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James Doherty - An Dúlamàn Gin

James Doherty - An Dúlamàn Gin
Written by Gin Foundry

If you haven’t yet encountered An Dúlamán Gin, we think it’s high time you got acquainted. This Irish coastal spirit has a great deal of expertise behind it, with its founders, James and Moira Doherty, pouring decades worth of booze industry experience into every drop of their gin. We sat down with James at the end of last year ad asked us to give him a quick intro to the distillery…

Those who don’t know you won’t quite fully appreciate that you’re pickled in spirits, so to speak, having worked for various booze brands all around the world. Could you give us a little introduction?

James Doherty: Moira would be the first to say that I have been in the industry for about 20 kilos and just about as many years. Moira is a Zimbo, we met in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on my gap year and subsequently returned to Africa after graduating and we completed a six year stint growing tea and coffee in Malawi.

When we came back to the UK I spent a good chunk of time as a sales guy in William Grants. At that time Grants was making its transition from a trading business to a brand centred one. It was massively entrepreneurial and quite loose in structure and process, but the energy and delivery was always strong.

As a company WGS was very clever at recruiting for cultural fit; I mean I had no sales, drink or European experience and having come from ops roles you are suddenly faced with completely different decisions and arenas, but they backed you to deliver.

I used to travel to what was left of Yugoslavia and the cultural challenges of working in the Balkans were odd, but I worked out that you were selling through people and not to people so over time your empathy radar tunes into how to get things done.

What was the shift that made you want to kick start your own thing?

It was years later, I said to Moi that “we could do this ourselves you know,” but we parked it as the corporate ride was good and we were learning. Finishing at Grants was very emotional for us; when you have invested so much of yourself in a company - its values, its people, its brands – the change hits hard and your self-belief takes a really good kicking but we bounced back and joined Fosters International and set about planning for a move to Melbourne. The role involved breweries and distilleries in Fiji, JV’s in the USA and Dubai plus distribution businesses. The variety and challenge was immense.

The SAB Miller take-over saw us move to Hong Kong, a huge cultural shift. Moi and I are home and country bodies so the thought of living in a 24 hour city was daunting. During that stint, we decided to take the ideas we had been collecting and put them together in a portfolio of spirit brands championing the Donegal Gaeltacht.

Moira and I knew we could build something and thought we would find time to walk on the beach, too. We wanted to reclaim the distilling heritage of Donegal. With that dream set, resigning was easy.

The call of the homeland is a strong one. Can you pinpoint that exact moment when you decided to go back and start a distillery of your own?

I don’t remember the exact date, it would have been early 2012 when the ideas all started to coalesce and look coherent. That was when we started talking to friends and potential backers. We came back on holiday in 2013, found a home and spent days driving to meetings and looking at sites.

Perhaps the original seed of the idea was my Gran. Originally I studied agriculture and then soil and water engineering and in 1989 I was over in Ireland with Gran and out of the blue she gave me Grandad’s Poitín recipe. As far as I know she wouldn’t hear-tell of Poitín in the house and she died shortly after so only she knows why she gave it to me.

In 2010 Moi and I had been chatting about distilling and potential opportunities and that summer while picking Dulse with Aunty Agnes at Muckross Head, Moi asked if the Dulse could be used in alcohol. That was the most significant moment I guess as it really got us thinking seriously.

Let’s talk about that dream - was it about working on something new or was it about Donegal?

It’s ultimately about creating a legacy for the area something everyone can be proud of and proving to ourselves that we can do this. The vision is to reclaim the distilling heritage of Donegal, a county with a rich illicit distilling history. Two distilling heartlands were the Sliabh Liag peninsula (where both my Grandads were illicit distillers) and the Donegal Gaeltacht.

Ultimately, we chose the Sliabh Liag Peninsula – it’s a rugged, wild place very much a world apart and we want everything we do to be true to that, from both the spirits we make and the way they are presented.

But the Donegal Gaeltacht still features, right? Botanically speaking…

For An Dúlamán Irish Maritme Gin we looked at the history and the cultural relevance of seaweed of the Donegal Gaeltacht. We experimented with the seaweed on our mini still, Lola. You can’t buy small quantities of GNS so we used to buy cases of vodka in Lidl in Donegal town… the disapproving looks we got as 36 bottles clink their way along the conveyor to the till. Too funny.

You’ve made what you call an Irish Maritime Gin, in which the concept was to use seaweed(s) as a botanical but specifically to create a gin “of the sea” and not “of seaweed.” What exactly does this entail?

I suppose this was driven heavily by Moira; she comes from a land locked country and associates Seaweed with being that slimy thing that gets caught around your ankle when you are at the beach.

We wanted the freshness of the sea, the savoury kick, a hint of earthiness and the ozone aroma but with no fishy dirty flavours.

We set about distilling as many botanicals as we could lay our hands on, including the sea weeds, so we could understand their properties. Using them fresh, dried, frozen we got to understand their idiosyncrasies and see how they went together.

The biggest challenge, apart from the bizarre way some of the seaweeds (carrageen moss particularly) behave when kettle infused, took some learning and the challenge of separating the fresh, salty, umami flavours from the fishy, dirty flavours was a major headache.

A puzzle indeed! What seaweeds made the final cut?

The base of the Gin is fairly typical: juniper, coriander, angelica, cassia and citrus peels.

The Donegal twist is the seaweeds, and though we started out by trying about 20 of them, we ended up using five. Dried sugar kelp gives you a balanced sweetness but also a sort of dusty key lime aroma. Dried dulse, which is a very popular snack locally, gives it a smoky bacon like aroma which we think gives a savoury kick and a slight saltiness. We used dried Dúlamán, which is rich in tannins and gives the gin its name.

We also use dried Carrageen moss in the flavour basket (it’s a nightmare to infuse in the pot so vapour infusion is the only way) for its toffee, nutty and textural quality. Finally, we have the shyest of the seaweeds: Pepper Dulse. Some call it the truffle of the sea; it has a rich savoury garlic taste that leaves your lips tingling like chilli and it brings a big umami flavour that nothing else can match.

We have found a combination that gives us what we want, though with hind sight a simpler recipe would have made life much easier!

Perhaps, but with risk comes reward! Celebrating provenance is particularly tricky as it so often falls into pastiche. Was striking the balance something you considered?

It’s a fine line that you walk all the time, trying to get a tone that fits not just with Donegal but with where this story comes from within ourselves. We don’t have too many competing voices, so the ideas are pretty focussed and I guess being aware of that risk is half the battle. We wanted to respect the authentic past whilst bringing a strong sense of Donegal today.

Now that the gin is out there, what are the next steps for you?

In terms of goals, we need to maintain the quality focus and I know with Moira distilling that we are safe there. We want to increase our presence in the UK and really get people to love our dumpy little bottle and savoury taste. We want to open up couple more markets (we have high hopes for South Africa and Australia).

There is a trade challenge right now where there is a bit Gin fatigue with buyers so we need to ensure our points of difference matter. We have some Gin innovations tucked away and we have a whiskey distillery to build too, so there’s plenty to do…

An Dulaman Gin