I’ve recently blown the horn for small-batch independent whiskey brands such as Killowen, seriously commending their ability to punch above their weight, challenge the norm and remain faithful to Irish distilling roots. Another brand that has caught my attention, possibly even smaller than Killowen, is Baoilleach distillery, Donegal’s first grain distillery in over a century.
Nestled into the hillside overlooking Mulroy Bay in Donegal, Baoilleach distillery’s raison d’être is to “produce quality craft spirits which showcase the tastes and character of our heritage.” And what a heritage it is. Author of ‘A Glass Apart,” Fionnan O’Connor, described Donegal as the ‘Premier League” of illicit whiskey distilling, with myths of presbyterian ministers ‘leaving’ the church due to their possession of a still.
Urris town in the ‘poitín republic’ of Donegal was subsequently famed for its involvement in illicit distilling in the early 19th century. The town employed scouts and barricades to prevent government officials from levying “township fines.” The period of what was ultimately ‘self-rule’ came to an end at the beginning of the 19th century, although subsequent raids from the Revenue Police were still met with considerable unrest. This illicit spirit of peated new make, which was coined ‘Inishowen’, was very popular and attracted lots of attention far and wide.
After a quick hop over the Inishowen Peninsula and Mulroy Bay, you will find Baoilleach distillery, the closest nod to the history as you are likely to find. Baoilleach uses direct fire and a small copper still, with a typical batch yield of around 250-350 bottles. Their consistency with history, utilising Irish malt barley and Donegal potatoes, along with slow fermentation and small copper pot distillation taking approximately 7-9 hours, is likely to impart a truly old and celebrated taste.
Michael O’Boyle, Master Distiller at Baoilleach, currently produces Irish Poitín, Irish Gin, rum, and Irish whiskey. Michael was very generous and sent me samples of some of his current whiskey stock, which is maturing. There’s no generational family history with Michael or Baoilleach; it simply started with his acquisition of a small pot still, his appetite for flavours and spirits and his ambition to expand. His conformity to tradition is both refreshing and inspiring. However, there’s also an ambition to modernise. Using a 4-plate ‘rectifier’ alongside his still, which ultimately gives the spirit 2.5 distillations and allows for one pass of the spirit. However, with the flick of a valve, the spirit can be re-directed and be solely pot still distilled. At this point, It’s worth pointing out their Acorn Cask Series, which is Baoilleach Distillery’s foundational Irish Whiskey Cask program. This series allows cask owners to choose from 3 three peat levels, three distillation styles and three cask wood types allowing for 27 different combinations, of which I will try three.
So on to the poitín that I shall be reviewing, which is both the rested peat and port, and the rested peat and sherry. Firstly, the Mulroy Bay Peat & Port poitín, bottled at a delectable 57% ABV, matured in a first fill port seasoned 25L oak barrel for ten weeks. It’s a combination of 70% Double Distilled and 30% 4 Plate Distillate, with the mash bill including 50% peated malt bill along with unpeated malt and potatoes. The Mulroy Bay Peat & sherry poitín, bottled at 58.9% ABV, has the same ingredient list, in the same quantity, except it has been aged in a first-fill sherry seasoned 25L oak barrel.
Mulroy Bay Peat & Port Poitín.
Nose: A beautiful blast of sweetness and smoke. The sweetness hits first, and it’s an immediate concoction of crisp green apples, aniseed and toffee crisp. The smoke from the peat is clearly apparent but just lingers in the nostrils, giving way to the marzipan, some slight vanilla and lots of dried fruit.
Palate: Now it’s the sweet note’s turn to make way for the smoke. There’s a healthy blast of smoky goodness, but it’s more a dry, stale smoke from a cigar put out a few days ago. The sweetness is undoubtedly still there and catches up with a hit of toffee sauce. The texture is intriguing; there are so many layers to it. First the smoke, then the sweetness and then the spice hits, all in that order. The spice is a combination of black pepper, cinnamon and star anise—a real mouth-coater.
Finish: a very long finish that endlessly dawdles in the back of the throat. The heat generated is comforting, and whilst the ABV is on the high side, the requirement for water is not required, in my opinion.
Mulroy Bay Peat & Sherry Poitín.
Nose: Immediately a familiar sweetness, but this time it’s slightly different; it’s more stewed fruits in Madagascan vanilla custard, stewed pears and toffee apples. There are well-known sherry cask finish examples of dried fruit, but it’s not as prominent given the shortened maturation. Of course, there is the smoke, but it’s softer at this point but more so than the port finish.
Palate: An initial pairing of vanilla custard and burnt crème brûlée, then there’s some fruit too, with red apples giving it a slight edge. There’s the smoke, obviously, but it feels slightly less than the port finish but still coats the whole of the mouth along with the black pepper spiciness giving it some pleasant warmth. I think that the port finish is slightly more refined than the sherry, which is still very good.
Finish: Again, a long finish that just keeps ongoing. The warmth generated by the smoke and the spice is beautiful and perfect to conclude. A high ABV, but perfectly balanced throughout.
Sample 1. The Father. Potstill, 4 Grain, distilled 5/8/21, 54% ABV
Nose: A serious concoction of sweet and savoury with roast chicken crisps, aniseed, and marmalade providing a fair statement of intent. Then there is farmer’s field hay, star anise spice all laced with smoky ash give this an intriguing nose indeed.
Palate: Two profound dimensions here, the smoke and the sweetness. Even at this stage, the mouthfeel is fascinating, with lots of cream and sticky toffee pudding, then a delicate balance of cinnamon and black pepper to give it some edge.
Finish: Serious warmth combined with a spicy finish is sure to bode this whiskey well in the future.
Sample 2. The Holy Smoke. Single malt, distilled 23/7/21, 55% ABV
Nose: A really prominent sweet nose. There’s a general aroma of dried raisins and sultanas already apparent, all intertwined with aniseed and marzipan. Then there’s evidence of cereal notes too, oaty digestives and custard creams making the palate tasting inevitable.
Palate: Another detonation of smoke, but even now, it appears balanced. More pudding sweetness is fighting to get to the fore of the palate and just about makes it level with the smoke. Banoffee pudding, potent ginger and black pepper are all apparent.
Finish: beautiful warmth that gets outlasted by the spice that just lingers in the back of the throat, a real finisher.
Sample 3. Blend of ‘The Father’ (pot still) 85%, and the Holy Smoke (single malt) 15%. distilled 5/8/21, 52.8% ABV
Nose: Another healthy dose of sweetness, with custard creams and burnt bonfire marshmallows giving it a pleasant initial aroma. There’s fruity sweetness with unripened plums and dark cherries too. The smoke is an afterthought, faintly introducing itself with every sniff.
Palate: The palate is quite sequential. Firstly, there’s quite a biscuity, oaty note which reminds me of a plain hobnob, and then it transforms into a malt note. Then secondly, there’s sweetness, with honey cashew notes and peanut brittle. Again, black pepper and even a pinch of salt, perhaps from Mulroy Bay itself!
Finish: Surprisingly less of a finish than the other samples. It’s still on the right side of medium but fades slightly from what I would have wanted. Less sweetness but adequate warmth and spice to see it through.
Baoilleach’s mission is “Craft & Quality, Small Pot – Big Flavours,” to which I can certainly testify. Their peat and port/sherry cask finishes are pretty remarkable. The smokiness adds such depth and gives the poitín another level. It’s reminiscent of what I could only imagine something like the ‘ould Inishowen’ to resemble.
Firstly, the port rested poitín; my personal biases were already licking their lips, and it didn’t disappoint. The balance of the different smoke, spice, and sweetness layers is incredible, and it just feels quite refined to drink. The ABV is perfect for the spirit; there’s no requirement for water as to sip it makes me think it’s much less than it actually is. Secondly, the sherry cask just misses out on 1st place. It’s another excellent poitín, but I think it possibly felt less balanced than the port finish; still, the depth and range of flavours were evident and nicely brought out. What an excellent time for poitín lovers!
The whiskey samples were a treat to sample. I haven’t scored them as I feel it slightly unfair to do so, given that they are not even six months into a minimum three-year maturation. Although I will advocate that they are at a very good standard even at this early stage, with the range of flavours already projecting out of the barrel.
This has been a fantastic tasting for me; I love a distillery with a story, values, and heritage. Baoilleach ticks all of those boxes, and I can only see them going from strength to strength in the future, and I will wait impatiently for their whiskey to mature; I see it exceeding expectations even at this early stage.
Disclosure: The samples that informed this article were provided to the Water of Life team by Baoilleach distillery free of charge. Baoilleach distillery have not had any other input into this article, nor has the Water of Life team relinquished any editorial control.