An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin
Unless green blood runs through your veins, it’s unlikely that you should even try to attempt to pronounce the place of birth of An Dulaman Irish Maritime Gin: Sliabh Liag Distillery. And if that’s a struggle, you definitely shouldn’t have a go at pronouncing even the first line of the traditional Irish song, Dúlamán, that the gin takes its name from – ‘A ‘níon mhín ó, sin anall na fir shúrí.’ See? Impossible.
You definitely should try to get to know the distillery, though, not only because it’s the first in Donegal in 175 years, but because Irish Gin, so far, has given us a lot to get excited about and with a sense of tradition at the heart of every decision they make, founders James and Moira Doherty are managing to intertwine local ingredients with local folklore to make a series of products that truly hold their own in a busy market place.
At first glance, Sliabh Liag Distillery has an air of ‘Mom and Pop’ operation about it. A married couple making small batch gin is a story we’ve heard a thousand times before, after all, but this is a far cry from what we’re used to. Each product has had an entire brand built around it, and the brands have been built well, with strong, striking looks, ready-to-go photography and an active social media presence – all the things one needs to survive in the modern-day drinks industry. It’s clear, this is not the duo’s first rodeo…
James and Moira met in Zimbabwe (Moira is from Bulawayo). They spent six years growing coffee and tea together in Malawi before heading back to the UK, where James worked for WM Grant and Sons in various commercial and marketing roles. While there, he worked on Glenfiddich and Hendrick’s, so he not only got a good understanding of the Gin industry, he saw one of the biggest brand’s in the world at incubation stage.
After a while they moved to Melbourne to look after Fosters, before venturing to Hong Kong to work with SAB Miller. It was here, in a 21-storey-high office overlooking the South China Sea that they started to get that urge to head home. And not home to Woking, where James grew up, but to Ireland, where his parents had been born.
Their vision was to reclaim the distilling heritage of Donegal, whose spirits history seems (talking as outsiders here at least), to have been entirely dominated by illicit booze making. Moonshine, in fact, had historically been the sole occupation of many living in the county, and according to James, at one point there were more illicit stills in Donegal than in the rest of the country put together.
The company have a whiskey brand as well (although as we understand, not being made by them at the moment as the whiskey distillery is still being built), there are plans for at least two further whiskeys and a poitín, which will be developed upon completion of the main distillery, but it’s the gin, naturally, that has our attention (and that’s made by the team).
An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin is a coastal inspired affair, with juniper, coriander, angelica, sweet orange, lemon and cassia joined by Donegal sugar kelp, carrageen moss, dulse, dúlamán and pepper dulse. The gin, really, was an idea that came so organically it almost formed itself. Moira was out picking dulse with James’ aunt one day when she stopped to wonder, out loud, if it had ever been used in booze before. James’ mind went straight to the possibilities of gin, and the idea was born.
“The concept was to use seaweed as a botanical but specifically to create a ‘gin of the sea’ and not ‘of seaweed.’ So we set about distilling as many botanicals as we could lay our hands on including the seaweeds as we could to learn their properties. Using them fresh, dried, frozen; understanding their idiosyncrasies and seeing how they went together. The biggest challenge apart from the bizarre way some of the seaweeds (carrageen moss particularly) behave when kettle infused was the challenge of retaining the fresh, salty, umami flavours from the fishy, dirty flavour was a major headache.”
If understanding the ingredients enough to form a recipe on a mini-still was a headache, then working out how to make those tricky sea plants work when scaled up to production size was a sunglasses-at-midnight migraine. “We cracked it through long nights, perseverance and a few hiccups,” James told us. An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin is distilled using the standard London Dry method; all of the ingredients, bar the carrageen moss, are infused within the pot. The moss is vapour infused, to preserve its freshness.
An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin to taste…
From the sea, not of seaweed we’re reminded as we nose the gin. The comment is well placed, there is a sense of place to An Dúlamán, but as a flavour profile it’s not done in an overbearing clichèed way. It’s just subtle enough to be different, but not as overtly weird as the idea of having five seaweeds in the mix suggest. Most important of all, it’s not a gimmick. It smells dank and saline to a certain extent, sure, but there are flicks of both citrus and pepper on the nose and you are reminded that sugar kelp, carrageen moss and dulse are extraordinarily complex in their own right. Their aroma brings both umami savoury notes alongside fuller, herbaceous elements too.
There’s a surprisingly perfumed floral tone that appears almost instantly to taste as if violets were in the mix (again, seaweed showing its full spectrum), but it’s all offset by the zing of lemon and orange at first, then the residual heat that only cassia can bring to finish. Somewhere in the mix is juniper, which is harder to discern in An Dúlamán not by its lack of predominance but because the bulk of the flavour crowds around its piny nature. Floral seaweed, herbal seaweed, savoury seaweed, peppery seaweed – it’s all there and seems to broaden out the impact of herbal juniper to a point where it’s gin, but the hit is no longer a singular resinous note but a fractured chord that riffs off it and that works in harmony. Distinct, different and in our opinion – delicious.
It needs some levity in a G&T and we’d suggest some care-free use of citrus. A healthy sized lemon peel offsets the seaweeds, while not actually getting in their way and allowing them to lure you into a sense of maritime whimsy. We feel that this gin would be at its best in a Dry Martini however.
Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin arrives in a black gloss bottle, wax sealed with Celtic lettering on the front and colours that represent the mountains surrounding the distillery. It’s handsome, in its own way, and it’s certainly unique, but in the age of custom glass, we yearn for a little bit of crimping, or something like that… Still, it stands out where many do not, and it certainly wears its heart on its sleeves.
Cracking the recipe wasn’t even the biggest challenge; after getting the stills designed by Forsyths, the Dohertys had to deal with the law. “That’s when you realise Irish duty and excise law is written for huge companies and not little start-ups. Our still was legally too small and needed an exception. The minimum bond is 200k, so we are an exception. They wanted all the windows obscured and shuttered, the fire officer wanted everything open and the HSE treated us like a food plant despite the inherently low risk. Everything was an exception.”
It can be tough to persevere when a seemingly infinite amount of obstacles head your way, but we’re sure that just as it is for the countless other distillers who battle though, the team behind An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin would argue it was all worth it. For a gin that’s less than a year old (it launched in October 2017), this already has an incredibly accomplished feel, and the story it’s telling is the story it always wanted to tell – and that’s no small feat for a fledgling brand.
James summarises it pretty neatly: “Donegal is a unique and rugged place, with a largely undiscovered wilderness. It’s very much a place apart, in fact, it rather celebrates it and revels in its difference. We wanted to give a nod to the authentic Celtic past; an overtly maritime feel that was inspired by the armada history but with a strong ‘Donegalness’. It should say ‘this is my name. I’m a gin. I’m from Donegal.”
For more information about An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin, visit sliabhliagdistillery.com
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