Making it Work: Donegal spirit rekindled after two centuries

Distiller Sliabh Liag raised €2.3 million last year and plans to raise a further €3 million to fund its Ardara Distillery to produce a whiskey steeped in tradition

James Doherty, founder of Sliabh Liag Distillers, in the new distillery in Ardara, Co Donegal. Picture: Joe Dunne

Both of his grandfathers were “poitín men”, so it’s no surprise that James Doherty is steeped in the folklore of Donegal spirits.

The English-born businessman, who spent every childhood summer at the family farm on the north-west coast, is planning a new whiskey distillery at Ardara, near the tip of Donegal.

The Ardara Distillery, which is under construction, is expected to start distilling in October after Sliabh Liag Distillery, the company established by Doherty, successfully raised €2.3 million through crowdfunding last year.

The business is now planning to raise a further €3 million through the launch of a cask scheme which will let customers purchase one of the first 600 casks produced at Ardara.

Sliabh Liag, which makes both gin and whiskey, was founded in 2014 when Doherty decided he wanted to revive the oldest of Donegal traditions: hard, smoky whiskey.

The chief executive spent years working at William Grant & Sons Distillers, the owner of Tullamore Dew, and had always had the idea of reviving the spirit of old Donegal whiskey in a way he didn’t feel was being delivered in the market at the time.

“I had a view of where I thought Irish whiskey would go, but that wasn’t the view of what the company overall wanted to do with Tullamore Dew,” Doherty said.

After a stint in Hong Kong with Peroni, the beer company, Doherty made the move into Irish whiskey with the establishment of Sliabh Liag. The plan, he said, was to “bring Irish whiskey back to where it was before prohibition”.

Backed by Enterprise Ireland, Sliabh Liag has always attempted to buck the trend of the Irish alcohol market.

“Everything has to challenge the existing code,” Doherty said of his approach to business. “Gin has gone sweet, so we went savoury. And Irish whiskey, generically, is kind of soft and smooth and easy, so we wanted to put the challenge back into it.”

While the pandemic left no business untouched, Doherty said Sliabh Liag had quickly adapted to its new circumstances, working out how to “not only survive, but thrive in its environment”.

It targeted the US, France and other scaleable whiskey markets while cutting back on non-marketing costs, and the strategy paid off. Sales more than doubled in the last year and the firm now sells its Silkie whiskey brand in 33 countries.

Coming out of the pandemic, Doherty’s focus has returned firmly to the development of the new distillery, which when completed will be the first whiskey distillery in Donegal for nearly two centuries.

Sliabh Liag is not only making plans for a whiskey expansion, though. It’s also planning another fundraising round in the next 15 months to build a new gin distillery.

In the long term, Doherty has a clear view of the mission of Sliabh Liag. “We really want to reclaim the distilling heritage of Donegal, and to create a distinct brand through smoky whiskeys and savoury gins.”