Our Managing Director, Shane McLave featured in Drinks Industry Ireland speaking to James Doherty of Sliabh Liag Distillers about his career trajectory which led him to establish his drinks business.
As a recruiter, I regularly meet with people who ask me for advice on their career, whether they have been working in a particular role or industry, have lost faith in the industry or the particular job they are in, or if they are looking for a change but they don’t know where to start or what the possibilities are for them.
However, in my experience, it’s not as simple as picking a career, going to college to study, and/or landing your dream job. As a result, the advice I give to people is that your dream job and the skills you need for it are normally built up over a number of years and through working in many different jobs or industries. Most people have three distinct periods in their working life, each period as important as the other in shaping what we end up doing. The first jobs we get as teenagers or students are often part-time jobs in retail or hospitality and the careers that we have in our 20s and 30s are typically related to our studies along with the time in our lives when we want the security to buy a home or start a family and sometimes, the lucky ones end up realising what their real passion is and what is most important to them to give them a sense of purpose and satisfaction whether this is through gaining a work life balance or simply doing something that they feel makes a difference to the lives of others or helps them leave their mark on the world.
This week, I had the pleasure of talking to James Doherty of Sliabh Liag Distillers about his journey from growing up and studying as an engineer in the UK to working in Africa and then moving into a sales role in Asia, before returning to his ancestral home in Donegal. Doherty ended up founding and building the first distillery to legally produce whiskey in Donegal since 1841. I asked him a few questions about his career to date. With all the nervousness we see reported in the media about our over reliance as an economy on corporate tax and overseas multinationals, I found it really heartening to talk to James about the current and future possibilities around some of our indigenous industries and how they are helping to bring employment and prosperity in a sustainable way to so many towns around the island of Ireland.
How did you end up in the drinks industry?
Almost by accident, an engineer by training, I came home from growing tea in Africa to the UK and managed to grab a break with WM Grants (Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Hendricks) in a sales role (despite my lack of experience) and a few years later, I was on the board. I left them with a wanderlust and headed to Asia with my family where we did pretty well too, and then decided we could do spirits brands and distilleries in a different way to the big corporates – the result is the Ardara Distillery, the home of Sliabh Liag Distillers, An Dúlamán Gin and The Silkie Irish Whiskey. The business is growing rapidly, while creating opportunities locally and doing so against a macro back drop that is really challenging.
Can you give me a brief history of the company?
We started in 2015, with an ambition to reclaim the distilling heritage of Donegal. We unfortunately lost a bit of time to some ridiculous land issues but still built the gin distillery in 2017, and launched An Dulaman Gin (currently in 35 countries). We also launched Silkie Irish whiskey as it is now in 2019 and have shipped to 40 countries and sold almost 15,000 9L cases. Subsequently, we distilled the first whiskey in 2020 before building the main whiskey building in 2021. Our first whiskey will be released in July of this year – the first legally distilled whiskey in Donegal since 1841.
How many people are now employed by the distillery and what do you think the industry is worth to the wider economy?
Currently, we have built the team up to 26 employees, but we expect to have up to 40 in due course who will be based at the distillery in Ardara and the bottling hall in Carrick. The majority of our employees work in Carrick in the bottling and administration centre, and we also have a few people based internationally. The export value (the distillery gate if you like) of the Irish whiskey industry exceeded €1bn for the first time in 2022, and don’t forget that 96% is exported.
How many people are employed directly in the Irish whiskey industry and are you seeing challenges in the current labour market?
Approximately 2,000 people are employed across the island. The labour situation is tight, but this hasn’t specifically impacted us in our own distillery as we have a pretty stable team. The competition for talented people is very intense due to the positive growth we are seeing within the sector.
You can check out this feature in the Drinks Industry Ireland magazine here