An Dúlamán review & Interview
Updated: Dec 28, 2019
This review has not been influenced by anyone at An Dúlamán. These views are our own and we have not been paid for this post
We recently tried two gins that were completely new to us - new, on the basis that we had never tried them before, but also new because we have never tasted a gin quite like them before. Based in the Northwest region of Ireland in Donegal, Sliabh Liag Distillery was the first distillery in Donegal for over 175 years when it was opened by husband and wife duo James (Jim) and Moira Doherty.
Their first gin on the market was An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin. This is a savoury gin which uses some of the traditional botanicals found in gin such as juniper, cassia, coriander and angelica with the citruses from sweet oranges and lemons. The thing that sets this gin apart from other gins is the use of seaweed. We know there are already a few gins out there which use seaweed in their recipe (some of which we have in our collection) but Jim and Moira opted to use five different types of seaweed - Donegal sugar kelp, dulse, pepper, carrageen moss and of course Dúlamán.
An Dúlamán Santa Ana Armada Strength Gin is Jim and Moira’s latest gin offering from Sliabh Liag Distillery. The Santa Ana is their barrel aged, navy strength version edition of An Dúlamán. Aged in Rioja barrels, the gin has a light rose gold hue to it and is bottled at 57% ABV. The name Santa Ana comes from the ship La Duquesa Santa Ana. This ship was of Phillip II’s Spanish Armada sent to invade and conquer England in 1588, but the ship wrecked just off the Donegal coast, close to where An Dúlamán is currently distilled. The story of La Duquesa Santa Ana has also been incorporated into the label. When you look closely at the label, you can see that it's a map that marks the location of the La Duquesa Santa Ana wreck. The label is also shaped like Zimbabwe where Moira is from, resulting in a label that incorporates both Moira and Jim’s backgrounds.
The aroma and taste of this gin takes you straight to the ocean - waves of salt water, oysters and lots of seaweed. To taste, the gin is very well balanced. Its initial taste comes from the seaweed - slightly briny with a subtle sweetness. This is then followed up with a burst of lemon citrus and ending with a warming peppered heat. This gin is crying out to be used in a Martini. With the addition of a plain tonic the flavours soften, but still the seaweed is the captain of this ship. We also tried it with a light lemon tonic, garnished with some fresh dill.
For the An Dúlamán Santa Ana Armada Strength Gin, the flavour profile is similar to the Maritime gin. Again you get that taste of the ocean, however we get more juniper and it’s a lot warmer, with an enhanced spice - this may come from the higher ABV. This makes a fantastic sipping gin and we also found that it pairs well with a cucumber tonic. Usually we find the flavour of cucumber overpowers the gin, but the Armada strength gin stands up to it and works well.
We've been lucky enough to catch up with Moira to find out a bit more about their An Dúlamán gin
Hey Moira, thanks for taking time to speak to us. We wanted to start at the beginning - being the first gin distillery in Donegal, what was the inspiration behind starting your own distillery and what did you guys both do before?
It’s my pleasure. I’m from Bulawayo in Zimbabwe and Jim is from Woking but his family are from Donegal and for as long as I can remember, this is where he wanted to be. Before this, I was a midwife and nurse and Jim has been in spirits marketing and sales since 1998 and in tea and coffee (farming) before that and I suppose the inspiration was way back in 2010 - we were picking Dulse (a type of seaweed eaten as a snack) with Jim’s Aunt and I asked him if anyone had ever used seaweed in alcohol and he went away for a think and between us, we came up with An Dúlamán.
Why did you choose to make Gin?
When we thought about how to use seaweed in alcohol, Gin just seemed to be the natural fit. At the time, no one was doing anything with seaweed in gin and with my name An Dúlamán coupled with Jim’s phrase Irish Maritime Gin, it seemed to come together. We have always wanted to do whiskey too but the capital requirement is so much greater and gin was something we could do ourselves.
You’ve used five different seaweeds in your gin and Mr Bandit really liked it. It’s quite unique in flavour and different to other gins with seaweed that we have tried. Who came up with the idea to use seaweed, and how did you both settle on the final recipe?
It’s very much a joint effort, we have a friend Rosaria who makes seaweed based cosmetics under the Algaran brand and she helped us understand how many more options we had and what their flavours might be. Jim is more of a techie than me so we pick seaweed together and then he would distil them on Lola our mini still. We tried 22 varieties in all - some fresh, some dried, even played around with ultrasound until we landed on the recipe we have today. It’s very much a love letter to the Donegal coast.
Who is in charge of the distillation and how many times a week/month are you distilling?
I do all the distilling now with Sean, who is training up as a distiller. Jim doesn’t get to distil much anymore which he isn’t happy about but that leaves more of the fun for me! We distil roughly once a week but it can be more when we are distilling for big orders or trying to get Assaranca Vodka made while the gorse flowers are in bloom.
Over the last 2 years in the gin industry you must have had to overcome many hurdles, what has been your biggest challenge to date? Also, what has been your proudest moment?
There’s lots of hurdles for sure and by building the distillery and learning to distil, and using complex botanicals we haven’t taken the easy route, but I have to say my biggest challenge is that it has become much bigger than I thought it would be very quickly and I hanker after it being my little baby again….working with Jim is challenging too. My proudest moment was the first time I went into a bar and saw someone was drinking An Dúlamán, I could tell by the aroma and my heart did a little skip. I would probably say seeing it on a shelf in Dublin Airport was a big moment.
That must have been a great feeling. Congrats on the release of An Dúlamán Santa Ana Armada Strength Gin, it’s an absolutely fantastic gin. Whose idea was it to age it in Rioja barrels?
That was Jim - he wanted to make a barrel aged Navy Strength expression which he kept referring to as Armada Strength. He thought Rioja was a possibility, brought in some barrels and once we tried it, we knew it was a winner.
We tried An Dúlamán Maritime gin with some lemon tonic and also neat. How do you drink both of the gins?
I like An Dúlamán with elderflower tonic as it sweetens the savoury character just a hint but its also lovely and dry and refreshing with soda, Jim likes it with bitter lemon. I love the way you can taste the sea in an An Dúlamán Negroni but for An Dúlamán Santa Ana I think it is best with just a big block of ice and sipped.
We love the style of the bottle that you’ve chosen for An Dúlamán - Who came up with the bottle design and branding?
The inspiration for the bottle was the historical bottles from the Spanish Armada. (ssshhhh - the bottle is in fact a balsamic vinegar bottle). Jim and I worked with Mark Keating who also designed Dingle and Sean Fitzgerald who was the artist who hand drew the book of Kells Lettering. We both wanted a traditional feel but also a clean, minimal, almost Japanese simplicity. The more recent branding has been done by Stuart Hilton. We have some strong ideas so we look for guys who get us and have a feel for what we are trying to do
We read that you have been granted planning permission to open a new distillery in Ardara which you are hoping will be up and running at the back end of 2020. How’s everything progressing with that? We’ve seen the plans and they look impressive.
Thank you - we are really pleased with how the site in Ardara has come together. Our aim is to be distilling by Christmas next year but I think that’s a big ask. The first site works have just started and the Forsyths stills are scheduled to arrive in September and then Jim can get to work distilling his dry smoky whiskeys. It’s about the size of Teeling distillery in Dublin so a good size for a craft distillery.
Will the new distillery be open for people to visit?
It will be open for visitors in the spring of 2021 and there will be a tour of a working whiskey and gin distillery and tasting. We are not offering food like some of the bigger visitor centres as we want our visitors to enjoy the village of Ardara which has a wide range of eateries and hostelries and traditional craft shops.
We usually like to ask about your plans for the future and if you have any other gin products in the works, but given the recent release of your Armada Strength Gin and your plans for Ardara Distillery, you probably have your hands full already.
We are busy that’s for sure and our current location is too small already but I have another expression of An Dúlamán up my sleeve and Jim has a smoky version of our Silkie whiskey which he will call Dark Silkie coming out in the new year.
Lastly, where can our UK followers pick up a bottle of your gin?
We are in most good specialists and online in Master of Malt, The Whiskey Exchange and Amazon. If you check out our website https://www.sliabhliagdistillers.com/stocklist/ there is a map with pins in it for all the bars we know that have An Dúlamán.
Thanks for your time Moira, it’s been fantastic catching up and we wish you all the best in the future. As soon as the new distillery is open, we would love to pop over and take a look.
You are welcome anytime, if you let me know ahead of time we can schedule it with the tide and perhaps get some foraging in on the shore.