After recently being lambasted for audaciously attempting to review a bourbon, I thought for Malt’s “Malternative” month, I would stick to something I know much better and have drank much more of. Put down your pitchforks and let me tell you all about why poitín is having quite the revival, and is becoming more common for distilleries to produce and sell as part of Ireland’s spirit renaissance.
I reviewed Killowen’s Cúige series Poitín back in July last year. I told the good story of poitín’s prominence across the island of Ireland, its explicit outlawing, and subsequent legalisation a mere 300 years later. Killowen has not rested on its laurels after the Cúige series and has been busy producing all sorts of poitín for its most devoted fans. Releases of Bulcán and Stone Soup have all inferred a certain nostalgia and reminiscence about Ireland’s most treasured drink. I’ll not review either of these, but will instead review its most humble standard release poitín.
Like most distilleries across Ireland, the commonality of using sourced whisky has been prevalent. Whilst it legally takes three years for whiskey to become ‘Irish whiskey,’ many distilleries forgo the wait and bottle sourced whiskey as their own. Though this is a popular strategy amongst many distillers, the production of poitín has also been a calculated tactic to raise profits but – most importantly – increase the awareness of such a lamented drink.
Killowen has been instrumental in that process. Its master distiller, Brendan, and key partners in Liam and Shane have coined this year “the Year of Poitín.” Since its incarnation in 2019 as one of Killowen’s initial releases, the distillery’s double-distilled poitín has been a firm favourite. It subsequently gone through three batches thus far, with acquiring a bottle becoming more and more infrequent. But, it’s not only about making a quick buck for distilleries; ever since poitín gained its GI status, its popularity has soared because of national pride and the desire of distillers to recreate a truly historic and important spirit.
Killowen set themselves apart by proudly exhibiting three key traits: traditionality, transparency, and quality. The poitín has been made traditionally, in a pot still, unaged and concocted with a historical mash bill. A common misconception about Irish whiskey and spirits is that they’re typically triple distilled; however, this is a fallacy, and the process of double distilling was prevalent.
Linked to my second point about transparency: Killowen has no qualms detailing everything inside the bottle. The mash bill of 69.2% malted barley, 23% un-malted barley, 3.8% Maris Otter Malt, 2% oats, and 2% wheat epitomises that. Its mash bill is powerful, balanced and characteristic of proper poitín.
Its geographical presence gives Killowen more credibility in creating Ireland’s most treasured drink. When it was outlawed back in 1661, poitín producers were driven ‘underground’, essentially anywhere that local law enforcement could not access. The Mourne mountains represented the perfect spot; tranquil, isolated and positioned close to the Cassy water and farmer’s fields. Killowen’s founding there drives an almost nostalgic feel and one that makes their poitín production as evocative as it would have been all those centuries ago.
Lastly, the quality: I have conducted two reviews for Malt regarding Killowen, and although I have drunk much more of their spirit, the two 8’s given to the Cúige and the Dalriadan certainly set a precedence for this small, intrepid distillery. Having recently expanded Killowen into the US, it’s understandable that America’s large Irish population will instantly fall in love with this brand.
This poitín is the third batch, costs £45 from the Umbrella Project, and is bottled at a modest (for poitín, anyway!) 55% ABV.
Killowen Irish Poitín – Review
On the nose: Straight away, and almighty earthiness with soil and freshly cut grass. Then there’s a concoction of liquorice, aniseed and cigar box notes. What strikes me most is the freshness it invokes, zesty green apple, flat cream soda and ginger. Such complexity then leads to German rye bread and black peppercorns, giving it real promise leading on to the palate.
In the mouth: indicative of an authentic Irish spirit, the spice powerfully cuts in with lots of aniseed, clove and cinnamon. Lots of coffee beans and bitter dark chilli chocolate give this an exciting texture and one that certainly coats the mouth and feels almost creamy. The continuation of the freshness pervades with clementine oranges and herbal notes of peppermint, giving it depth, balance and complexity. Lots of warmth on the finish; spice and depth. Much more of the cinnamon and pepper notes continue, leading to espresso and fresh ginger.
What strikes me most about this drink is the complexity and depth that can be achieved without wood maturation. This is a testament to the work and passion endeavoured by Brendan and co. The mash bill has given this poitín more complexity than some whiskies I have tried. Although poitín’s technical file (the document which dictates how poitín is made) forbade ‘maturation’, distillers are permitted to ‘rest’ poitín for a maximum of 10 weeks in wood, something which Killowen has also successfully exploited.
Whilst I sit here and drink this historically significant drink, my thoughts are transported back to all those centuries ago. I see images of hard-working men illegally producing a drink, constantly trying to evade the law in the hope of ensuring poitín’s production remained unaffected. Today’s distillers have thankfully inherited their passion and fervent endeavours. Thankfully, with its legality assured, distilleries such as Baoilleach, Echlinville and Teeling have all cemented poitín’s position and ensured that this truly is “the year of poitín.”
I am proud to support a small batch producer, but I think my proudness extends to drinking a truly historic drink made by audacious people. I enjoyed every mouthful of it.