January's Wild Botanical Gin is a brand new release from Glendalough Distillery, Ireland's first craft distillery. Let Glendalough’s incredible Wild Botanical gin transport you to the misty lakes and leafy mountains of County Wicklow, the garden of Ireland.
The story of Glendalough starts with a very special place.
In the mysterious valley of Glendalough, in County Wicklow on the eastern coast of Ireland, the mist hangs low over the mountains and the wilds burst with hidden botanicals. Known as the garden of Ireland, Glendalough – which means ‘valley of two lakes’ – is just a short drive from Dublin. But it might as well be a different world.
As Kevin Keenan, creative director at Glendalough Distillery, explains: “We’d been thinking about Glendalough as a place for a long time. It’s so amazing, and there’s so much lovely stuff growing there. We wanted to make a gin that, when you sipped it or smelled it, helped you imagine yourself there.”
To the five friends who would go on to found Glendalough Distillery, this special place – rich with history and the site of many a childhood visit – was the perfect place to kick-start a renaissance in Irish craft distilling.
And so far, if the beautiful bottle of Wild Botanical Gin in January's Gin of the Month box is any indication, they’ve proven themselves right.
Two Lakes, Six Lives
There are two threads to the story of Glendalough. The first begins in the year 498, when the man who would bring life to the valley was born.
St Kevin – was raised the coddled son of Irish royalty. But he had another plan for this life. A deeply holy person, he was ordained as a monk before striking off on his own, leaving his powerful family behind and heading out into the wilderness.
He wandered for seven years before stumbling upon the magical place that would become his home: Glendalough. Then completely wild and uninhabited, it would have been the perfect place for Kevin to live as a hermit, with only the animals and birds for company as he pondered the meaning of life.
So close did Kevin become to the natural world around him, the story goes, that when a blackbird laid its eggs in his palm – outstretched in prayer – he stayed perfectly still for 13 days, until the three eggs hatched safely.
St Kevin would spend his life in the valley of two lakes, but not alone as he began. Word of his wisdom and skill as a teacher spread far and wide, and students flocked to Glendalough to learn from this remarkable man.
In all, his disciples and the generations that followed would build seven churches in the valley, where the monks not only followed a life of religious contemplation, but also ushered in the golden era of Irish distilling.
Back in Dublin, 14 centuries later, a group of friends were getting tired of life in the fast lane. They had all heard stories of the unstoppable St Kevin and knew that the valley had once been the centre of Irish distilling. Brian, Gary, Kevin, Barry and Donnell – all five worked with distilled spirits in one capacity or another, and they knew that it was about time for Ireland to make a comeback where craft distilling was concerned.
Gary McLoughlin, who now heads up sales and marketing for Glendalough, says: “I remember quite vividly being in a bar with Barry – who’s now our managing director – talking about how there were only three distilleries in Ireland when there used to be hundreds.”
“We thought it was a bit of a travesty,” Kevin adds. “We were so into spirits, as were a lot of people in Ireland, and somehow it was still dying out. We thought that the conditions were right for Irish distilling to start coming back. We wanted to be part of that renaissance.”
But they knew that it wouldn’t be easy. After all, they wanted to do things the right way. They wanted their poitín, the original Irish spirit, and their home-grown Irish whisky to be made carefully and with integrity. Fortunately, they had a perfect role model: St Kevin.
“For me the creative ‘Aha!’ moment was when I thought of the man who built Glendalough,” the modern-day Kevin says. “His story was so close to what we were trying to do, which was get out of our comfortable lives in Dublin and go into the wilderness – the career wilderness, maybe.”
He continues: “He inspired us because we knew it was going to be hard. We knew that we had to be in it for the long haul and do things right. The story of St Kevin and the blackbird is our touchstone if we’re trying to make a decision. We never just take the easy route.”
Into the Wild
When these five friends made their move to Glendalough thinking of whisky and poitín, it was never their intention to make gin. But equipped with a beautiful Holstein still and surrounded by incredible wild botanicals, it seemed a shame not to give gin distilling a go.
There was just one problem: these were city boys, and they had no idea where to start. That’s where Geraldine comes in.
Geraldine Kavanagh is County Wicklow born and raised, a passionate forager with a deep knowledge of the land – and, as Gary points out, the hills of Glendalough are like her supermarket. You can learn more about Geraldine’s journey in the feature on page 10, but she first came to Gary’s attention in an article in the Irish Times about her company, Wicklow Wild Foods.
He says: “She was taking people out foraging, and then at the end of the day they would cook up a meal with what they found. It looked amazing. I read the article on Sunday, and on Monday morning we called her up and asked how we could work together.”
These days, Geraldine and master distiller Rowdy Rooney (“One of our oldest mates,” Kevin says, “who used to help us out and just got obsessed with it!”) are the secret weapons that set Glendalough – and their delicious spirits – apart from the crowd. Made using the finest foraged botanicals, the gins that come out of Glendalough are incredible snapshots of the place they’re made.
It was the combination of Geraldine’s encyclopaedic knowledge and Rowdy and the team’s never-ending courage to try something new that would lead directly to the line of gins that would put Glendalough on the map: their seasonal gins.
“Initially we were wondering what we could pick around the distillery to make this amazing gin,” Gary says. “And then Geraldine mentioned that things change by the season, but also by the week. And we thought, well, what about a seasonal gin?”
Since the summer of 2014, the Glendalough team has been turning out special gins inspired by local botanicals. Each bottle captures the spirit of its season, and by their very nature are quite unlike any other gins – or even each other, for that matter.
“One of the big challenges with our seasonal gins was consistency,” Kevin says. “We swatted that problem away by just deciding that we didn’t want to be consistent. Every season is different, and even the same season from year to year.”
Geraldine wrote all of the recipes in one go, imagining the flavours that would be available to her and then waiting – a little anxiously – to see whether her dreams would become reality. “We never made test batches of the seasonal gins,” she says. “From the start, they just worked out. Each one was very close to how I imagined it.”
She continues: “There aren’t many businesses that would consider working the way we do: slowly, dictated by the changing seasons, only making what we can while botanicals are in bloom. These are the reasons why the gin we make is so unique and full of flavour.”
But after a year of making spectacular seasonal gins, Geraldine and the Glendalough boys were ready for the next challenge. Thus, the Wild Botanical gin in January's Gin of the Month box was born.
A Year in Glendalough
While Glendalough’s seasonal gins are a remarkable achievement and fascinating trip through the year, they presented one little problem.
As Geraldine explains: “Bartenders and mixologists love our gins, but changing their menus for each seasonal release wasn’t always possible. They asked us if we could create an all-year gin, so we worked hard to create a new gin that contained elements of the four seasons. It wasn’t an easy task, but we nailed it.”
The bottle in January's Gin of the Month box is the embodiment of the truly transportive gin that the Glendalough boys had in mind when they first opened their distillery. Spring-like on the nose, with fresh notes of juniper and citrus, on the palate it moves into the glory of summer in full bloom. Hints of autumn fruits finally give way to the warmth of winter spices in a long, sylvan finish.
Built on the base of classic gin botanicals, freshly harvested wild botanicals are added to the still mere hours after Geraldine gathers them. She and Rowdy forage and distil for two thirds of the year, during the most bountiful seasons.
“I continue to work in the same way I always have,” Geraldine says, “bringing fresh ingredients to the distillery each evening to infuse for distilling the following day. Each evening Rowdy and myself try that day’s gin to give it our seal of approval. That’s why there are two signatures on every bottle: one forager and one distiller.”
For Kevin, Gary and the rest of the Glendalough team, it’s bittersweet to take a step back from the distillation process. At the beginning, Gary says, everyone pitched in. “We all got our hands dirty,” he laughs. “It was all hands on deck weekends and nights until we could eventually give up the day jobs and go with our passions.”
But in a room full of ideas people, there’s always something new to experiment with. This is just the beginning, Kevin says, and the distillery is hard at work on amazing new spirits made with a special Irish touch.
“The whole process of distilling is just so enjoyable,” he says. “The smells of it, and working with a big old copper still is just lovely. It beats working with an Apple Mac computer like I normally do!”
And, of course, there’s the biggest reward of all: tasting the incredible liquid in the glass. Kevin says: “When you get to sit down on a Friday night with your wife and have a glass of your own gin? That’s the biggest reward.”