We made a trip out to the westernmost point of Ireland, the amazing Dingle Peninsula to visit the Dingle Distillery to learn a bit more about the magic that goes into making Ireland’s most beloved Gin, Dingle Original Gin. Read on for more on the story and people behind Ireland’s only independent distillery.
SETTING THE SCENE
As you wind through this ancient peninsula in search of the fiery spirits that inhabit the Dingle Distillery, you can almost taste the curious atmosphere that seems to envelop this bewitching landscape. A dour, early September drizzle suddenly gives way to radiant sunshine, fields look unnaturally green, trees dazzle in their Autumn colour, the rocks and low mountains shimmer, and the the sea brims in an exotic blue: God’s in his heaven, All’s well with the World.
But, this is Dingle, County Kerry, at the westernmost extremity of Europe. The last outpost facing North America across the raging surf and wild winds of the Atlantic Ocean. Normal service is resumed as a sodden mist envelops trees, hills and dales and the rugged peaks of the Macgillycuddy Reeks on the Iveragh Peninsula disappear in an impenetrable blanket of mist.
The views on the way to Dingle Distillery
So to the enchanting town of Dingle then. Though late in season, the quaint little town is brimming with visitors, milling round the eclectic collection of bespoke little art galleries, craft shops, chocolate shops, ice cream parlours, and of course, everywhere they are drawn by the sights, sounds and smells of Dingle’s hostelries.
On the waterfront, the clanging of metal masts and rigging echo above the sullen slapping of the water against the pier. And just on the fringe of this bustling throng in a reclaimed sawmill overlooking the bay lies Dingle Distillery.
Dingle Distillery, in a reclaimed sawmill, overlooks the bay
DINGLE DISTILLERY TRADITION
In their zeal to tread their own path, the folk at Dingle Distillery have resisted any temptation to fancy-up this weatherworn, one-time corn mill: round the back a large millwheel harks back to almost 180 years ago when the site was described as a corn and tuck mill. The Distillery is located in the townland of Milltown (Baile an Mhuilleann – the town of the mill – in Gaeilge (Irish)).
Another doff to local tradition is the company’s logo – a somewhat scary silhouette of a Wren Boy – holding a sheaf of grain in one hand and a scythe in the other.
The Wren Boy tradition seems peculiar to Southern Ireland though it is very ancient and is widespread throughout Europe. In its many guises it sees people dressing up in garish costumes with pitched hats and faces covered to frighten onlookers. Amid much jollity and drinking, the chief Wrenboy carried a pitchfork to kill the Wren.
It may have been a Celtic midwinter sacrifice associated with the Pagan feast of Samhain (Halloween) – the Celts seemed to have a leery view of the Wren – it was the only bird who sang in midwinter and they saw it as a symbol of the year past. As often Celtic and Christian mythology fused, in another iteration God held a competition to see which bird could fly highest and furthest. The eagle was emerging as the winner but as the great bird’s endurance waned, the Wren who had been hiding under its wing, sprang out, soared high and triumphed. Strange that such a tiny bird seemed to arouse notions of death and treachery.
Dingle Distillery – logo of a Wren Boy
This probably gives rise to this version of a Wrenboy song sung widely in Ireland on St Stephen’s Day (December 26)
“The Wren, The Wren, the King of all birds
St Stephen’s Day, was caught in the furze”
The yard in front of the Distillery is quiet though people awaiting tours of the Distillery are already massing outside the doors – the tours are extremely popular and pretty much sold out – which has led the founders to plan for a Visitor Experience Centre in the near future.
However, once you enter through the open doors you are assailed by a deafening din – banging, clanking and raised voices – and by a sweet, strong, pungent odour. Mash tuns are foaming, pot stills are gurgling, and overseeing all this dripping, trickling and oozing is a gangly and improbably young Michael Walsh – the youngest head distiller in the World. But, to go forward, we need to go back.
FOUNDING AND HISTORY OF THE DINGLE DISTILLERY
Oliver Hughes was born to break the mould. A practising barrister, he was however consistently drawn back to his first love, beer and whiskey. Undeterred by the collapse of a couple of initial forays into the brewing business, he nonetheless persevered, and as fortune favours the brave, he struck gold when he set up a pub brewery in Temple Bar in Dublin with co-founders Liam LaHart and Peter Mosley. This took off and, in 1996, morphed into four pubs in Dublin and one in London and another in New York. The Porterhouse Brewing Company was born and, in 2012, with his baby in rude health, Hughes and LaHart now turned their attention to their other loves: Dingle and distilling.
Dingle was not just close to the duo’s heart, it was also possessed of a soft, moist climate with ideal temperatures for distilling the whiskey they wanted to achieve.
But Irish law requires that to earn the moniker of Irish whiskey the spirit must have rested three years in a wooden cask. So anyone venturing down this path is looking at serious outlay on premises, mash tuns, casks, stills and staff with no possibility of any return for probably at least four years. So Hughes hit on the idea of looking for investors who would buy a cask of yet untried spirit for €6,000-plus with the option, after five years, to have their personalised whiskey bottled on site, take home their cask, sell it back to the distillery, or let it mature further.
Dingle Whiskey Maturation in Progress
The take-up was brisk, and soon, with 500 wine aficionados on board, Dingle Distillery had €3 million to start the stills running.
Cask sizes varied but punters could expect 400-450 bottles at at most €15 per bottle. Initial expectations were that investors might double their outlay but stratospheric prices achieved at recent auctions of Dingle’s first run bottles have shattered that particular glass ceiling.
A fetching feature at the Distillery is a wall with small, oblong dark wood plaques with the names of the 500 so-called Founding Fathers, featuring a clutch of household names. As the wall features many members of the fairer sex, any such future venture is likely to be called Sons and Daughters!
Where it all began..Dingle Distillery Founding Fathers
With that initial tranche used to get the whiskey stills humming, some other revenue was needed for day-to day running. So the idea of vodka and gin was born. Unlike whiskey, these spirits can be distilled in less than a week. The thinking was that vodka would be the main driver, but then the gin revolution struck, and for Dingle Gin, the rest is history. The gin was originally produced in a pot still called Oisín. However, with the runaway success of the gin, and shackled by the limitations of a 500-litre still, the distillers commissioned a whopping 5,000-litre vessel. The hand-beaten, copper still, made by Forsyths in Scotland, is an exact replica, scaled up accordingly, of the original still. The new Still, which has been christened Niamh, is now in full flow.
Niamh- The Dingle Gin Still in action
The process begins with a fine grain neutral spirit sourced from Sweden as Dingle does not have a column still to produce neutral spirit. The botanicals are macerated or steeped in the spirit during distillation. Yet more flavour is achieved by inserting a tray of botanicals above the pot through which the alcohol vapours pass before condensing. Aside from the standard juniper, angelica and coriander, Dingle calls on its artisan spirit to elevate its gin into something that reeks of this unique landscape. As master distiller Michael Walsh, steeped in a farming background not far from the distillery itself explains, “the fields and bogs are abound in botanicals such as rowan berries, chervil, bog heather, fuchsia, hawthorn and bog myrtle“. And with Dingle’s hands-on approach to the fore, Walsh himself sometimes gets pressed into harvesting this flora himself, getting down and dirty with a band of little helpers drawn from neighbours, nephews and nieces. Very Dingle!
HOW BEST TO EXPERIENCE DINGLE ORIGINAL IRISH GIN?
Because it’s a London Dry Gin style, where the botanicals deeply infuse the taste before distillation, Dingle Gin is a very aromatic spirit best experienced in a balloon glass which allows a greater sight and smell experience.
The glass should be chilled and filled with frozen ice. This traps the bubbles and preserves the aroma for longer for a more satisfying drink.
Serving suggestions for Dingle Gin:
The Dingle Perfect Serve
Large ice cubes, a wedge of orange and a sprinkling of juniper berries – You can find all you need for this in Dingle’s gin gift pack
Dingle Gin Mojito
Mix a teaspoon of castor sugar with juice of half a lime in bottom of frosted glass, press some mint leaves into this with spoon. Pour in Dingle Gin and ice and top with lime and cucumber slices and sprig of mint.
Dingle Gin Cocktail
Fill a tall glass with fresh ice cubes, pour 50ml of Dingle Gin and top with Fentiman’s Herbal Tonic. Squeeze a wedge of lime and drop it in. Top with fresh raspberries and stir.
Dingle Gin Garnishes
Care must be taken not to mask the natural botanicals and rich aromas of Dingle Gin. Your garnish should complement your drink, so not too heavy on botanicals.
Suggested garnishes include:
- Cucumber ribbons
- Watermelon cubes
- Lime slices
- Berries in season
- Hot pepper
Great Tonic Waters To Accompany Dingle Gin:
Dingle’s vodka is also produced from Oisín and charcoal-filtered. Dingle’s vodka is, procedurally, the most simple and straightforward of its products. Dingle simply took a fine, neutral grain and distilled it. OK, they did it five times. With clear, cold water from 240 feet below the Distillery. And charcoal-filtered it. The result, a sweet, creamy vodka that could be drunk neat.
Hey, but life’s for living, so let’s live a little.
HOW BEST TO EXPERIENCE DINGLE IRISH VODKA?
Serving suggestions for Dingle Vodka:
Cranberry Vodka Cocktail
- Three-quarters cup of cranberry juice
- 30ml Dingle Vodka
- Splash ginger ale
- Cranberries for garnish
- 30ml Dingle Vodka
- Fresh Lemon Juice
- 30ml Dingle Vodka
- Sparkling Lemonade
- Dash of Cherry Juice
And so to the jewel in the crown – Dingle Whiskey.
With the gin and vodka underway, the whiskey was now ripe for tasting and it was about this time, in 2012, that Michael Walsh, who was in London, decided to return to Dingle to spend some time with his family before making a move to Australia and pastures new.
Walsh had studied engineering and had no more than an everyday knowledge of whiskey. However, his father knew that something new and exciting was brewing at the new distillery in Dingle, and suggested he throw his hat in the ring. He did so, and as the somewhat apocryphal story goes, he arrived in the converted mill just as the first trickle of Dingle whiskey was emerging at the cut.
And so, from the first independent Distillery in Ireland in over 100 years, emerged a unique spirit that was to prove the elixir that breathed a new, surging life into the Great Irish Whiskey Renaissance.
In the fevered excitement of the moment, Walsh went partly unnoticed and was given a glass and thus became one of the first people to taste the spirit that carried the unique flavour profile envisioned by Dingle’s founders.
Hand-made Copper Stills used in the Dingle Whiskey making process
Walsh readily bought into the vision that saw hand-worked Irish barley ferment in pine mash tuns and then go through a triple distillation in specially-designed copper stills. These are fitted with a boil wash which encourages reflux leading to a smoothness and purity in the final spirit.
At the heart of the Dingle vision was a determination to be different. As founder Oliver Hughes said …”only dead fish go with flow,” and Walsh was immediately immersed in this singular approach to distilling whiskey.
He’s not quite sure how he ended up there again the next day, but he did, and in the hands-on Dingle tradition, remembers he ended up shovelling barley in one of the giant, wooden mash tuns.
Dingle’s Wooden Mash Tuns
Listening to Walsh wax lyrical about Dingle Whiskey, his burning passion and real love for his job – it’s truly more like a vocation – shines through.
HOW IS DINGLE WHISKEY MADE?
Dingle whiskey is made from Irish-grown barley, malted ìn the neighbouring Co. Cork, and milled in Co. Kilkenny.
The process has four stages.
Dingle Distillery In Action: A View Through the Looking Glass
In the case of Dingle Single Batch Whiskey, malted Irish barley and water is mashed by hand in a vat. This process begins to convert the starch in the barley to sugar.
For its Single Pot Still, a roughly 50/50 mix of malted and unmalted barley goes into the mash.
Dingle use their own water, a soft water from a well 74 metres deep on the premises – the quality of the water is considered critical to the final taste, impurities or over-arching mineral tastes will impair the final spirit.
The mash is then transferred to a 1 tonne wooden mash tun, in Dingle’s case Oregon Pine. At this stage yeast is added and converts the sugars into alcohol. While many distillers use stainless steel vats at this stage, Dingle prefer the wooden tuns. The tuns are heated by stainless steel coils.
Head distiller Michael Walsh fervently believes the natural imperfections in the wood bring an added and unique character to the fermentation process for a more interesting result.
Standing on the wooden gangway as this heady brew burbles and seeps in its vat, your senses are assaulted by the intoxicating heat and powerful aromas rising from the mash. After going through this process for 48 to 72 hours, you are left with a turgid brew which Walsh describes as 8 per cent beer.
This, known as distillers’ beer, or wash, is now ready for distillation.
Again, Dingle trod their own path here, commissioning three hand-beaten, copper pot stills, designed by master distiller, John McDougall, from renowned, artisan craftsmen, Forsyths of Scotland.
“Whiskey came to Scotland with Irish emigrants, and now, to help bring it back here, at a time when there are no other Irish-owned distilleries, is an honour,” said McDougall at the time.
At Dingle, the spirit is triple-distilled in these beautiful stills, to remove all impurities and capture the alcohol.
One of Three Copper Pot Still in Action
The spirit emerges from the Still at a curious-looking, almost home-made-looking contraption known as the ‘cut’.
Here it is tasted by the distillers, Walsh principally, and continues to be tasted until it is deemed of a quality and taste good enough to go on to the next distillation.
Dingle is unique in how it selects the distillate it deems meets the taste profile. The distillers sample the spirit at the “cut” and decide if it meets the quality and profile worthy of going on to the third distillate or maturation – there is no automation – the cut operates on an automated system in most distilleries, but Walsh, and Dingle, believe there is no substitute for human intervention at this critical point.
And so to the final stage, maturation, where the spirit is aged for a minimum of three years in wooden casks.
In the casks, the original ingredients, alcohol, water and the congeners, continue to react with each other, as well as with oxygen (oxidation). But perhaps most critically, the whiskey absorbs flavour from the wood.
In Dingle’s case, the casks of choice are bourbon, sherry, port, and French and Spanish wine. Also, Dingle distillery use the casks only once, which imparts much more flavour to the whiskey.
And for Dingle whiskey aficionados, exciting times beckon as they plan to boldly go where few have gone before, as they are currently experimenting with a diverse, new cast of casks.
Dingle Vodka, Whiskey and Gin – The finished products
In 2016 the first release, Dingle Single Malt Batch 1 Whiskey (7,500 bottles at 46.5 ABV and 500 bottles at cask strength, 60.7 ABV), was a runaway success, and almost before the ink was dry on the handsome, hand-filled, hand-labelled bottles, an iconic design commemorating the 1916 rising by renowned artist James O’Neill, so prized was this whiskey that it was already a collector’s item, fetching eye-popping prices on secondary sale.
Dingle then dropped a minor bombshell, a Single Pot Still Whiskey, alongside Midleton, only the second single pot still whiskey to be produced in Ireland in centuries.
Dingle Single Pot Still Batch 1 – a treat to end the day
This whiskey, a mash of malted and unmalted barley matured in Pedro Ximinez casks, with just 800 bottles released, sparked something of a frenzy among would-be buyers, and copper-fastened Dingle’s status as the ultimate boutique whiskey.
Unsurprisingly, Batch No 3, in sherry and bourbon casks, also rocked, and Batch No 4 should prove likewise.
So why has this whiskey, created and produced in a shed on the shores of the wild Atlantic caught fire so dramatically?
Well, all of the above, really.
A romantic vision, behind which lurks a keen business logic, an idyllic location, and above all a desire to be different.
Well, not so much to be different.
To be Dingle.
It’s a DNA thing.