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Sliabh Liag Distillers reclaims Donegal’s whiskey heritage

Donegal distillery fills its first cask with a peated single malt new-make spirit, the first legal distillation in almost 200 years.

The resurgent Irish whiskey industry has a new feather in its cap with the announcement that the island’s most remote county is once again distilling whiskey. 

In the far northwest, in the shadow of the imposing mountain of Sliabh Liag, a double distilled smoky spirit made from Irish peated malt has been filled into a first fill bourbon oak cask by Sliabh Liag Distillers (SLD). 

It is the first time since the closure of Burt Distillery in 1841 that legal whiskey distillation has taken place in Donegal.

The small-batch production at its Carrick facility will help the company’s founders and distillers, James and Moira Doherty, undertake valuable research and development while the business’s new whiskey distillery at Ardara is under construction. 

The timing also marks an important period in Sliabh Liag Distillery’s history as it prepares for a crowd-funding launch on Wednesday 26th August to help raise €1.5m of capital for the new distillery. 

We’ve done it!

Commenting on the landmark occasion, James Doherty, SLD Founder, said: “We’ve done it!  It’s only now that the first cask is filled, ready to mature into a smoky single malt Irish whiskey that we feel we have really returned to Donegal.  When Moira and I moved back here in 2014, it was with the dream of reigniting the county’s distilling heritage, and with the Crolly and Baoilleach distilleries, the county is getting there. Our new spirit smells lovely and drinks even better; it is soft and smoky sweet with a fresh pear note and a hint of treacle.”

“While the success of our An Dúlamán gin and Silkie and Dark Silkie blended Irish whiskeys has been rewarding”, James says, “the distilling genes in me knew this scatterling’s return wouldn’t be complete without an Irish malt flowing from the stills. While Burt Distillery ceased production in 1841, we know illegal distilling continued during the intermittent years, not least by my grandfather who was creating a smoky, double distilled spirit under the authorities’ radar on the hills ‘up the glen’ in Kilcar. I think my grandfather would approve that we are now distilling the first legal whiskey in Donegal for nearly 200 years, and there’s a lovely sense of coming full circle.”

“There has been a fair amount of blood, sweat and tears to get to this point – especially last week in hand-mashing 500L of wort for brewing – but it’s given us a huge lift as we embark on the next stage in both our and Donegal’s history.  Turf has been turned at the site of the Ardara Distillery and we launch our fundraising exercise on Crowdcube in a few weeks’ time.  Once we are up and running there, the future of Donegal Irish Whiskey will be even brighter.”  James added.

The new make spirit is exceptionally soft and is fresh, citrusy and has rich chocolate notes to complement the pronounced smoke. It has been made from Irish Craft Malts barley grown in Meath and some malted over peat from Mín na bhFachraín.  The smoky profile of the spirit is true to what was being distilled in Ulster 200 years ago, and like the county itself, a contrast to the rest of Ireland in character.

It was distilled twice in SLD’s copper pot still, known as Méabh.  This first run of spirit has been filled into a first fill bourbon oak cask.  The creation of the spirit was delayed from earlier this year when Sliabh Liag Distillers turned its focus to creating hand sanitizer for the local community during the early stages of the pandemic. 

When this very first whiskey is ready for bottling, it will give some indication of what James, Moira and the ‘meitheal’ (work-gang) around them aim to produce at Ardara Distillery.  The hope is to make Donegal to Ireland what Islay is to Scotland.

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