Glendalough Distillery’s Donal O’Gallachoir

By Shelley Boettcher

When it comes to Irish whiskey, most casual drinkers in Canada can name one, maybe two labels. Not much more.

But if Donal O’Gallachoir has his way, there will be at least one more name added to that list.

O’Gallachoir and four friends are the founders of Glendalough (pronounced Glenda-lock) Distillery, located in the Wicklow Mountains, south of Dublin, Ireland.

The brand’s myriad award-winning spirits include several whiskeys plus gins, made with regional botanicals, as well as a poitin (an ancient form of Irish moonshine) made from malted barley triple-distilled in a traditional copper pot still.

Despite their success, none of the Glendalough founders came from distilling backgrounds or had immediate family working at one. But all could see the importance of whiskey in their region’s history. 

The history of distillation in Ireland dates back to the sixth century AD, when Irish monks would travel from place to place, learning and sharing their knowledge.

By the 19th century, there were more than 200 licensed distilleries in Ireland, along with countless unlicensed ones.

But things changed quickly at the start of the 20th century.  The First World War and Ireland’s own civil war, plus a trade war with Britain and its colonies—including Canada—put many small distilleries out of business.  And Irish distilleries were some of the biggest losers during Prohibition in the US—which, until that point, had been the world’s largest export market for Irish whiskey. “Turbulence was not good for the distilling industry,” O’Gallachoir says. “Nearly every distillery in Ireland closed.”

Now, however, the country is experiencing a resurgence of pride in its whiskey history—and with that, a crop of exciting new distilleries opening.

Glendalough was started a decade or so ago after the friends noticed the growing trend toward regional whiskeys round the world, with China, Japan, India, the U.S., Canada and others creating their own regional spirits. The group of friends were all working in various drinks-related businesses. “And we thought, ‘Why aren’t we doing something like this for Irish whiskey?’” O’Gllachoir recalls.

So they did—with a nod to the past, but a foot firmly planted in the future. While they couldn’t call on family members for help with distilling questions, they could what they wanted to do when creating the new brand. “You can develop the brand you want, instead of someone saying, ‘Well, that’s not the way we did it,” O’Gallachoir says. 

For instance, they’re starting to use Irish oak in their barrels. Irish oak played an important role in the country’s distilling history until it was overharvested generations ago; for every tree that they use, the Glendalough team plants seven to protect against further overuse.

And that fellow on the label? He’s St. Kevin of Glendalough, the region’s patron saint, who lived close to where the five founders grew up. “He had a bit of an independent streak and wanted to make his own way in the world,” O’Gallachoir says.

Sort of like the Glendalough team themselves. “This is our heritage, but we want to bring it new life.”

Look for the Glendalough Double Barrel, which has, according to the team, “sucked the marrow out of two casks, Bourbon and Oloroso. They each bring their own unique flavour and character.”

“While the Bourbon barrels add, among other things, sweet, smooth vanilla notes, the Oloroso casks layer on those dried fruit and slightly nutty flavours.” About $45.

And the Irish Oak Finished Pot Still Whiskey is numbered and traceable to each cask— and to the 140-year-old tree where the oak came from. Expect loads of toasty sweet spice and vanilla aromas and flavours. Smooth, smooth, smooth. About $85/bottle.