The Rewilding Of Poitín

Ireland tends to romanticise lawlessness. As in a lot of former colonies, there is a rich seam of dislike for authority and a fondness for rogues, loveable and otherwise, in the Irish psyche. The persistence of poitín is a testament to this love of the forbidden  – outlawed in 1661, it spent centuries embedding itself in folklore with colourful stories about the illicit stillman cooking up mountain dew in his hillside hideaway. Everyone, it seems, has a poitín story; their first time trying it, where the best local producers might be found, how their great-grandparents made poitín. If you were to believe it, the country was awash in the stuff for centuries, and while many newcomers to the whiskey business here like to claim ancestors who made it, it was not especially common in the last 30 years. It was, like its American counterpart moonshine, something that was hard to come by and not especially sought-after  – often cited as a good muscle rub for greyhounds, rather than something you might want to actually consume. The code of secrecy around it meant that few could tell you what was actually in it, or where it was made, or how it was made, and by whom. As society evolved, taking the risk of consuming a clear spirit of unknown origin in the hope it was well made and not some dubious gutrot (some producers allegedly used bleach to make the liquid clear) became less attractive, and as Irish society became more affluent, it slid into obscurity.  

In 1987 a man named Oliver Dillon was granted permission by the Revenue Commissioners to distil his Bunratty poitín as long as he did not sell it in Ireland. A decade later, they simply went ahead and legalised it. For a long time, not much happened. Poitin brands came and went, some persisted, but there was never any real buzz about it. Like the modern iteration of absinthe, once it had lost its air of danger, it also lost its allure. 

Then, a decade ago, Irish whiskey started to take off and with it a range of clear spirits – distillers looked to gin and vodka as revenue-generating products they could get on the shelf while they waited for their whiskey to mature. Some started to dabble in poitín, trendy bars started to pick up on it, and soon the category was being whispered about as a potential next big thing. It is now a fully formed, GI-holding spirit category, complete with technical file which sets out in law how it is to be made. It even has its own festival. 

Francis Leavey

Francis Leavey is an illustrator by trade, and his works can be seen in the Kilkenny Design outlets and Brown Thomas. Now in his 50s, he got into whiskey almost three decades ago, but his conversion to poitín was a more recent event: “I don’t see distilling as being all that different to what I do as an artist. Substitute paint and canvas for grains and pot stills and we’re both creating something that is unique to each of us.”

Like a lot of Irish people, Leavey’s first experience with poitin was in its illegal form, when he and a friend plundered a parent’s stash. Unimpressed, he didn’t try it again until he came across Bán, a poitín brand owned by Dave Mulligan, whose award-winning cocktail Bar 1661 (host venue for Leavey’s Poitín Now festival on November 18) has been championing the drink as an ingredient in more modern drinks such as the Belfast Coffee. After Bán, Leavey discovered Galway’s Micil poitín and Killowen Distillery’s experiments with the spirit, and he was hooked. He realised that he was not alone – that there was an appetite for the spirit and a growing cohort of aficionados. So the festival was born; “I have always puzzled over the lack of interest in the category and decided to do something to promote it by starting the Poitín Now event. I see it as a starting point for a new era in Poitín and hopefully it will play a part in the knowledge and understanding of this renegade spirit reaching a wider audience.” 

Now in its second year, the festival is all but sold out. Leavey accepts that there are many who might be cynical about a drink that in the olden times was, at best, hit and miss in terms of quality. 

“There are a lot of non believers and I think this is down to a couple of reasons. Firstly, people of a certain age have a negative view of the spirit which is largely down to tasting some pretty awful, high proof spirit made in someone’s back shed. Secondly, so much marketing of whiskey world focuses on age being equal to quality. So, a 32 year old has to be better than a 12 year old right? This idea has led to a mindset in many people such that they can’t grasp the idea that a young spirit could be any good because it hasn’t been aged for x amount of years. This simply isn’t true. Distillers such as Michael O’Boyle in Baoilleach Distillery have proven time and time again as has the aforementioned Brendan Carty. The flavour they are getting out of spirit that is no older than 10 weeks is immense and the variety of flavours is amazing. Along with Micil Distillery in Galway, who can boast six generations of poitín making and Bán Poitín they are spearheading a new era for this amazing young spirit. This genie isn’t going back in the bottle.” 

Corkman Laurie O’Dwyer is another champion of the spirit, and it features regularly on his WhiskeyChats podcast. A qualified distiller, O’Dwyer fixed his sights on this particularly Irish spirit and started realising that it was so much more than it once was: “Killowen and Baoilleach in particular are the stand-out potcheen innovators on the island. They have beautifully demonstrated the potential spirit flavours that can be achieved through long fermentations, wild fermentations, yeast experimentations, grain mashbill explorations and the boundary pushing of what can be achieved, through the 10-week ‘rest’ allowed in a vessel, under the current Technical File.” 

The technical file for poitín had a struggle to put shape on a category that was almost solely defined by its underground, secretive production, but the drink, like a lot of distilled spirits across Europe, was first and foremost an agricultural product. Farmers at the end of the harvest would use whatever crops they had left over to make some hooch to get them through the winter months; so the technical file describes it as traditionally brewed,  fermented and distilled from cereals, grain, whey, sugar beet molasses and potatoes, and a minimum of 50% of the ingredients must be sourced in Ireland. 

There was never a set strength, so the file suggests a minimum of 40% alcoholic strength by volume, but allows it to run as high as 90%. The file notes that it is traditionally distilled in small pot stills but adds that “more recently a variety of stills have been used including hybrid and column stills”. It also allows macerations and infusions made with indigenous Irish ingredients such as fruits, spices, berries, herbs and other naturally occurring plant materials; flavourings which are consistent with indigenous Irish ingredients and naturally occurring plant materials; and up to ten weeks maturation in cask. 

The technical file made verifiable facts out of what was previously myths and folklore, and it also built a guide for any distillers around the world who want to make poitín. Irish poitin has to be made in Ireland, but you can make poitín anywhere. The French, when achieving GI protections for their drinks, were fortunate in that they were named after regions – if you want to make Champagne, Cognac, or Armagnac you need to be in Champagne, Cognac, or Armagnac. As a result this is another Irish gift to the world and poitín is now being made all globally. 

Ibec’s Irish Spirits Market Report 2022 noted that Irish Poitín’s estimated sales in 2022 showed some decline compared to an ‘exceptionally strong’ 2021, but added that the domestic Irish and the GTR markets were key opportunities for development in the short-term. But with gin sales falling, there could be a gap in the market for another clear, flavoursome spirit for long drinks and cocktails, and for Laurie O’Dwyer, this new, bold, craft Irish poitín is not just the now, it is the future: “It is a far more romantic spirit being produced by our smaller distillers at the moment. Tipperary, Rademon, Fore, Connacht, Micil, Ardara and Blackwater distilleries, to name but a few, have all recognised the marketability of our native elixir and are genuinely doing their utmost to produce their own wonderful, quality version of potcheen. The greatest thing about raw, white potcheen is that it has nowhere to hide. Its flavour relies solely on the skill of the distiller. 

“The future for the drink is with those who follow the traditional model – small operations, wild mashbills, and as much experimentation as the technical file will allow.” 

For O’Dwyer, this edgy identity is what will ensure poitín stays underground: “It’s roguish, illicit reputation is very attractive, if I’m being dead honest. I don’t think it should ever lose that. You feel a little bit like a bold boy, drinking potcheen. The rebellious Irish nature in me loves that.” 

Of the new wave of poitín distillers, few come as close to the original oldschool model as Michael O’Boyle of Baoilleach Distillery. Just like the old days, his operation is in an old stone cottage nestled in the hills of Donegal, a poitin making heartland; he uses a direct fired still, local agricultural produce, and a spirit of freedom that is not often found in clear spirits. His motto is small pot, big flavours (poitin translates as small pot), and his output has created a buzz among the new poitin purists. 

O’Boyle’s journey to poitin began on the other side of the world: “I started distilling as a hobby about 10 years ago in New Zealand, I did a bit of homebrewing in the early 2000s, so I had an early interest which probably came from cooking. As a hobby distiller I made poitin, rum and fruit spirit, I also played around with small casks in those early days.” 

A construction engineer by trade, his family had no background in the drinks business, so this was very much a passion project. When he started he only had one still so couldn’t make whiskey, thus poitín was a focus from the get-go: “I have done a huge amount of experimentation with poitín, a lot of hours and cost have been spent acquiring the skills, to make a good poitín, fermentation methods, distillation methods, cask preparation, seasoning and recharring, learning the craft with small stills and casks and only having 10 weeks to age poitin, accelerated the learning process which I have carried over to producing Irish whiskey.”

O’Boyle says that in his case necessity was the mother of invention: “My distillery set up came about, under the same forces as any poitin maker 150 years ago, few resources and the government. I had distilled as a hobby with direct fire and any equipment which was readily available, I produced excellent quality spirit so I took the same rationale into my legal distillery – don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.” 

A batch at Baoilleach consists of 250-350 bottles with several spirit distillations needed per batch, and they are producing Irish poitín, Irish gin, rum and whiskey, the latter having started in early 2022. 

“I have no opinion on what others do or do not do, in regards to how they make poitín, I make my poitín my way and that’s my only worry. 

“I wouldn’t equate poitín with gin or vodka. Poitin is much more about the ingredient and distillation style, much more flavour and month feel, much more variation, much more interesting.” 

This complexity is why a growing number of mixologists love it, and its success will hinge on younger people drinking it in cocktails or with mixers. Fran Leavey accepts that the drink will take work to build into a challenger for other clear spirits: “At home in Ireland we need to change the old narrative around it. I already see this change as a younger generation are willing to try new things and are not burdened with the old stories about the illegal stuff. In fact, I’d be surprised if you asked any ten 18-year-olds in Dublin what poitín was, they wouldn’t have heard of it. 

“More support from within the drinks industry would be very helpful as well as recognition from Revenue that the majority of poitín producers are very small and something akin to the Artists Exemption would be helpful to allow the focus on the poitín production which currently is not a profitable spirit to make.”

O’Boyle agrees: “Most sales of the spirit are already in mixed drinks, we desperately need people to re-engage with Poitin to grow the category and cocktails are the only way, the amount of neat poitín drinkers in the country is in the hundreds. 

“The biggest threat to poitín is that everything stays the same; I now produce poitín three days a year, I have to pay €1,000 for the GI and it’s a hobby/passion. There are plenty of small producers willing to make small-batch poitín which are very individual and interesting, this also has a far higher cost per bottle but there are no drinkers to support this. Poitín has to become more commercialised as a mixing drink and the cost has to be made accessible so bars/clubs etc can sell it and make a profit. Nostalgia and romance are nice and all, but most drinkers just wanna have fun.”

For the older generation, it may be too late to change minds about poitín. For them, it will always be the illicit, underground, potentially dubious stuff you might use in a Christmas cake, in a pinch. But it still has that romance, the echoes of a rebellious past. Now it is legal, well made, widely available, does it lose its appeal? More importantly, has it lost its soul? Is this modern poitín a wolf in a cage, staring out at distant hills with glazed eyes, troubled by fading memories of freedom? Has poitin, in becoming legal and mainstream, transformed into something slick and corporate? Is there a poitín now, and a poitín then? Maybe it’s time for the real poitín to please stand up. 

  • Poitín Now returns to Bar 1661 in the heart of Dublin city on Saturday, November 18, and will bring together distillers and producers from across the island of Ireland along with industry experts to explore this unique spirit category. Tickets here.

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