When most people think about Irish whiskey, they might say “light,” “fruity,” or if they’re a whiskey nerd, “triple-distilled.” But it’s unlikely that anyone would say “smoky.”
However, Silkie Irish Whiskey and its founder James Doherty are trying to change all that. Doherty, who has deep roots in Ireland’s County Donegal but grew up abroad, returned to the region with an outsider’s appreciation of its eccentricities. Among those is a smoky style of Irish whiskey (and its moonshine-like progenitor poitín) which was widely produced in Donegal in the 19th century, largely through illicit distillers.
According to Doherty, the impetus to found the first legal distillery in Donegal since 1841 came when his grandmother passed down his grandfather’s recipe for poitín shortly before her own passing.
The True Taste of Irish Whiskey
“It got me thinking about what the ‘true’ taste of Ireland is, and the reality that what everyone knows as Irish whiskey today is really a taste of the 1960s and onwards, because it’s all hyper-consolidated,” Doherty says. “All the distilleries closed down, and you were left with two: they’re both based in cities, and with scotch having such a dominant position… [Irish whiskey] became sweet, easy, light and approachable. But it misses out on a big part of the Irish character.”
To try and restore that character he founded Sliabh Liag Distillers, which produces Silkie as well as An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin, a savory gin made with seaweed. Silkie, which at this time is not distilled at Sliabh Liag but sourced from Ireland’s Great Northern Distillery, hearkens back to that earlier style by blending double-distilled and triple-distilled whiskeys, a portion of which are peated.
“Irish whiskey is triple-distilled, light, silk-smooth and easy, and that’s really the taste of the last 40 years and the taste of the city,” Doherty says. “We came at this with a slightly different view, which was that in rural Ireland whiskeys would all have been peated.”
Silkie Legendary and Legendary Dark
However, Silkie’s two core whiskeys, Silkie Legendary and Silkie Legendary Dark, shouldn’t be mistaken for Islay-style barnburners. The peated component is modest in each expression—accounting for just 4% of the blend in Legendary and 15% in Legendary Dark—and is triple-distilled in each. According to Doherty, this typically Irish trait makes all the difference.
“What that does to peated whiskey that double-distilled doesn’t do, is it leaves you with a dry smoky taste. And you don’t get all of the medicinal notes and ppm [phenol parts per million] and iodine that you get from an Islay, so it becomes a much more approachable way to enjoy smoky whiskeys.”
In a one-on-one tasting with Doherty, his point became clear. The Legendary, which contains malt and grain whiskeys aged in sherry, virgin oak, and re-charred oak, is light and round with fruit-forward flavors complemented by a lazy, lingering note of smoke at the back. Legendary Dark, composed of malt whiskeys aged in sherry and ex-bourbon barrels as well as a grain whiskey in virgin oak, is darker and richer with flavors of apple desserts, salted caramel, and spicy pipe tobacco. It presents a more forward and detectable smoke influence that’s still a longways from Islay’s one-two punch. In other words, it’s a slow burner.
These two whiskeys will soon be joined by a new sibling in the form of The Legendary Midnight, which stands out as the smokiest of all Silkies with 35% of its blend coming from a triple-distilled, peated single malt aged in ex-bourbon casks (the remainder of the blend consists of single malts aged in sherry with a virgin oak finish, Imperial stout casks, oloroso sherry casks, and red wine casks). The first shipment of Legendary Midnight is making its way to California and is expected to be on Golden State shelves in May. The other 47 states that Silkie currently distributes in will soon follow suit.
Silkie is something of a beautiful contradiction. It’s recognizably an Irish whiskey by character of its silky mouthfeel, fruity flavors, and gentle presence on the palate, yet commendably subverts expectations by virtue of its subdued smoke. When trying to make sense of its overall character, I kept coming back to an instantly memorable phrase Doherty dropped in our conversation.
“I have a particular passion for soft-drinking hard spirits.”