

Sliabh Liag Distillers founders James Keith, Moira Doherty, and James Doherty.

James Doherty grew up in Woking, England; his father was born and raised in the UK to Donegal parents, while his mother was born in the county before moving to the UK. Like a lot of emigrant homes in Britain, theirs was an outpost for family and friends leaving Ireland who would live with them as they found their feet in England. Doherty says that as a result the house was very Irish in his youth, with cousins and uncles passing through. As he got older, and the family became more middle class (“We went from being clothed from jumble sales, with dad repairing old bangers and living in a terrace to a detached house and a Volvo”) they settled more into Englishness. 

He says he never stopped feeling Irish, even though there were times in the 1970s and 1980s – as the Troubles raged – when there was open prejudice, and that for his parents, the aftermath of an IRA atrocity would mean that to be visibly or audibly Irish in the UK was to be perceived as suspicious, or worse, a co-conspirator with terrorists. Pride in their heritage sometimes had to be a private affair. 

The family assimilated and acclimatised, and while they enjoyed the comforts of life in the UK, going back to Donegal often meant they were seen as having what the Irish call ‘notions’ – ideas above your station, economic aspirations, or delusions about which class you belonged to and which class you belonged in: “It’s ironic that dad and mum being successful was also distancing when they came home, where mum would be resented or be referred to as an English Queen. When you saw how hard they worked (dad had two jobs and mum at times two or three) to give us opportunities it does feel very unfair.”

But Doherty says that his experience of having an identity rooted in two nations, and thus two cultures, gave him an outsider’s perspective on both: “We have a distinct take on life that comes from being Irish, British, both and neither. I think it gives you an empathy for others that sometimes allows you to look into a situation from the outside without feeling like an outsider.”

He studied agricultural engineering in college after which he went to work in Zimbabwe as a tea planter in 1987 for a year, meeting his wife Moira, a midwife and native of Bulawayo. In 1991 they settled in Malawi for just over six years, before later moving to London where James worked in sales with William Grant and Sons, a role which brought him all over the world, and which eventually led him to becoming managing director of the international sales operation. He left to join Fosters in Australia, and after the company was acquired by SAB Miller, he found himself in Hong Kong. Far from having a yearning for home – be that the UK where he was born and raised, or the ‘old country’ of Ireland – he found home in many places. 

“I have often said that home is where you are not. When we were in the UK we would talk of going home to gran and grandads [in Donegal], when we were there you would talk of going home to Woking, the same would be true when I went to live in Zimbabwe and even in Hong Kong but being in Donegal does feel like home. Moira and I have lived together here longer than anywhere else. I connect here and feel rooted in a way I don’t anywhere else except in Zimbabwe.”

The Sliabh Liag cliffs after which the brand is named.

Donegal suffered from partition – the act whereby six northern counties remained in the UK as part of the treaty which ended the Irish War of Independence – more than most counties in what was to become the Republic of Ireland. Once the border was set, Donegal found itself cut off from its main trading partners, which now lay in Northern Ireland – a jurisdiction of the UK – and isolated from the rest of the Republic. Donegal has a small land border with only one other county in the Republic – Leitrim – while 93% of its land border is shared with three counties in Northern Ireland. It was a county which had been devastated by the Famine, suffered several bombings and assassinations during the Troubles, and had become known, even by its own politicians, as the forgotten county. It also suffered from higher unemployment than other less remote parts of the country. When Doherty first started to formulate a business plan, in the back of his mind was the hope that he could build something which would celebrate Donegal but would also create jobs. With his experience in the drinks industry, and the skyward trajectory of Irish whiskey sales, a distillery made sense. 

“If you look at the commodity side of it, then a distillery at scale is something like a mine – providing you are well capitalised it’s a good business. If you build strong brands on the distillery’s production capability then they become great businesses and create opportunities for hundreds of years. And I guess you need to be naïve enough to believe you can pull it off.”

James and Moira were joined by fellow founders James Keith, and supported by former CFO of SABMiller Domenic De Lorenzo and John Davidson, General Counsel and Corporate Affairs Director for SABMiller plc until the completion of the takeover by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2016, who joined as investors and non-executive directors in 2017. Oliver Hughes of Porterhouse and Dingle Distillery fame was an original founder (Doherty was chairman of the Porterhouse Group from 2015 to 2019). Backers were reassured by James’s career spanning three decades in the drinks industry, and with funding secured, they moved to make the dream a reality. The Dohertys agreed a price for a piece of land outside the village of Carrick and contracted to buy it subject to planning permission; which they then applied for. It did not go smoothly. 

Their architects noted in a letter sent in May 2016 to Donegal County Council’s planning department that the planning notice on the site – which is required by law to be there – kept being removed. They would replace it and on one occasion it was removed again within 48 hours. In another letter sent in June 2016, the architects noted that three local objections to the development enjoyed significant commonality, which would suggest there had been some collaboration between those parties in the compilation of their submissions. It was also claimed in that letter that the architects had been made aware that not all the named individuals on the submissions agreed with the objection or agreed to have their names included on the submission. 

Taking to his company blog, Doherty claimed that the local objections were part of a concert party which seemed to be designed to stop the distillery rather than to seek amendments to the planning to accommodate concerns. He also claimed there was ‘some decidedly sharp practice going on which belied the “hail fellow well met” bonhomie of the face-to-face meetings’.  On the blog he described this as ‘an abuse of position within some of the local bodies’. 

The contract Doherty had with the land owner had the condition that the land come with clean title and vacant possession, but the then occupier declined to leave and launched a court action. Doherty’s blog once again bore the brunt of his frustration: “It felt more like John B Keane’s The Field every day, and we often joked that I should avoid waterfalls.”

With obstacle after obstacle slowing their plans for Carrick, they realised they needed to pivot. 

“At this point we needed a Plan B. Moira found another site with our architect and a ton of clandestine meetings later we bought the land in Ardara outright so we couldn’t end up in the same situation. We proceeded to planning with a new design, the plans went through and we got planning with zero objections. We went to crowd fund the build and proceeded.”

The new site was 20 kilometres from the original site in Carrick, and with that secured, the objections and difficulties on the previous site dissipated. The court challenge over the land vacation order was thrown out by the judge: “By this time we had started building the Ardara Distillery so didn’t need the site but bought the land as it has full planning permission for its option value.”

Ardara Distillery in County Donegal.

It was a tale of two distilleries – the best of planning processes, the worst of planning processes. Doherty still feels frustrated and disappointed by the experience of the latter, but when I ask if his Englishness perhaps had something to do with the issues he faced, he says it was not his outsider status that sparked it:  “We have come across some resistance though I put it down to the scale of ambition we have rather than my accent. Trying to do what we are doing causes change and that’s not always welcomed by everyone. I do think that if we were not connected to the area but rather a German company (for example) some of the “who does young Doherty think he is, coming back with his big ideas” would not happen.”

But big ideas are what he has – he has a vision to restore a style of Irish whiskey that has slipped from memory, largely because of the dominance of the monolithic Jameson, whose entire identity hinges on it being smooth, accessible, and unpeated. To hear Doherty speak about the style of whiskey he makes is jarring – it feels like he is aiming for an almost confrontational whiskey, bold, robust, strong, heavily peated; a punchy, smoky style that he claims was very much traditional and regional. 

“My view is that the lighter, sweeter easier style of today’s Irish is something of a modern evolution driven by the cronyism that moved distilling to the towns and that has evolved post Second World War as a counterpoint to the surge in Scotch and is a poor reflection of Ireland as a whole and not reflective of styles that existed before.”

Although he accepts that the smooth and accessible (both used as euphemisms for unpeated) narrative kept Irish whiskey alive over the last 60 years, he feels the time is right for the category to shift beyond what has often been a suffocating pigeon hole. He says that such was the lack of regard for peat in Irish whiskey that were it not for John Teeling’s Cooley bringing out their peated Connemara range of Irish whiskeys, peat may well have been written out of the Irish Whiskey Technical File altogether. 

Doherty says he plans to reclaim distilling heritage for Donegal and to resurrect ‘soft drinking hard spirits’ as a counterpoint to the constraints of ‘smoothness’. 

“Our style of soft, rich, smoky –  challenging if you will –  is our response to that. I think it’s right for Donegal to be contrarian about this and so it is all we make. Ulster would historically have been peated in the main so we are dedicated to just that. Our belief is that the dry slightly sweet turf/tobacco smoke taste is one that is highly evocative and is very accessible, but that the TCP/iodine/seaweed and cresol notes of some Islays are what really turns consumers off. And while I love some Islay whiskeys, we have elected to use cuts that keep those notes out. Our whiskey is smoky rather than peaty and it provides some challenge, but the softness we distill for allows us that smoke to accentuate the other flavours in the spirit which we think will play well in the long term.”

Donegal was once famous for its distilling, although much of that was illicit – famed excise man Aeneas Coffey, father of the column still, was almost killed trying to clamp down on the illegal distilling that went on in the region during his time posted there. The landscape and identity of the county lends itself to the idea of a rugged, wild whiskey.

Doherty sees region as being key to breaking down the Irish whiskey category: “I do believe that regionality will help consumers navigate the category as it develops and consequently we are setting off with that destination in mind. The category is currently amorphously Irish, which doesn’t tell the tale of the Ireland I know, but as a consumer and shopper I think it makes it very difficult for a taste-centred drinker to navigate the category.”

He says that breaking the stereotype of unpeated Irish has been a fun ride so far, and that they actually quite enjoy it when people wrinkle their noses at whiskey festivals and struggle to find a polite way to say they don’t like it. 

“With the Silkies, particularly Dark, we have created a modern gateway alongside Bill Phil, Shortcross, Killowen, Blackwater, Two Stacks, and Teeling Black Pitts that will hopefully lead you to Ardara and Sliabh Liag. We love ice too and for some that’s even more challenging than smoke.”

The whiskeys they have on the market right now are all sourced and released under the Silkie brand – a standalone which is separate from their distillery output, the first of which is due out shortly. On Irish whiskey’s often dubious use of sourced whiskey – whereby distilleries use their own branding on liquid they did not make – Doherty is blunt: “For distillery releases that carry a distillery name then I think the position is pretty clear – the spirit should be from the distillery. If the spirit is some sort of bonded series or curated series then it should say that unequivocally. Being opaque about what you are doing seems to me to be intrinsically an undermining position for your proposition, in the medium to long term.”

Doherty maintains that blends are different – so his Silkie blend releases reflect more of the ideologies of the great Scottish blends such as those from Johnnie Walker where the source distilleries are not part of the identity. Blends are, to his mind, standalone entities which can be used as a playful space for experiments in branding and flavour. 

“I think blends are fundamentally different and Irish whiskey has found itself pigeon holed into an unhelpful place where blends can only exist synonymously with a distillery location. Which probably is an accurate reflection of where the industry was, but it’s certainly not true now. No one asks where Famous Grouse comes from.”

An early run-in with one whiskey blogger over the wording on the labels of the Silkie whiskeys left Doherty reeling, but he is also cautious about the Irish whiskey community and its tendency to lean towards cynicism rather than criticism.

“Scepticism is good but it’s incumbent on us producers and commentators not to descend to cynicism – for our part that is ensuring we are not cynically releasing whiskeys that are less than transparent or worse deliberately misleading. We deliberately retained the names Ardara and Sliabh Liag for things we have distilled ourselves.” 

The first of those whiskeys, due out in July, is their Sliabh Liag Single Malt, a three-year-old, double-distilled, ‘ferociously peated’ single malt from a first-fill bourbon cask from Woodford Reserve. The turf came from their own bog in Donegal and the malt was peated by Irish Craft Malts.  It was distilled in their temporary home in Carrick – an industrial unit where they set up the stills they use to make their An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin, which uses five seaweeds – Sweet Kombu, Dulse, Pepper Dulse, Dulaman and Carrageen Moss – as botanicals. 

As they had no brewkit they were given one by the producers of the iconic Donegal soft drink McDaids Football Special and in a week at the end of July 2020 – the depths of the frist pandemic lockdown – they made whiskey. This inaugural release will have a run of 150 500ml bottles with an ABV yet to be confirmed; the price is also yet to be set but likely to be in the region of €250 and will come with a 2ml sample. Doherty says it will be a collectible – two bottles have already been auctioned for the victims of the Creeslough gas explosion and Rosabel’s Rooms, a child-loss charity.   

As for their Ardara distillery, the stills were made in Scotland by Forsyths to designs by Doherty himself, based on ‘things he likes’. 

The stills in Ardara Distillery. The wash still, in foreground, has an offset neck.

“Wash still – named James, after my dad, big strong, generous and does the heavy lifting. 10,000 litres external heat exchanger. Has an offset neck as a lot of old Irish stills did (Tully have one, though not as pretty). The offset neck is a nod to history when direct-fired stills had the necks moved off centre to allow a rummager to be driven by a shaft down through the centre (in Scotland they brought the drive in horizontally and used a rack and pinion to drive it). 

“Intermediate still – Alec, after Moira’s dad, ramrod straight (lines up with the centre line of the building) a talented creative with a rascally sense of humour.  5,000-litre conventional steam heated.

“Spirit Still – Sam, for James Keith’s son. 3,500 litres, it puts all the finesse on the spirit.”

Their split in their total production is 70% single malt and 30% pot still – all their own production is peated, but they also contract distil for other whiskey producers with the obvious caveat that peat can linger: “The customer needs to understand that the distillery is peated so there could be some carry over. Our process is “grains in” so the grain makes it to the wash still. We believe we get a richer character and it certainly boosts yields.”

The inaugural release is just one of the styles they have been working on – Doherty is clear that they are working off a single vision and would hope to create a family of whiskeys which all have that commonality of flavour so they are immediately identifiable as Sliabh Liag Distillers products. 

“There is heavy peated single malt at 55ppm, triple-distilled, comes off the still at 78% ABV and casked at 63.5%. There is a medium-peated 25ppm triple-distilled as the others but we have the ability to go lower in the cut if we want to. The pot still is a 50/30/20 mash bill – I think it’s one of the original Powers mashbills but we have peated it obviously – so it is 50% heavily peated malt, 30% raw barley (Donegal-grown) and 10% heavily peated malted oats and 10% naked oats. Our cask mix is 65% first-fill bourbon casks. 30% Oloroso sherry and 5% red wine (Rioja, Ribera, Pomerol), the last just gives us a bit of blending flexibility for later.

“The whiskeys are filled into one of two solera before casking (one for pot still and one for single malt, we take in six still runs and then mix them before pumping to a tank for dilution and casking but the soleras are never emptied so we have consistency from batch to batch and maybe a drop will stay in the wood for 100 years or more.” 

On the ratio of single malt to pot still, Doherty feels the latter needs to evolve as a category before it becomes as bankable as the former: “We may shift the split between malt and pot still later but at the moment I think the more immediate scalable opportunity is in single malt. Pot still has a communication challenge – the language of the category is far from straightforward and we need to find a way to communicate the benefits of multigrain pot distilling that excites and opens up the category.”

Right now one of the biggest topics for all whiskey producers in Ireland is the rising costs. Doherty says they have seen the cost of peated malt rise from €690 a tonne to €1,230 a tonne; bottles from 70c a bottle to 120c a bottle; the price of corks has risen 26%, while sending a container to the USA has risen from €1,250/20’ to circa €9,850/20’. But even with all that, Doherty says the bigger issue than the cost last year was just getting space on vessels and then port congestion. 

“I think the current levels of cost inflation are concerning, the capital markets are tight and that allied to cost inflation exposes businesses that are tight for cash.”

Despite being the owner of a distillery and having full planning for a second, Doherty isn’t afraid to be cautious, and questions the long-term value proposition of Irish whiskey: “A premium Irish blend costs what a 12-year-old single malt scotch costs at retail. Is that sustainable? Has the speculation by investors on the likely maturation gain pushed the cost of spirit to a point where the long-time prize – which is branded, in my view – gets lost in commodity speculation?”

Dr John Teeling stated last year that Irish whiskey had 700 Irish whiskey brands and 42 distillers, and Doherty expresses concern that the category could become bloated – too many offerings with too much similarity and not enough distinctive propositions.

“I thought we had hit peak brand gold rush but It seems not and there is a risk that the category fragments unhelpfully. That could result in trade and consumer fatigue before the category establishes its new framework – be that regionality, age, cask, or whatever base.” 

In December of last year Doherty was appointed chair of the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) which comprises 47 member companies who between them account for 98% of global sales of Irish whiskey. However, not every whiskey firm on the island of Ireland is a member. 

In 2018, the IWA filed an application for a certification mark for Irish whiskey – which, if granted, could be used to certify that goods carrying the mark met the standards set forth in the Irish Whiskey Act of 1980, the Irish Whiskey Technical File 2014, and Regulation (EC) No. 110/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council. It would also give the IWA control over who used the term on labels. Some producers felt it was an overreach by what is, in essence, a private members club. In 2021, West Cork Distillers – the largest non-members of the IWA – mounted a challenge to the IWA’s application. WCD’s managing director John O’Connell, speaking at the time to the Sunday Independent, said that he and other producers believed that the State should be the only one to wield such a powerful tool. Peter Mulryan of Blackwater Distillery – who are members of the IWA – labelled the application a disgrace. 

After talks between the objectors and the IWA, the application was withdrawn. But the issue persists – the IWA say they still encounter spirits products claiming to be Irish whiskey which are, in fact, not. The IWA also took issue with a product from famed American craft distillers Kings County. In June last year they served the Brooklyn-based company with a cease-and-desist letter over their one-year-old ‘Irish style American Whiskey’. Kings County responded on Twitter, calling it ridiculous to imply they were trying to ape Irish whiskey when it was clearly labelled as American whiskey. 

Central to many of the issues around protecting Irish whiskey in America – its biggest market – is the fact that it has considerably less protection than its Scottish cousin. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) rules, which outline the definitions and protections for various drinks categories in the US, have an extra line for Scotch – that the words ‘‘Scotch’’, ‘‘Scots’’ ‘‘Highland’’, or ‘‘Highlands’’ and similar words connoting, indicating, or commonly associated with Scotland, shall not be used to designate any product not wholly produced in Scotland. In other words, anything that looks vaguely Scottish is not allowed. This line is part of what allows the Scotch Whisky Association to take action as often as it does, and with consistent results. The SWA also achieved their certification mark for America in June last year. 

In his role as chair of the IWA, Doherty sees protection of the category as a priority. 

“The Irish whiskey category is currently less well protected than Scotch. Scotch has had more protection since the 1970s and given the current pace of growth and opportunity the category is going to be increasingly exposed by some out for a quick buck and others inadvertently undermining the category. It is incumbent on all of us in the industry to protect the industry to act in its best interests and ensure we leave it in a better place for those that follow to inherit. It’s why I was willing to be John Quinn’s vice chair for two years and now to chair the IWA – it’s not like I was unbusy.” 

For now, the TTB is the best place to defend the identity of Irish whiskey. 

Doherty, along with IWA’s core team of William Lavelle, Carleen Madigan, and Miriam Mooney, spent St Patrick’s Day week – a period in which the soft power of Irishness opens a portal to the American corridors of power – in Washington, lobbying and seeking support for changes to the TTB that would insert one sentence that would afford the Irish whiskey category similar protection to Scotch at the TTB stage. But in the meantime, the certification mark is still very much in the frame: “If we want protection and I think we need it then it has to be within a body that is resourced to enforce the Technical File definitions. 

“The trademark would protect the whole category so moving to it is a wholly good thing. It sets up protection exactly as per the GI [geographical indication, a sign used to identify a product whose quality, reputation or other such characteristics relate to its geographical origin] which is recognised differently in the USA, and thereby includes allusions and styles, things that the TTB labelling requirements don’t enforce currently – for example, you cannot bottle a Scotch-style whisky or allude to Scotland if it’s not Scotch and the same could be true for Irish whisk(e)y with the trademark. The trademark only enforces the GI and Technical File so its reach is governed by the Technical File so its enforcement is limited and even-handed in that context.” 

Irish whiskey is an all-island industry. The North is a different jurisdiction from the Republic, so while suggesting that the Republic Of Ireland’s Department of Agriculture should be the entity tasked with controlling the certification mark, there are many producers north of the border who fall under the UK’s ministry of agriculture. 

“The GI and Technical File is held across two jurisdictions so it is complicated as no one state actor would hold the trademark. I do think it could be held jointly with a delegated body to champion and enforce it. For this you need a body that has protection as one of its primary focuses, has the financial resources to implement, and the human resources to action. There is only one body that can do that and for me that is the IWA.” 

In the immediate term however, Doherty is focussed on Sliabh Liag Distillers’ upcoming release, and spreading the word about Ardara Distillery. He says the story of a returning emigrant is one that resonates with people all over the world. But Doherty himself isn’t a returning emigrant.  He is the son and grandson of emigrants. Neither could you say he is an immigrant, per se; he would still qualify to answer Ireland’s call and play for the Irish rugby team should they come calling. He is English, with a healthy dollop of Irish. Or Irish, with a veneer of Englishness. Or maybe just English; or maybe just Irish. He exists somewhere between two countries, two cultures, two identities. His family have lived all over the world – his kids were learning Mandarin in school in Hong Kong up until a couple of years ago, now they are learning Irish in the Donegal gaeltacht. The Dohertys are internationalists – they appear to shift between countries and cultures with relative ease. Perhaps this is the lifeskill that children of emigrants everywhere learn – how to settle anywhere, that nationality is not a fixed identity, and that where you come from is far less interesting than where you are going. 

4 responses to “Homecoming”

    • Bill Linnane – Midleton – Freelance writer. Bylines: Irish Independent, Irish Examiner, Irish Tatler Man, Evening Echo, The Spirits Business, Distilled. Proud owner of the award-defying TripleDistilled.Blog, Ireland's Least Successful Blog™.
      Bill Linnane says:

      Cheers Paul! It’s about four thousand words too long as per….

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