Wicklow People

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The true spirit of poitin - a once forbidden drink


FOR so long a forbidden brew, poitín is once more taking pride of place amongst Ireland's alcoholic exports since being legalised once more in 1997. A number of distilleries have since risen to produce this quintessentially Irish drink, among them Glendalough Poitín.

Set up by a quintetof distilling enthusiasts (among them Wicklow natives Kevin Keenan and Donal O'Gallochochoir), Glendalough Poitín has been trading in spirits for a number of months now, bringing together a wealth of experience from across the drinks industry spanning brewing, marketing and sales to create a Wicklow-based brand identity which they hope will strike a chord with consumers at home and abroad.

'The Irish were the first ever to distil alcohol,' says Barry Gallagher of Glendalough Poitín. 'We've got huge heritage here, so we decided to go back and try to reclaim some of this great distilling history that we have.'

Unsatisfied with the quality of many contemporary poitíns, the boys decided to dig out old recipes from centuries past and try them out, to great effect.

'In the last twenty years there's been massive variation in how poitín was made - no one's really done poitín well,' Barry admits. 'We got some old poitín recipes and distilled them. We decided if we're going to do it, let's do it well, let's make it a premium artisan product. We've seen a lot of people embrace it; it's had really good traction in terms of bars, hotels and independent off-licences. People are interested.'

To give their product an authentic Wicklow feel, Glendalough Poitín use age old methods to brew their spirits.

'We age it in virgin Irish oak which mellows and smoothes it without giving it any colour,' Barry explains.

Although their operation remains small, Glendalough Poitín plan to expand their range over the coming years through creating a sleuth of unique drinks forged from the various ingredients Wicklow has to offer in a distillery situated in the county.

'We got great support from the Wicklow County Enterprise Board,' Barry says of starting the company 'We're in the process of finalising the premises. We'll have a distillery in Wicklow, and hopefully we'll be up and running by the end of Christmas, making poitín, gin and single malt Irish whiskey.'

Poitín was for centuries considered one of the strongest beverages on the black market with an almost fatally high alcohol content, and Barry admits that this stigma has been one of the primary challenges that the company has faced when trying to retail this ancient brew to the contemporary consumer. He insists that poitín's reputation is misplaced and that Glendalough's poitíns have an alcohol percentage comparable with spirits such as whiskey and vodka, ensuring they go down - and stay down - easy.

'People think poitin is over 90%, but if your actually distilling in a traditional way it's very hard to get alcohol over 60%,' he explains. 'There was never really strong poitín until guys started making it in labs, using glass cylinders. The poitín we have, our Wicklow-strength poitín is 60%, but our two other poitíns are 40%, more in line with what people drink today.

'Everyone's got a story about poitin from their grandfather, so initially people are braced for something quite strong, but when they taste it they're surprised by how good and smooth it is.'

Far from being the stuff of outlaws, Barry insists that poitín is an inescapable part of our brewing heritage, and one we should embrace.

'Every country has its own white spirit,' he says 'Let's go back and be proud of it.'