Wednesday 13 December 2017

The poitin specialist Donal O'Gallchoir

'I've heard all the old wives' tales, like the one about drinking poitin making you blind. To me, that's up there with 'if the wind changes, your face will stay that way'

Tanya Sweeney

My very first experience with poitin was in a friend's house. All I recall is that we were up to no good as youngsters and, like most Irish households, there was a certain bottle in a cupboard, so we decided we'd give it a try. All I remember is that it very sweet, but very alcoholic, and very high strength. We were caught out fairly quickly.

I wasn't initially that drawn to it – I don't think my palette was evolved enough. But then I tried poitin later, around the time I was getting into the drinks industry, and I learned about the various styles and stories.

Getting into poitin was a personal passion, mixed with work. I always worked through college with various drinks companies, and did courses in spirits. It was only when I got to the US, when I was selling a range of Irish whiskies, that I got very passionate about the history of poitin. I started reading all these books, such as 'The Lost Distilleries of Ireland', and even now that is my Sunday reading.

The thing I love about poitin is that it's the birth of all spirits. Distillation started at the end of the 6th century on old monastic sites in Ireland. It's the birth of everything. If you walk into a bar anywhere in the world, everything behind that back bar started with poitin. It's the father spirit, and there's such a history for it; for 500 years it was outlawed. I love the fact that throughout Irish history it was at the centre of a lot of 'cat and mouse' games in society.

Poitin-making was sometimes the only source of livelihood for some people in the community, and it gave them a bit of financial freedom over the ruling classes. If you were caught with it by the excise men, who would go around with the British army, the whole community would be fined. Poitin has been legal in Ireland since 1997, but now people are getting back into distilled spirits.

There are a lot of urban myths about poitin, and I get a great kick out of hearing them. There's some notoriety to it. But everyone in Ireland has had some kind of encounter with it. But now I've seen it embraced by mixologists around town. Because it's a double-distilled spirit, poitin has more flavour than vodka or whiskey. Some people can taste that nice and sweet thing, the cracked pepper and the Irish oak finish. You're looking for a good mouth feel, a nice sweet flavour from front to finish. Sometimes you see people tasting it and going, 'wow'.

I've heard all the old wives' tales, like the one about drinking poitin making you blind. To me, that's up there with 'if the wind changes, your face will stay that way'. As for the bad hangovers, I've drunk plenty of poitin and I can assure you it doesn't give you any worse a hangover than anything else.

The reason some people might have a bad early experience with poitin is because, in the 1950s and 1970s, they took a lot of its original character away with poitin production. With modernisation, the whole industry was nearly gone. Adding insult to injury, the younger generation didn't want to take up poitin-distilling as a career.

There were five of us – local guys from Wicklow and Dublin – who would meet for pints as good friends and we decided that this was the time to launch a poitin line. And so Glendalough Poitin was born.

This is the renaissance for Irish spirits, it's the right time to get into the poitin business. So far, I'm humbled at the response we've already had from bars and restaurants. It's great to get out and taste with people and tell stories. No two days are the same.

When I tell people what I do, they usually regret getting a job in the bank or becoming an accountant. Trying out every new cool bar in Dublin and restaurant to find out what the cocktail bars are doing is definitely one of the job's biggest perks.

People – locals and tourists – are always so fascinated by poitin. Some visitors have never heard of it, so they become very intrigued by it. And they should – it's a story in a bottle. And that story is pretty much our history.

For more information on Glendalough Poitin, visit

In conversation with Tanya Sweeney

Irish Independent

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