Following investment from Japanese drinks company Asahi and a group of 20 shareholders including ex-drinks industry figures, the future of Donegal-based Sliabh Liag Distillers is looking rosy. Its successful crowdfunding campaign has seen a $1.3 million target smashed by 54% at the time of writing with two weeks left to go, without any serious construction having yet begun on its upcoming whiskey distillery.
With international conglomerates and local Donegal communities buying into its vision for the future, what has made Sliabh Liag (pronounced ‘sleeve league’) such an attractive prospect, especially with its plan to create a release that is pretty different to a typical Irish whiskey?
If you were to ask an Irish whiskey fan what they love best about their choice drink, usually Irish whiskey’s balanced, creamy, and fruity flavors would be praised. For example, the superb Redbreast 21 Year Old or Jameson’s 18 Year Old are both excellent ambassadors of this profile.
Sliabh Liag aims to create heavily peated whiskey instead, showcasing smoky flavors. The brand has proudly compared its future whiskey to the famous smoky whiskies from the Isle of Islay off the west coast of Scotland. In the distant past over 150 years ago, Donegal’s whiskeys were peated, as there was and is plenty of it around that could be used in the distillation process. These days, however, most Irish whiskeys are unpeated, though Connemara and Nephin are two other peated exceptions.
For co-founder and managing director James Doherty, it’s about drawing on Donegal’s whiskey heritage: “We’re trying to take a highly distinctive approach to creating whiskey, creating something that could only come from Donegal that harkens back to a taste that would’ve been typical from the north and northwest area of Ireland in the 18th century before the consolidation of Irish whiskey which brought about the taste that everyone is more familiar with today.”
Sliabh Liag’s ambitious plan is to base itself on a 10-acre site located in the town of Ardara (population 732) that will host a distillery facility producing 500,000 litres of alcohol a year, a far cry from the illegal Donegal poitín (pronounced ‘put-cheen’, the Gaelic term for Irish moonshine) that was produced by both of Doherty’s grandfathers.
Doherty feels confident about awarding shares to crowdfunding investors before the distillery has been built:
“We knew we needed to raise additional funds. Because we own the site, have planning permission, and backing from Asahi as well as our 20 other shareholders who understand what it takes to make this kind project become real, we felt comfortable to open it up to a wider group of people who would want to take part but on a smaller level.”
The company is also no stranger to the whiskey business. Sliabh Liag Distillers currently releases blended whiskey currently available in 23 countries, the Silkie and Dark Silkie, as well as its An Dúlamán gin distilled by Doherty’s wife Moira.
With its future whiskeys, Sliabh Liag Distillers is planning two releases (both heavily peated), Ardara and Sliabh Liag, featuring a mix of primarily bourbon casks (I was told 70%), ex-Oloroso sherry (25%), and other casks as well (5%). The Sliabh Liag whiskey will also feature additional maturation in casks that used to hold peated whiskey for an additional smoky kick.
To Doherty, having a clear vision of his future products as the Irish whiskey industry undergoes rapid growth makes him confident about the success of the Ardara distillery:
“We’ve already developed what we think our core taste will be, and we are going to focus almost exclusively on that, where other distilleries may be focusing on innovation under their banner. For us, we’re focusing on the heritage of Donegal and doing one thing really, really well.”