The notorious spirit gets the premium treatment
The mere mention of poitín spirals me back to New Year’s Eve 1994 and the holiday cottage we’d rented with family friends on the Antrim coast.
As midnight struck, I took a break from playing The Cranberries’ Zombie on repeat on my newly acquired CD player and joined in, mingling with other folk renting cottages nearby to toast the New Year.
My mother accepted a glass of what she believed to be gin and tonic, but which later transpired to have been poitín. The effects, which lasted well into New Year’s Day, had her swear off alcohol altogether for much of 1995. It was a cautionary tale that kept me, and I’m sure many like me, away from poitín for a very long time. But could all that be about to change?
Nestled in the heart of the Mourne Mountains in Co Down is Killowen Distillery. Founded in 2017, it was largely constructed by its head distiller, Brendan Carty — a trained architect in a previous life.
There’s a distinct whiff of the romance of the bootlegger to the set-up of the distillery, where mashing is done in a recycled dairy tank and stirred with a wooden canoe paddle, while the water needed comes from ancient springs coursing through the rolling hills outside.
But make no mistake, Ireland’s smallest distillery has big ambitions and is already operating at an internationally recognised level for its pot-still Irish whiskey. Now Carty has dubbed 2022 the year of poitín.
“The time is right,” he says emphatically. “There’s a resurgence in people wanting to drink local premium spirits.” For something to have momentum, Carty says, “people have to want it” and “have to be doing it”. Poitín, he contends, has both.
In 2021, Killowen released a limited-edition poitín called Cúige, made up of five unique bottlings of the white spirit finished in different beer casks from around Ireland, retailing at £200 (about €240). Only 192 sets were made. “It sold out in minutes. That’s when poitín became premiumised and a lot of people started taking notice.”
In March this year, he released Killowen Bulcán Irish Poitín — 50pc malted oats, 50pc malted barley and 100pc smoked at still strength. At 67.5pc ABV, Bulcán (meaning ‘knock to the head’) is the distillery’s strongest poitín product to date. But Carty is keen to steer clear of the drink’s old image. “This is high-end, great-tasting stuff. We’re not trying to work in that illicit style at all, we’re completely stepping away from that; we’re reinventing the category.”
Branding 2022 as #theyearofthepoitín is one thing, but there’s more to suggest the spirit’s revival than Carty’s hashtag.
Later this year will see the launch of Ireland’s first poitín show and there are new branded products scheduled to hit the market this summer. There are, of course, distilleries that have long been producing poitín — Micil in Galway, Teeling in Dublin, Connacht Distillery and Bán Poitín distilled by Echlinville, to name but a few — but now an increasing number of small and medium distilleries are primed for poitín production.
“There are around 20 distilleries and brand-owning companies who either have a poitín brand, are distilling it themselves or who intend to distil poitín within the next 12 to 24 months, so there’s definitely momentum there,” reveals Vincent McGovern, director of spirits at Drinks Ireland.
“I think it’s to do with what poitín is. It’s the granddaddy of them all. It was there before Irish whiskey.”
There are only three certified Irish Geographical Indication (GI) spirits — spirits protected and defined as uniquely Irish. They are Irish whiskey, Irish cream liqueur and poitín. “It’s one of the Irish GI spirits but relatively small to any other spirit distilled on the island,” says McGovern. “I’m speculating, but I would imagine that because the larger players are not in the field, there’s perhaps more of an opportunity for smaller distilleries to distinguish themselves in what is a relatively small category. There is a unique story there to be told and, the thing about poitín is — if it’s distilled correctly and a bit of care is taken — then it’s really quite exceptional.”
One of those small-to-medium distilleries with a new poitín hitting the market is Rademon Estate in Co Down. It’s owned by husband and wife team Fiona and David Boyd-Armstrong, who are already title holders for Ireland’s most awarded gin, Shortcross, and, more recently a Best New Irish Whiskey win at the 2021 Irish Whiskey Awards. Their foray into poitín came during lockdown when the suspension of ‘business as usual’ allowed time and space for product development.
“I’d always wanted to do it,” says David. “We’ve led the launch of Irish gin, we’re part of the revival of Irish whiskey, and I think it would be a great thing to create a real industry and a real category around poitín — because it deserves to be celebrated in its own right.”
With everything already in place for whiskey distillation, the move into poitín was fairly straightforward for his company.
“It was just about figuring out the best way of producing it. We make it from a mash bill that’s a little bit different: malted barley, malted wheat and malted rye. The malted barley gives a nice apple note and hints of spice on the finish. The malted wheat gives nice notes of sugared pear drops and the malted rye gives this really nice aroma of bubblegum.”
It sounds — and, I can confirm, tastes — great. Nothing like the potato and peat-smoke paint stripper I’d long associated with the name ‘poitín’. However, even once I’ve assured my mother it’s safe and enjoyable to drink — particularly in a cocktail — she’s still not up for the challenge. It’s this enduring image problem that presents both an opportunity and a challenge for the poitín producers. “There is a residual cultural memory there, and even though bad poitíns really were few and far between, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil a barrel,” says McGovern.
“All the producers and brand owners out there have to try and overcome that residual muscle memory we have here in Ireland first, because you have to sell it in your home market to create the foundation to launch abroad.”
Despite its protected Irish status, there’s a question mark over poitín’s actual origins. “It was not first made in Ireland,” says Dr Susan Flavin, associate professor of history at Trinity College Dublin and principal investigator of the ERC FoodCult Project (foodcult.eu). “It’s a descendant of the ‘strong waters’ that became fashionable in Europe from the 16th Century, called aqua vitae in England and the Irish version was usquebaugh/uisce beatha.”
Poitín — translated from ‘small pot’, a reference to the pot still in which it was traditionally made — is an unaged white spirit originally intended as a medicinal drink. But it wasn’t long before the lines between social and medicinal consumption were blurred, and Ireland’s producers were quickly identified as leading the way in quality. Dr Flavin draws attention to a quote from 16th-century traveller and author Fynes Moryson, who wrote: “The Irish aquavita, commonly called usquebaugh, is held the best in the world of that kind, which is made also in England, but nothing so good as that which is brought out of Ireland.”
The central part of the poitín story tends to revolve around the date 1661, when taxation on whiskey distilling was introduced in Ireland. “Poitín is the name for uisce beatha that comes about after State efforts to tax the former,” explains Dr Flavin. “What is licenced and pays tax is whiskey and what was produced by illicit producers was poitín.”
It might not be poitín’s ancient history but rather more recent events that will play a part in the revival of poitín; the spirit was legalised in 1997. Trends that have come out of the pandemic could prove bolstering, with more people buying spirits to experiment with at home, and an increased awareness around food and drink tourism.
“I think we’re taking a bit more pride in home-grown product,” says Carty. Killowen Distillery partners with Visit Mourne Mountains, hosting hikers for a ‘Herring and Poitín Experience’ where walkers stop to feast on fish flambéd in the spirit.
David Boyd-Armstrong agrees: “It’s happened in food, it’s happened in the drinks industry and now I think it’s only one step away from people seeing that poitín is actually something that they can enjoy. I think it’s only »
» one step away from going bang and actually booming.”
But not everyone is convinced. With so many small and medium distilleries jumping on the poitín bandwagon, it’s interesting to look at who isn’t. As an artisanal distillery, already successfully producing craft whiskey, gins and vodkas, one might assume that Dingle Distillery in Co Kerry would now be turning its attention to poitín — but it’s not a trend they’re keen to follow.
“I don’t really believe it’s got the legs that gin has,” managing director Elliot Hughes explains. “It’s a national product that tourists might buy into, but I’m just not sure that it has the ability to grow much further than that. I don’t think people fully understand what poitín is; whiskey is just a much more relatable product.”
He’s also wary of the precarious nature of perishable trends. “Pink gin was one of the obvious ones that we didn’t go with and pretty much for the same rationale — I thought it was a little bit gimmicky.
“Every business is fundamentally quite different in how it operates but, for me, [poitín] would be a distraction,” he continues. “I think it’s very easy for sales and marketing teams to look at what’s new. It’s more difficult to talk about something that has existed for nearly 10 years. I know lots of people would maybe disagree with me, but, for me, it’s a relatively easy way to grab headlines — just release a new product. But I think there’s an awful lot of complexity and distraction that goes along with it. For me, it’s about growing through core sales rather than add-ons.”
There are a few names that come up frequently when you talk about poitín to people across the industry, and one is Dave Mulligan, owner of the award-winning cocktail bar, Bar 1661, in Dublin. Mulligan has been beating the drum for poitín for over a decade now, but surprisingly, he’s
not so optimistic about #theyearofthepoitin.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to break mainstream. It’ll always be a niche spirit,” says Mulligan. “Poitín is beautiful and nobody loves it more than me, but it’s just not that kind of spirit. If it was going to be mainstream, it would have happened already.”
He thinks its failure to thrive thus far has partly been down to serving confusion. Gin has the tonic, but what do you add to poitín? “Tequila wouldn’t be anywhere without the margarita but we could never find that margarita moment. Poitín was always missing that central serve.”
It’s as a cocktail ingredient that many feel poitín — with its diverse flavour profile — performs best and Mulligan reckons Bar 1661 has cracked the signature serve with its Belfast coffee — a cold brew, poitín take on the traditional Irish coffee.
“That drink was outselling Guinness when we opened,” says Mulligan. Now 60pc of Bar 1661’s cocktail list is poitín-based and 70pc of sales are cocktails.
But with the customer age profile of Bar 1661 at 30-plus, Mulligan also recognises the need to engage with a fresh demographic to secure a future for poitín. He already has his own poitín brand — Bán, distilled at Echlinville Distillery in Co Down — and he is set to launch a new brand aimed at the 18-to-30 market.
Little & Green was created in partnership with Intrepid Spirits, the brand behind Mad March Hare Irish Poitín. “It’s a really high-energy, fun, mass-appeal brand in a ready-to-drink format. We’re bringing out two flavours this summer with hopefully a third to follow in autumn.”
However, he still thinks there are still a host of factors holding the category back — a lack of distribution, a dearth of female distillers in the category, and limiting marketing muscle. “There’s nobody actually driving the thing. I think what it will take is one brand breaking away and start doing some serious numbers. Then the whiskey boys will take notice and follow suit. But I think there’s another decade in poitín. I know it’s having a moment now, but it’s only having a moment among people in the know.”
There’s something quite heartening about the fact that it’s the poitín aficionados trying to drive the category forward, and not a huge brand or celebrity. It’s not a category wholly united in purpose — different producers will cite different ambitions for the spirit, varying target markets, clashing notions on strength and Technical File (which sets out the specifications for poitín).
But the passion for poitín is clear. It’s what has prompted artist Fran Leavey to create Poitín Now (poitinnow.ie), an inaugural poitín show to be held in Dublin’s The Complex venue in November this year. “All the distilleries will be there with their poitíns which the purchasers can sample and have a chat about,” says Leavey, adding: “I’ve never organised an event in my life bar a dinner party for six people! But I’ve been a whiskey collector and enthusiast for many years and I’ve always been fascinated by poitín. And in the Facebook groups and WhatsApp groups that I am a member of, all the chatter in the last six months has been about poitín.
“We all have our poitín stories — bottles under the sink and the illegal stuff that would take your head off — but these new guys, they’re taking it to a whole new level and really setting it apart from the preconceptions of what poitín is. We have a fantastic whiskey industry but we can’t stake claim solely to whiskey — we can to poitín. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be sitting on a shelf beside tequila, vodka and gin, and for the next generation to come into the bar and ask for a poitín.”
This year might not be the year it happens but it could be the start of a new era for poitín. “I applaud Brendan for his ambition but to state that it’s 2022 when it will happen is, I think, being slightly optimistic,” says McGovern. “But there is a commitment there, and it’s there with the small and medium-sized distilleries. They are the driving force behind the category and ones about to steer it in whatever direction poitín will take over the next five, 10, 15, 20 years.”