SITTING NEXT TO the estuary of Dingle harbour is a business that hopes to put the town on the map for more than just Fungie the dolphin.
Oliver Hughes and his cousin Liam LaHart opened Dingle Whiskey Distillery in 2012. No strangers to the pub game, the two men have been passionate about beer since setting up the Porterhouse Brewing Company which opened Ireland’s first brewpub in Dublin in 1993.
Over the years the company has specialised in importing various craft beers from around the world, well before the craft beer movement was ‘cool’.
Since then they have opened the brand of pubs in Dublin, Cork, Bray, London and New York, but just over two years ago they turned their passion from beer to whiskey.
Dingle always had a special place in Hughes’ heart, which is why after a conversation with his distilling guru, John McDougall, he decided to give the whiskey business a shot in Kerry.
In November 2012, the distillery was up and running, producing the first whiskey to be made in Ireland outside of the big three brands Midleton, Cooley and Bushmills.
While micro-brewies are popping up all over the country, it takes a bit more patience and commitment to produce a new Irish whiskey.
Legally, under the Irish Whiskey Act of 1980, whiskey cannot be called whiskey until the spirits have been matured in wooden casks on the island of Ireland for a period of not less than three years.
What does this mean?
Essentially, that you will be paying out to produce a product for three years before you see any profit returning to your pocket.
Entrepreneur John Teeling, who founded the Cooley Distillery in Co Louth, this month warned that many of the new distilleries opening up might never produce a drop.
I think some of them may not get started, I think they don’t realise that it will take them four or five years from now until they have their first whiskey and it will certainly take them a number of years before they get commercial after that,” he said.
For this very reason, the Dingle Whiskey Distillery has had to come up with other lines of revenue to keep the whiskey production afloat and it comes in the form of vodka and gin.
“The vodka and gin line is just good economics,” explains distillery manager Mary Ferriter.
While the whiskey sits in casks for up to three years, the Dingle Distillery has been making its very own brand – Dingle gin and Dingle vodka – and it’s going down a treat.
The spirits are being stocked in most pubs in the town and many other establishments and off licences up and down the country.
There has been somewhat of a resurgence in gin, with festivals and new brands popping up on the market.
At present there are only two gins made in Ireland and one of these is the hand-crafted Dingle Original Gin.
Ferriter explains it is the product of a considerable amount of research, both technical and historical.
Dingle Original Gin is made in small batches of 500 litres. It’s what is categorised as a London dry gin but has it’s own unique flavours.
The spirit is collected at 70% abv (alcohol by volume) and then cut to 40% abv using the purest of water which is drawn from a well 240 feet below the distillery.
The distillery is located in the old sawmills on the Milltown Road just on the fringe of Dingle. Behind the distillery is an old mill wheel which used to be in operation but has fallen into disrepair.
Ferriter explains that the long-term plan is to get it back up and running so a constant supply of Dingle water can be used in the production of the whiskey, gin and vodka.
The vodka is another range that is gaining in popularity and is unusual in being quintuple distilled.
Ireland is known around the world for its whiskey, but on the day of our tour at the Dingle Distillery our cheerful and enthusiastic tour guide Joe Joyce tells us Ireland slipped off the radar in the whiskey world as far back as prohibition in the US, when the Scottish began supplying the states.
Two hundred years ago, Ireland had over a hundred officially recognised distilleries. However by the turn of this century there were just two.
However, the Dingle Whiskey Distillery says it is not in the business of creating a mega brand.
Employing a local staff of ten people and one brand ambassador staff member in Dublin, the scale is modest producing just two casks per week. However, Ferriter says looking forward with the tourism offering on site they hope to increase staff by another 10-15 people over the next two years.
The distillery prides itself on its artisan approach. Using three hand-crafted copper pot stills made specially for the Dingle distillery by Forsyths in Scotland, the Irish malted barley is used to make pure pot still malt whiskey. The largest pot still can hold up to 7,000 litres.
Our tour guide Joe tells us to stick our head over the brew as the yeast cells eat the simple sugars found in whiskey mash. The powerful whiff of the brew and the carbon dioxide it emits is enough to knock the socks of anyone and the stunned faces of tourists on the guided tour definitely need a drink after it!
It’s explained to us that whiskey is not whiskey until it comes out of out the cask, so until then it is pure spirit, also known as moonshine or poitín.
Given a drop, we taste the spirit at it’s strongest of over 60% abv – not something you should do if you have work the next day.
It’s this pure spirit that will age in the casks, soaking in the Dingle air, making it taste unlike a whiskey from Dublin, Belfast or any of the other part of the country.
Thinking outside the box, the distillery also has another line of revenue. It offers people the opportunity to be one of the “founding fathers” of the distillery by buying one of the casks they produce each week.
The first 500 casks are available to those who wish to become “The Dingle Founding Fathers”.
Each cask, with its own distinct character are unique: one unique cask, one unique owner.
Ferriter says it’s a “no-brainer” investment, explaining that currently Irish whiskey demand exceeds supply.
Investors may choose to have the contents of their personalised whiskey casks bottled on site by the Dingle Distillery or at 5 years, cask owners may choose to take ownership of the cask, removing it from the bonded warehouse and reselling it at a potentially appreciated value.
Investors may choose to keep the cask at the distillery for a longer period to allow it to mature further before bottling, with some additional charges for storage and insurance.
Ferriter explains that there is a safety net with a buy-back scheme offered by the distillery and if the distillery goes bust the ownership remains with the investor.
Other benefits of ownership include having your name placed as a Dingle Founding Father on the distillery wall. Your name is also placed on your very own cask.
This weekend the annual founding fathers event took place at the distillery.
If you want to taste the much anticipated Dingle Whiskey, you’ll just have to wait.
The first Dingle Whiskey will be released in 2016. Ferriter says is poignant as it is the centenary of Irish independence.
“Given our independent nature, we feel that this is a happy coincidence.”
If you would like to learn more about whiskey making, Dingle Whiskey Distillery runs a daily tour for €10. It also runs the Dingle Distillery Whiskey School during some weekends during the year. The next available dates can be viewed here.