Imagine a drink that 300-400 years ago was utterly outlawed, and, although it was also be prescribed for rheumatism, could cause blindness and impotence in those who drank it. Imagine a drink that the church lambasted, with a typical strength of between 60-90%, regarded as superior to single malt and pot still whiskey. Imagine that finally, after another 300 years, this drink, poitín, is now making a comeback and taking its rightful place on most shelves.
Most people have heard all sorts of horror stories about poitín (pronounced potcheen), including me. My father used to tell me that, “if it burns with a blue flame, it’s good to drink, if it burns with a green flame, chuck it down the sink.” It’s stories like this that automatically steered me away from a drink, the sheer inconvenience of having to ignite a sample from an unknown origin to find out whether it was drinkable! Of course, I didn’t know it back then, but poitín was made illicit way back in the 17th century, which meant a lot of distiller hobbyists gave making poitín a shot, not knowing their heads from their tails. The distilling was so popular that the Gardai in Ireland were constantly on the lookout for smoke produced by illicit stills, only to be out-thought by the quick-thinking Irish who waited for a windy day to make poitín.
This was pretty standard practise back then, all the way back up to the end of the 20th century when poitín was made legal again, and it’s been on an upward trajectory ever since. In 2008, poitín was granted GI (Geographical Indicator) status meaning that poitín can only be made in Ireland. And since then, numerous brands have really reinvigorated this age-old practice of making poitín; Killowen, Glendalough and Echlinville all now producing poitín. Another brand that has come to light recently for producing poitín is Micil.Located on the shores of Galway Bay in Connemara, Pádraic Ó Griallais, a 6th generation poitín distiller, is making waves. Named after his great-great-great-grandfather, Micil Mac Chearra, the history runs as deep as 1848, and just like poitín all those years ago, the styles varied, and reputations were built on the quality of the distiller’s poitín; clearly, Micil were highly prominent.
Six generations and over 170 years later, not a lot has changed, which is fantastic for the traditionalists amongst us. Micil uniquely infuse their poitín with a botanical; bogbean, which is more commonly used to cure rheumatism (fact check number 1, tick!). After being the first pioneers to open up a distillery in over 100 years in Galway, and with their ardent support for traditional family-based values, it’s hard to see why this would not be a success with the most modern of spirit drinkers. Most recently, Micil have actually produced two expressions of whiskey, and whilst sourced (bought from elsewhere), they are still trying to symbolise what it may have been like whilst their own spirit matures. Certainly, exciting times ahead.
I had tried a few poitins before and thought I would take a punt on the Micil Heritage poitín. Micil produce two: a standard poitín and the Heritage, which is made to a family recipe, recreating a traditional method of poitín-making when malt was kiln-dried using turf fires. It’s a concoction of 100% Irish peated & malted barley and oats and comes in at a respectful 46%. It’s typically priced around £43 for a 50cl bottle, and you can buy it from Irishmalts.com, Celtic Whiskey Shop and Master of Malt.
Nose: a typical poitín type nose of white wine vinegar and fresh fruity green apples. There is a fair bit of sweetness too, with maple syrup and Liquorice Allsorts battling it out. Lastly, there’s a spiciness too; the cinnamon, black peppercorns and aniseed are all prominent.
Palate: there’s a abundance of creaminess to start with, then it transpires into vanilla clotted cream. Lots of sweetness comes out perfectly, with honey and liquorice dancing together on my tongue. The spiciness too is joyful; the pepperiness and slight cinnamon dusting give it depth and substance. There’s a very gentle smokiness to it, which gives it an edge and a hint of traditionalism.
Finish: the cream just goes on and on throughout my mouth, which then changes into a slightly nutty finish, more almond cream with the result being softness and warmth throughout.
Some might argue that we are running a whisk(e)y review site and shouldn’t be reviewing poitín. Well, the truth is, the Water of Life stands for much more than whisk(e)y; it stands for variety, diversity and most of all, it stands for good, quality liquid, and Micil indeed represents that. Firstly, this is different to the other poitín I have tried; I’m not sure if it’s the bogbean, I’m not sure if it is the kiln-dried barley, but it just embodies poitín’s turbulent history of a complete variance of recipes and styles. I’m a big fan of values-based whiskey production, and for me, Micil is hitting all the right notes.
The poitín itself is very good. There is depth, substance and variety on the nose and palate, and the smooth, creamy texture with which it finishes is a delight. My only criticism is regarding the 46% abv, but I get that some poitín, or whiskey for that matter, may not taste as good as it does at 46% when bottled at 58%. I trust that after six generations, Pádraic knows what the craic is.
The price is probably on the wrong side of what I would want to pay for a 50cl bottle, but I can’t help but think of the significance my purchase has done. £47 to Micil distillery, whilst not substantial, will help them develop, ensure the proper care and management of their ageing spirit, and if all goes well, assist in the production of a cracking whiskey.
*and no, I did not set fire to this poitín….