Craft distilleries and breweries are in vogue in the US at the moment. There are over 1200 craft beer breweries and a fast-growing craft spirit group of producers.
Poitín (pronounced potcheen) is made by fermenting barley and is the original Irish version of a craft spirit. The poitín distilling story in Ireland begins in approx. 584 AD. It was outlawed in 1661 but was still widely consumed through to the 1960s, when its popularity started to diminish. Poitín production was largely carried out in secret, but reputations were built on the quality of the spirit, from how the still was built, soaked the barley.
In Ireland in the 1700’s and 1800’s there were over 200 distilleries producing a variety of styles of whiskey, gin, and absinthe. The craft of privately distilled whiskey was also prevalent all across Ireland. The Irish drinks industry at that time exported to every corner of the world. Nowadays, however, Irish whiskey exports 6 million cases annually compared to 100 million cases of scotch whiskey.
One Irish company recently arrived in the US with a new take on ancient Irish poitín. According to Barry Gallagher, one of the founders of Glendalough Poitín, “It was really born out of a group friends from Wicklow and Dublin who got a taste for good Irish whiskey and spirits, and wanted to forge our own paths. Now here we are launching Glendalough in New York and Boston with a range of old craft styles of poitín.”
The inspiration to start a drinks company was the lack of craft and independent offerings in the Irish spirits category. The founders identified a need to develop the Irish drinks industry in its own way. Gallagher says “There is a huge history of craft and independent distilling in Ireland; this is what we want to get back to.”
“Every country has its own spirit…tequila, cachaca, grappa…I think it’s about time we shared a glass of poitín with the world.” Gelndalough distil a sherry cask poitin gleaned from a 1920 recipe from the book “In Praise of Poitín.” They use only the best local ingredients and source their sherry casks from Scotland.
Glendalough already have many loyal customers in Ireland as well as Australia, and their latest focus is to build a customer base in New York and Boston. They recently signed deals with two US drinks distributors and have two people on the ground in both cities. Gallagher and his fellow Glendalough founders believe there is a big opportunity to build a proper and diverse Irish category of spirits.
Gallagher says that “This is something scotch and bourbon have already seen happen. We see this with the Scottish; there are blends and single malts, then different styles in the different regions.”
“We are starting to pound the pavement and tell people about Glendalough Poitín in the New York and Boston markets. No one has done a craft style of poitín, getting back to the old style of distilling and really paying homage to the craft that was people’s reputation and livelihood for generations.”
Gallagher believes the way for Glendalough to succeed is to start small but do it right. “We will build the brand bar by bar and store by store. We have an authentic story, all about the quality of the ingredients, where this is brewed, our distillery is in Dublin, we are building another one near Glendalough.”
“You have to have four things to be successful, you have to have the liquid, the distribution, be on trend and be lucky.”