We're delighted to get the chance to interview Dingle Distillery's Master Distiller Michael Walsh about gin, whiskey and independent Irish spirits.
Can you start by telling me the story behind Dingle Distillery?
Dingle Distillery was founded by cousins Oliver Hughes and Liam LaHart of the Porter House Group. The story Oliver liked to tell was that on one of his many trips to Dingle he commissioned a painting by local artist Honora O’Neil which she entitled “The Spirit of Dingle” this is supposedly what gave Oliver the inspiration to set-up a “spirits” distillery in Dingle. My opinion is that this does not do the guys justice, 20 years ago they had the belief to produce quality craft beer when everyone said they were mad and I suggest that setting up the distillery was borne out of the same belief that there was a market for high-quality craft spirits. In any case the painting “The Spirit of Dingle” is embossed on every bottle of Dingle Gin to pay homage to Oliver’s inspiration.
What made you want to try and bring artisan whiskey back to Ireland?
Ireland has a rich history in whiskey production at one stage having over 2000 distilleries on the island producing all manner of wonderful and, I'm sure, terrible whiskey. These historic distilleries all prided themselves on having the more artisan ethos of being quality driven, unfortunately, this tradition of craft distillation died out largely due to an economic war with Britain coupled with US prohibition and Irish whiskey morphed into a mass produced arguably bland product. We believe that there is and will be a market for artisan Irish whiskey if someone would simply make it so that’s what we’ve set out to do.
What’s the reaction been to the whiskey so far?
The reaction has been overwhelming, the first limited release sold out immediately with one of the bottles making their way to the Irish Whiskey Awards where we won gold in the cask strength category.
How did you get started with gin?
Right place right time really, I studied renewable energy systems in college, while there I also learned a lot about alcohol but nothing I thought I’d have any practical application for. I saw that there was a distillery opening up at home and decided I’d pop in, hand in my CV on what happened to be the first day of distillation and in the excitement of it all I was ushered over to the still where various directors, consultants, friends and family were gathered round the spirit safe. I didn’t know what was going on but I could tell everyone was tense so, not wanting to seem rude, I thought it best not to announce why I was there until the tension had lifted. As the distillate began to flow from the stills glasses of the spirit were passed around and I was asked for my opinion, which I gave, we tasted the spirit every few minutes monitoring its progression for about an hour before I eventually (quite tipsy at this stage) explained I was only here to hand over my CV. I was asked if I would come in the next morning to empty a mash tonne and I did and I was asked back again the following day and so on and it all spiralled from there.
Can you tell me more about the gin in your own words?
Dingle Gin is distilled in small batches of 500 litres. Each bottle is batch numbered in case you find a particular batch you like more than others. It is a London Dry Gin made using a balance of quality botanicals sourced locally and from right around the world combined to create a fresh flavoursome gin. Many gins and indeed spirits of all types seem to pride themselves on this idea of being smooth, almost like you wouldn’t notice that you are drinking them. That is not what we are about here in Dingle we want your experience with Dingle to be an engaging one. Our aim is that the quality botanicals we have forged locally, as well as those we have sourced from further afield, make a real and noticeable contribution. I would describe Dingle as a fresh balance of traditional juniper character alongside a mix of citrus and floral notes.
You use a few unusual botanicals. What was the thought process behind including rowan berry, bog myrtle, heather and fuchsia?
In my opinion the beauty of gin is the basically limitless possibilities as far as ingredients are concerned. Because of this, I am of the belief there is no such thing as not liking gin it’s that you just simply haven’t found the gin you like yet. Many distilleries are using exotic botanicals from the Mediterranean or wherever as their focus but we believed it possible to produce a very good gin using botanicals that could be found at our doorstep and that we could then find someone somewhere that would be able to enjoy it. Our faith in our local botanicals has been more than repaid and we’ve managed (in our own humble opinion) to produce a beautiful gin that has been very well received. Buoyed by the success of the original gin we have expanded our range of gins in the form of the Four Seasons Gin using, as the name suggests, botanicals form each of the four seasons & moving beyond the above-mentioned botanicals and now using many more local ingredients such as wild blackberries, nettles and gorse.
Can you tell me a little bit more about your logo?
Our logo is that of a Wren Boy, “The Wrens Day” as it is known is celebrated on the 26th of December each year, it started off as a pagan tradition where once a year people would dress up in a special costume made of straw to hide their face, and indeed clothes, so that they would not be recognised. They would then form troupes and travel around the local area making as much noise as possible to scare away evil spirits. The festival is still celebrated locally to this day. The troupes have morphed into marching bands made up of talented (and some not so talented) local musicians and the aim is no longer to scare away evil spirits more so to collect money for various local charities.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the 4 Seasons Gin?
The 4 Seasons Gin is a gift back of four gins Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter with botanicals foraged in each season making up the main flavour profile of each, Winter being the one exception simply because there aren't as many botanicals that come that bloom in winter, we instead chose seasonal spices such as clove and nutmeg as the main ingredients, outside of juniper, obviously.
What’s a typical day like for you?
There is no typical day in the distillery really. We begin production at 6 o’clock each morning, we mash in and distil 7 days a week year round so in the early hours of the morning while everyone else is sleeping we’re up monitoring fermentations steeping gin and firing up the stills. After that, I could get up to any number of things depending on the time of year the day of the week or even the mood I’m in. A lot of what I do could be considered quality control I suppose making sure fermentations are going as planned, that the distillate is tasting as it should or nosing casks before they are used for maturation of our whiskey. But we are at a scale where I can’t simply oversee what the lads get up to so you could just as easily find me in the bottling hall or indeed sifting through the local hedgerow for fuschia. Tours kick off in the afternoon and I try to give at least a couple tours every week. Our tours are very informal, so it’s nice to be able to engage with people and hear their thoughts because sometimes hearing a different point of view is what sparks the next big idea or way of doing things.
What’s the best part about what you do?
The best part of what I do is the variety of what I could be up to from day to day. We are a small production with no automation so I have to get stuck into all manner of different duties from day to day. I could be doing something as physical as lugging 500 litre oak barrels around a warehouse or as delicate as picking flowers for use in our next batch of gin and then I still have my bit of admin to bring me back to the real world. I would go insane if I was doing the same thing all day every day. Getting to taste gin and whiskey (for quality control reasons) is just the cherry on top.
Other than Dingle, do you have any favourite gins? Why?
I don’t really have any other gin that I could call a favourite, I’m constantly trying new gins and as I’m sure you’re well aware of you could try a new gin every day and never run out of gin to try. A gin I discovered recently that I did really like is Dodd’s Gin .
How do you prefer to drink your gin?
I like to keep it simple lots of ice a standard tonic (flavoured tonics can be wonderful but I feel can sometimes overwhelm the gin) and a simple wedge of lime.
How would you recommend people serve Dingle Gin?
Over plenty of ice with a slice of orange and you’re tonic of choice
What can we expect next from Dingle Distillery?
I’m not sure how much I can give away, there will obviously be some whiskey releases which we are very excited about having waited for what’s felt like forever but we will have plenty to excite gin lovers as well. We are expanding our distribution so more people get to try Dingle and myself and the rest of the team will be busy working away in the background trying to come up with exciting new gins for you to try, we are working on a few different things that we will be looking at releasing shortly so watch this space.
For the rest of this month, you can pick up a bottle of this truly Irish gin and get a 200ml bottle of light and fresh Source Tonic and a gorgeous gin glass, absolutely free!*
Get yours at: https://www.ginfestival.com/products/dingle-gin
*Offer ends 31/03/2017. Only available whilst stocks last.
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