Saturday 12 January 2013

Glendalough Poitín

Glendalough Poitín slipped quietly onto the shelves of the Celtic Whiskey Shop just before Christmas (and promptly sold out).

This week, I met Brian Fagan and Barry Gallagher, two of the four guys behind this new arrival. The story of how they came to this point has a nice parallel with that of John Teeling, and the foundation of Cooley. Teeling wrote an academic paper on the Irish whiskey industry while studying at Harvard in the early 1970s. His analysis convinced him to start up his own distillery as soon as he could scrape together the funds.

Brian and Barry also have a professional background in financial research which has involved crunching the numbers on the spirits business. This is the moment, they have decided, to jump off the sidelines and put theory into practice. (Actually, Brian had already made a slightly earlier leap by launching the Five Lamps craft beer last year.)

The guys can quote numbers but I could hear, between the figures, a far more sentimental motivation - to reclaim a portion of Ireland's lost distilling heritage, to pour a glass of something great and Irish for the discerning drinkers of the world. They reminded me how distilling arrived in Ireland, with the monks, and how the craft of poitín was kept alive through the centuries, in the valleys, out of sight of officialdom.

The monks and the valleys inspired the name: Glendalough. St Kevin himself graces the label.

Barry and Brian very kindly left me with a bottle and I have been getting to know the spirit over the last few days. The nose would fool me, if I didn't know what was in the glass, into thinking I had before me a glass of Riesling wine. Gooseberries and petrochemicals. It's a heady aroma I really like.

It has a creamy mouthfeel and tastes of lychees and liquorice. There is a beery, slightly salty finish.

Glendalough has a few tricks for mitigating the raw taste of spirit straight off the still.

First, it's bottled at 40% ABV. A good call, I think. I have been sipping away as I write, for inspiration. I'm taking it neat, and it's going down just fine.

It is also aged in virgin Irish oak, a nice touch. This part of the story remains somewhat obscure for now. The spirit is made under contract by West Cork Distillers and I've yet to get a peek into their process. It hasn't had any effect on colour that I can detect but I presume it has mellowed the flavour somewhat.

Finally, there is a secret ingredient: sugar beet! The label only mentions malted barley so I'm guessing there is just a small proportion of sugar beet in the mash. Still, I'm ridiculously excited that beet (a very familiar crop in Ireland) has finally appeared in spirit form in this country.

The product comes with various serving suggestions: neat, on ice, with soda or, as the neck label has it, as a "Pot & Coke". It can be used in cocktails, of course, easily substituting for either vodka or whiskey in classic recipes.

It goes for about €35 in the Celtic Whiskey Shop and it should appear in Dublin Airport some time soon.

Glendalough Poitín is a great addition to a growing category. The company name on the bottle, by the way, is the Glendalough Irish Whiskey Company, which surely hints at further exciting products down the road.