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A poitín manifesto

We have been doing lots of work as an industry on the Pot Still technical file about which there is broad agreement but for what its worth here are my musings on Poitin and trying to make the Gi more principle focused and trying to get away from some of the anecdotal and myth and legend into a place where Poitin could be something that might be up to challenge tequila as a white spirit with a rich history intrinsic taste and driven by sense of place. Whether I am persuasive enough remains to be seen….

Personally I would like to get agreement on the principles rather than the detail and make it fact based rather than anecdotal, much of which is little more than hearsay. Its also worth noting that most illicit indigenous poitín is sugar based and not grain based so really isn’t that reflective of the history. 

Some of my thoughts I have discussed and clarified with knowledgeable others in the industry, some with local guys no longer practicing, some some with my uncles who gave me a run down on grandad and some with Christie Gillespie who has researched a tonne of stuff as a by product of his book on Rockwell Kents time in the parish back in the 1920’s which happened to capture a lot on poitín.

 

I’m hoping that keeping it conceptual and principle led that we avoid the pressure to keep it too fluid. I believe we define it by what it was and then it is up to the businesses to decide how they commercialise it. While I want it principle focused the rules are important  – my fear being that if the rules are too loose Poitin will be bastardised away to nothing in short order and then it might as well be vodka or in fact nothing at all, just a footnote in a whiskey history and an opportunity lost.

  • In most peoples minds poitin is an underground and illicit alcohol, and while it was undoubtedly the precurser to what would become in its modern guise whiskey any reference to this fact just gets in the way of gaining alignement as there are too many vested interests trying to keep poitín away from whiskey – intuitively I am of a similar mind as I also cant see a navigable, nuanced position that rule makers will live with so we should define it by what it is/was without whiskey references. 
  • Poitin was almost exclusively grain spirit until the mid 1800’s when sugar started to become available and made the production process easier and more efficient as these adjuncts made yield better. This ultimately changed the nature of the original spirit. Though it is also true that limited amouonts of adjuncts of limited food value (crab apples, apples, over ripe fruit etc would have been used)
  • Pre famine (used only as a convenient history marker) the spirit was essentially grains only, post famine sugar availability (and sugar products – molasses, treacle etc) changed its nature. Potato as an adjunct is possible but given its value as a food stuff and its relative unsuitability as a source of fermentable sugars for me means that it would never have been and should never be the dominant starch/sugar source.
  • The fact that the product was inherently underground means that what was or was not happening is not that well documented – but it is not true to say there is no documentation there is and we should be comfortable leaning on that info, it strengthens the quality and provenance.
    • We should perhaps try and keep it principle rather than detail focussed:
      • Which point in time do we focus on:
        1. Pre famine – 100% grain based with some traditional flavouring (if can be proven – bog bean @micil)
        2. Post famine – Grain based with limited adjuncts 
  • My view is that pre famine is an unhelpful context and essentially squares us up against whiskey in a way that gets in the way of an arc that might allow the category to win. A style that ultimately evolved  for us to tap into – for me then a style/definition that should be post famine 
    • This then makes it a question of what is a traditional and sensible recipe element:
  1. 51% cereal base 
    • cereals are traditional – malt, barley, rye, wheat 
    • can be peated or unpeated
    • 49% adjuncts – sugar or sugar derivatives (potatoes though I hate it), fruits (?)
  2. No more than 30% adjuncts (helps with understanding as its likely that the pot still ends up with something similar)
    • Cereals 70% (malt, barley, rye, wheat are traditional as above but I have no real preference for being more specific than this unless history can be more accurate)
    • Can peated or unpeated
    • 15% adjuncts as above, this would align with the construct of an adjunct rather than a primary incredient 
    • Equipment 
  • Copper pot stills only in a batch process (Lift definition from the whiskey file ie must be a copper pot etc, aids verification and is already pretty well accepted)
    1. We should ban column stills completely (poitín – the clue is in the name) 
    2. Combination stills acceptable max of 4 plates (I would rather none at all but I think the horse may have bolted) 
    3. Max distillation strength of 85%  in the receiver should be that achievable from a triple distillation type operation (80-85% so that there is sufficient flavour present for it not to be a vodka substitute?) )
  • Aging
  1. My view is that poitín was stored not aged, and all agrarian distilling was effectively seasonal originally, done from one harvest to the next – therefore no reference to aging but acceptance that poitín was stored and proabably for a full season and that the cask can be mentioned 
  2. In Donegal poitín was made from July to September and was stored for later celebrations (mid winter/ Christmas and onto easter and early summer) – Therefore a max of a year or less than a year might be better understood 
  3. Any form of wooden barrel max capacity 250 litres (you may not flavour the barrel beyond traditional practises
  4. Storing in a wooden barrel for less than a year (effectively one season to the next) should be allowed but it should not be referred to as aging
  • Blending
    1. None, poitín is the product of a single place, to not allow it may be limiting but it does mean that it is the expression of a single distiller, a distinctive place not something generic and keeps it away from whiskey. I don’t think I have seen any evidence of blending in any literature.

I have a view and this isn’t for the tech file that we should adopt a language that convey these periods that poitín is defined by when it was drunk not how long in a barrel. This fits with seasonal (late summer production) and consumption there after with periods of storage. For me looking at tequila with its Silver/Reposado/Anejo is a good model. 

I think all of the below ideas are fascinating:

  • Fresh/Winter/Spring – driog ur/geimhreadh/earrach (use irish words or phonetically irish) drigur/givru/arra
  • pure/Rested/finish – driog íon / driog lár / criochnaigh 
  • new / store / annual – nua / stór / bliantúil
  • today / concealed / treasure (rare) – inniu / follaigh (cumdaigh) / taisce (tearc) – innu / follee (coodee) / tashka (chark)
  • Colours – bright/yello/rosegold – geal/bui/roise-or

But where I have landed is :

  • New make – Tusnua (toosnew- ah – new beginnings)
  • Less than 3 months – Trimhi (treevee – 3 months)
  • Up to 364 days – imbliana (ii-mbleena – this year)

 

Indeed there may be traditional terms I have not heard. I think it would help give poitín a language of its own that would lift us away from the unaged whiskey language into an opportunity that might be as rich as tequila. 

So Frank Carr’s Poitin is on its way, made with peated malt and molasses as grandad would have done. Repairing a line of distillers and I really think there is something in the language piece….watch this space, off to see if I can get the authorities to agree.