Glendalough Distillery: A Pilgrimage

Only the most determinedly obtuse would fail to detect a sense of magic when visiting Glendalough Valley.

Nestled among Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains, just south of Dublin, the lush valley region encompasses forestland, lakes, and the stony remains of the ancient monastic settlement of St. Kevin, the sixth century holy man who famously made Glendalough his home.

If you’re a lover of history, the ruins and monastery offer hours of exploration and discovery.

If you simply appreciate nature, you’d be hard-pressed to find a place in Ireland imbued with a richer concentration of natural beauty.

If you’re a spiritual person, you can close your eyes, stretch out your hands, and feel the presence of the divine while the cool waters of Loch Uachtar lap at your feet.

Little wonder, then, that the founders of the distillery that bears the name of this breathtaking valley find so much inspiration here. Glendalough Distillery, based in Wicklow, aims to capture the essence of Glendalough Valley in its products, and the figure of St. Kevin serves as an honorary brand figurehead.

Craft Distilling Reborn

The first independent craft distillery to emerge in Ireland after years of international acquisition and consolidation, Glendalough began operating in 2011. It was founded by five friends who’d worked in the beverage industry in various capacities, from finance to advertising, but had never actually distilled spirits.

If you get chatting with the easygoing Glendalough folks, you might come away with the impression that they cooked up this distillery idea over a few pints one night, the way we all tend to devise brilliant plans after a couple of hours at the pub.

Except they actually went ahead and did it.

Today Glendalough Distillery produces a growing variety of spirits that have found a legion of followers on both sides of the Atlantic. When my wife and I were as in Ireland this past June, we had the rare opportunity to enjoy the splendor of Glendalough Valley and peer behind the curtain of a young distillery that, despite its rapid growth, remains a tightly knit, collaborative venture rooted in its owners’ passion for craft spirits and genuine fondness for their majestic natural surroundings.

Gin Is In

If you live in the Boston area and know of Glendalough Distillery, it’s probably because of their high-end Irish whiskey. You may be less familiar their gin, which is a newer entrant to the American market.

In Ireland, it’s the other way around. Gin is Glendalough’s biggest seller, which may be surprising until you consider the incredible popularity of gin in the UK. It’s not uncommon to see gin-focused bars, chalkboards trumpeting a bar’s expansive gin collection, and so on.

Gin was also central to our distillery visit, which was a hands-on experience. Glendalough co-founder Kevin Keenan was gracious enough to take us on a personal tour of the distillery as well as its namesake valley.

And that’s key, because the distillers look to Glendalough Valley not just for inspiration but also for ingredients. In addition to sourcing water from the Wicklow Mountains (same as Guinness), the distillery’s gin is made with botanicals that grow in the woods surrounding the distillery.

Foraging in Wicklow

The task of collecting those botanicals falls to Geraldine Kavanagh, a professional forager whose love for the outdoors dates back to her childhood, when she spent her days carrying around a book to help her identify plants and flowers. By age 19, she was working as an organic farmer. Geraldine came to the attention of the Glendalough guys when she was profiled in a local magazine; they called her up and asked her to forage botanicals for their gin.

We had the opportunity to join Geraldine for a brief foraging expedition that was as educational as it was entertaining. She would point out botanicals with surprising aromas of pineapple, coconut, and chocolate, flavors you’d otherwise have to travel around the world to acquire freshly.

Under Geraldine’s watchful eye, we picked some of the 12 to 15 botanicals that infuse Glendalough’s gin, including elderflower, fraughen berries (wild blueberries), and a host of other roots and flowers.

Of course, there’s a risk in relying on wild-grown botanicals – not every ingredient grows year-round, as Geraldine informed Glendalough after they produced their first gin in 2014. So instead of sourcing botanicals from outside Wicklow (only core botanicals that don’t grow naturally in Ireland, such as juniper, are brought in), Glendalough settled on a fairly novel solution – making a series of seasonal gins.

The distillery produces 3,000 bottles each for spring, summer, fall, and winter, the recipes reflecting the flavors of Ireland in a given season.

Where the Magic Happens

The Glendalough crew is in the early stages of building a new distillery befitting their growing success. Tentatively scheduled to open in 2018, the new facility will offer all the comforts of a contemporary distillery – a visitor center, tours and tasting, all that.

The current digs are decidedly utilitarian.

Tucked away in an industrial park, the space where Glendalough produces its award-winning spirits feels like part garage, part man-cave. At one end, opposite a wall emblazoned with the St. Kevin logo, is the still – named Kathleen, after the young maiden whose affection for St. Kevin went famously unrequited.

Upstairs, there’s a small bar for spirit sampling.

That’s about it. But as a fan of Glendalough’s spirits, it was fascinating to get a glimpse behind the scenes. The bare-bones space bears all the hallmarks of a business launched on aspirations and a shoestring budget. It feels lived in; you can sense it’s been the site of successes and missteps, celebrations and strategy sessions.

Lead distiller Rowdy Rooney, who was finishing up a batch of gin when we arrived with our botanicals, talked us through the distillation process. It’s something he’s probably described a thousand times, but he’s passionate in his retelling.

Rowdy offered us samples of some of the distillery’s other gin expressions, including limited-edition and experimental releases like sloe gin, beech leaf gin, and a seaweed gin.

Master Class

The following evening in Dublin, we attended a “master class” that expanded on the process of gin making and the methods and principles behind Glendalough’s approach. We sampled all four seasonal varieties before checking out the newest addition: Wild Botanical Gin.

Unlike the seasonal gins, Glendalough’s latest offering features a consistent botanical recipe and will be available year-round. The only Glendalough gin to reach American shores, Wild Botanical endeavors to capture all of Ireland’s seasons in one bottle, with spring-like notes of pine in the nose and warm winter spices in the finish.

Looking Ahead

The Glendalough brand continues to grow in popularity, both here in Boston and in Ireland. And clearly there are big things in store for the company, with a new distillery on the way and new products in the pipeline.

Yet even in the face of that success, Glendalough’s operation remains refreshingly small. They operate like a skeleton crew, with a workmanlike approach and a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude. Rowdy’s been doing all of the distilling and only recently hired an assistant. Geraldine remains solely responsible for obtaining botanicals (not counting my wife’s and my meager contributions). Co-founder Kevin Keenan handles marketing and advertising, but he can spring into action as a tour guide if necessary.

And in a way, they’re living off the land, relying on ingredients that grow naturally in Wicklow. Not terribly unlike St. Kevin so many years earlier.

That sense of simplicity remains at the core of Glendalough Distillery. Six years in, the company still feels like a handful of folks who are determined to make top-notch spirits – a foundational principle that should serve them well as they continue to grow.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.