Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels
Infinite variety — that’s one of the things I enjoy most about the world of spirits. Distillation — and wine-making, and brewing — is really an extension of agriculture: so much of the final product depends on the local fauna, the local climate, the seasons, the sources, and the hands and intuition of the distillers. Though distilleries often strive for high levels of consistency in their product, it’s the small-batch productions that often prove most interesting and adventurous. These experiments and one-offs frequently venture into unexplored territory, tapping into unexplored flavors or techniques…though sometimes, they revisit the forgotten, dusty corners of history. Given time, outreach, and the proper amount of attention, they can blossom into trends, and even into full-blown staples behind the bar.
Several new distilleries across the pond seem to have tapped into this phenomenon, focusing on one of the more obscure spirits in the western world — poitín (po-CHEEN). A countrified Irish moonshine that, until recently, was little heard of outside the Emerald Isle, poitín is gaining traction in spirits world, especially in the UK, likely thanks to the resurgence of interest in its counterparts: more conventional Irish whiskies and American “white dog” whiskies.
Though I’d seen it listed on a drink menu or two before (but for the life of me, I can’t remember where, and my booze log books have mysteriously omitted the occasion), I had yet to actually taste the spirit. That is, until the folks at Glendalough Distillery, at the newly-forged forefront of craft poitín production, were kind enough to provide me with some samples of their product. While these sorts of raw spirits can be tricky to mix with and they’re often most enjoyable on their own, I can see some mixological possibilities here. An understanding of the base spirit is critical to cocktail creation, however, and as such, my poitín tasting notes are listed below…
Nose is fruity, like a white wine (pinot grigio), but there are also hints of damp grain or new wood; also, hints of tart berries, like blackcurrants — créme de cassis. Wine-like acidity on the tongue; fairly velvety mouthfeel, though the body is rather light or thin. Generously warms the back of the throat, but does not burn or have excessive cut. The nose opens up a bit more after sipping and swallowing — perhpas there are hints of bell pepper? And butter? Slight hints of vanilla, but it’s thin. Also present are richer, grapey notes that resemble marsala or sherry.
Glendalough Mountain Strength Poitín
Similar in flavor profile to the 80-proof. Alcohol is much more evident on the nose; stronger notes of black pepper and marsala grape. More heat and spice in the back of the throat. Notes of lighter, paler honey — clover or wildflower. Quite a bit of toasted grain flavor on the tongue and middle ground — think toasted cereals like Cheerios. No alcohol burn in the middle ground — the spirit retains its smoothness. Oddly enough, there seem to be wafts of garlic and wild onion, but these notes are quite subdued.
Glendalough Sherry Cask Finish
Nose is more in the direction of a conventional or typical Irish whiskey — more caramel, malt, and woodsy char. Thick on the tongue, and buttery, with strong flavors of straw, reeds, and grain. Also contains some beer-like notes, slightly sour. Some sweetness; green grapes and muscadines; sour stone fruits, like apricots. Much closer in flavor to an eaux-de-vie than a white whiskey, likely due to the sherry cask finish. Strong hints of sherry and marsala from the residue in the empty glass.
Delicious stuff: an interesting blend of the raw, fruity grain flavors of American white dog whiskies, the pure, throat-coating fruit of eaux-de-vie, and a touch of the odd grassiness found in rhum agricole. The white poitíns are more clearly linked to whiskey, while the sherry cask version veers closer to the eau-de-vie side of the spectrum.
Though it’s primary component is malted barley, poitín differs substantially from other Irish whiskies in flavor and character and only bears the slightest resemblance to Scotch. In addition to barley, ingredients such as sugar beets, potatoes, treacle, or whey are frequently included in the mash bill. The final product is often left unaged or minimally aged, and, like other white whiskies, has a unique flavor with heavy, vegetal notes of grain and ripe fruit — if you’re at all familiar with fruit eaux-de-vie, think of one of those crossed with an Irish whiskey, and you have poitín.
With all of these notes in mind, I mixed up a drink that I dubbed The Maturin for our most recent Mixology Monday, playing off the fruity, malty notes and of the sherry-cask finished poitín. The experiementation drained my sampler-sized bottle, though I have just enough of the regular bottling and the Mountain Strength to come up with a second cocktail…stay tuned. I’m thinking St. Germain and lime may play well with this homegrown Irish spirit, but we’ll see.
Photos and text by Ian J. Lauer
PS: Thanks again to Donal O’Gallachoir and Glendalough for sending over their poitín — hopefully I’ll be seeing it in more and more of our bars here in NYC!