We recently visited the Micil Distillery, the first distillery in Galway in over 100 years to talk to its founder Pádraic Ó Griallais about the potential of poitín and more…
I’m a fan of poitín. Maybe it’s the patriot in me. Maybe it’s the historian. It could just be that I love really good booze. It can be hard to find somebody as passionate about the spirit as I am. In Pádraic Ó Griallais, I’ve more than met my match.
Poitín has been distilled for over six generations by his family. The story began in 1848 with Micil Mac Chearra in Connemara, home to the largest Gaeltacht (a primarily Irish-speaking region) in the country. For over 170 years his ancestors have continued to make the spirit in the traditional manner using his secret recipe, predominantly illicitly. That was until 2015, when Ó Griallais gave up his teaching career to turn his legacy into a premium brand and bring back legal distillation to Galway after a century.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Ó Griallais at his charming distillery in the back of the Oslo Bar, which is also the home of Galway Bay Brewery, where we talked about illicit distillation, dispelling myths and creating a brand to prove poitín’s potential.
Ó Griallais was motivated to start Micil Distillery as he felt there was a terrible void in the poitín category for real authenticity. “There was plenty of ‘paddywackery‘, but I felt it was time to tell an authentic story,” says Ó Griallais. “I come from a family of poitín distillers. The methods have been handed down from generation to generation. My grandfather, Jimmi Chearra, taught me everything I know about the craft and heritage. I wanted to spread that knowledge and appreciation”.
The importance of family to Ó Griallais is underlined by the fact that the brand was named after Micil, while an old picture of Jimmi working on his craft was chosen as the brand’s logo, meaning he features on every bottle. “That was a pretty touching moment. He’s actually our honorary quality control, so he gets a bottle every week to give that final seal of approval. It’s great for myself and my brother that he trusts us to make it with absolute integrity” says Ó Griallais. “But more importantly, It really brought it home for him that this is the reality now: Micil’s recipe, Micil’s heritage and his own heritage is now on the open market and it’s being continued. The legacy has been brought into a totally different light”.
It’s worth remembering the light that was cast on his family’s craft for many years was very different. Jimmi was fined as a younger man when he was caught in possession of malt. His story that he was only using it to brew beer was viewed rather dimly by the local police. If a poitín still, much like the one that sits in the middle of Micil Distillery, was found it would be confiscated and destroyed. Making poitín was a dangerous act of defiance for the people who distilled it, a hidden preservation of community and Irish identity. Ó Griallais talks about this troubled history passionately and knowledgeably, pausing to flash a quick mischievous grin before he tells me a story about that sums up that spirit of rebellion.
“Probably the most infamous poitín story happened about two miles away from where we lived. There was a confiscation of a still on local lands. The owners weren’t known by the local authorities or police but the still was brought to the police station to be destroyed. Nobody could have predicted what happened next,” says Ó Griallais. “That night the police station was broken into and the still was taken back by the original owners. The next morning the break-in was discovered and the search was on. Despite a big investigation, the still was never found and the culprits were never brought to ‘justice’ if you want to use that kind of terminology. We’re not believers of any kind of hearsay or old wives tales, but some people will say that the still exists today. Of course, nobody knows for sure.” Ó Griallais then says if I do happen to see it around, I should let him know before he allows himself once more wry smile and says, “But you know what? Sometimes it’s amazing what can be right underneath your nose”.
Things are much less controversial for Ó Griallais, who’s able to put to use the original 170-year-old family recipe in every bottle of Micil Poitín, using 100% Irish malted barley and a local Connemara botanical called bogbean. “We begin as you would imagine, by mashing our malts with hot water and then we’ll give it a rest period of approximately an hour. Then we take the sweet wort out of the mash and put that through a heat exchanger to chill it down to about 19 degrees centigrade. Later on, we add in our yeast, then the bogbean is added into the wash and we carefully observe the initial spirit to remove the heads and tails when necessary.” says Ó Griallais. “It’s amazing that we’re still able to use bogbean in our family poitín. It’s a local wild botanical that’s been used since the year 1324 by monks for medicinal purposes and it’s one of the things that really makes Micil’s poitín stand out versus many, if not all, the other poitíns that were being distilled around the same time”.
The words hand-crafted and small scale are tossed around a lot these days, but Micil Distillery is genuinely a modest enterprise overseen by Ó Griallais and his brother. Together, they distil approximately 60 bottles of poitín a day. The bottling, labelling and packaging all happen in-house. “My emphasis was always that we actually do things by hand throughout the process so we weren’t just a push-button operation. We didn’t want the craft to go out of the process and have it become too industrial,” says Ó Griallais. “That’s fine and I wouldn’t say it’s a case of one being better or worse, that’s just the way that we chose to do it. It’s romantic, I suppose, and very close to what would have been done throughout the generations”.
For the Heritage Poitín the production changes as it brings into play one a raw material that is often considered Scottish in the world of booze: peat. “There’s no other fully Irish peated spirit on the market, so it’s something really unique, but it’s also something we’ve been doing for generations. It’s 80% barley and 20% oats and has the bogbean in there as well. For me it was such an exciting project because I wanted to show that we always made peated spirit as well as unpeated in Ireland,” says Ó Griallais. “We luckily found a farmer in County Meath that decided he was going to start peating his malt, so we actually gave him the turf that we harvest ourselves from Connemara. So it’s a real true expression of what poitín from Connemara would smell and taste like, which would be milder than your Islay whiskies”.
When it came to creating Micil Irish Gin, the process was different again because when you’re creating poitín, the emphasis is on the spirit more than the botanicals, whereas in gin this is reversed. But it was fundamental to Ó Griallais that the process retained the same sense of identity and provenance, which is why he was keen that his gin would showcase the botanicals, the flowers and the herbs available throughout Connemara. “I really wanted to express the West of Ireland and the Connemara botanicals in a different form to poitín, which is why I decided to go down the gin route. We wanted this gin to be what gin is all about: gin is all about juniper and gin is all about refreshment, but also creating something that has a real sense of terroir like our poitín, albeit in a different category,” Ó Griallais explains.
Fans of Irish whiskey will be delighted to hear that it is on the agenda for very soon for Ó Griallais and Micil Distillery. “Poitín is always going to be our founding category, so our whiskey will be modelled our poitín process. There will be innovation in terms of the type of whiskey that we do, from the use of grains to the styles. We’re not going to purely make single malt or your typical triple-distilled pot still style. There’s likely to be a variety,” Ó Griallais says. “We’re looking to move to a new location in the next year or two that will include more space to distil our whiskey. However, we are going to be making some whiskey before we move to our new location. We’re actually incredibly excited because we’ve got a new still for it, so we’re really looking forward to starting our journey with whiskey here in Galway”.
While Ó Griallais is comfortable engaging with different categories, poitín will always be at the heart of Micil Distillery. It’s not an easy sell, however. One of the reasons why it’s important for Ó Griallais to tell an authentic story of poitín distillation is because it’s such a misunderstood and maligned spirit. “I was brought up making it and recognising the difference between high quality versus mediocrity. Unfortunately, the latter has been the experience of a lot of people in Ireland which means often they have no real appreciation of any of the nuances in the category or what high quality means,” says Ó Griallais. “For me, poitín was all about high-quality ingredients and attention to detail in the process”.
A lot of Ó Griallais’ time is spent dispelling myths about poitín, such as the idea that the sole raw material used to create the spirit traditionally was potato. “In reality, for most of poitín-making’s history it has been a grain spirit and the predominant grain would have been barley. Other grains would have been used with the barley, of course, like oats, wheat and rye,” says Ó Griallais. “A lot of those grains would have been malted, a difference in the Irish whiskey tradition where there was a large use of unmalted grains to avoid taxes. But the potato is largely a myth and for whatever reason, its role has been really over-emphasised in the grand scheme of the category”.
However, the most damaging and pervasive notion about poitín is a classic criticism that will be known to anybody in Ireland: poitín is a coarse spirit with a dangerously high alcoholic strength. “Poitín is like any other spirit, if it’s made poorly and without due care and attention you are going to get an inferior product,” says Ó Griallais. “It’s the same with historic gin, a lot of amateur or inexperienced people made it with a focus on just on making something alcoholic, there was no care for quality. We had a different take and a different story to tell. We always had this strong emphasis on pride in what we were doing”.
It’s a shame because poitín is a genuinely fascinating and worthy category that’s undermined by misinformation and ignorance. But Ó Griallais is a patient man and is diligent in how he deconstructs each myth. “The practicality of what people say just doesn’t make sense. Poitín would rarely come off the still at 80 or 90% ABV and it’s really important to note that the distillers would also, of course, cut their spirit with pure water to bring it to bottling strength. Just like today, they wouldn’t bottle it at the strength it came off the still because they were aware of what people could actually consume,” Ó Griallais explains. “It’s all a big myth, but unfortunately the good stuff has kind of been forgotten about in all this noise, which is why we’re obviously dedicating our time and effort in telling the different story”. Ó Griallais role at Micil is as much being an ambassador and educator as it is being a distiller. As you can imagine, being a teacher in a previous life comes in handy.
This blend of tradition, provenance and identity that is at the core of authentic poitín makes Ó Griallais believe it has potential in the current market. He points to the success of Tequila, a spirit category that has previously suffered from its fair share of ignorance, in recent times as an example poitín could follow. “Tequila historically didn’t have the reputation that it does today. But people are now more educated about the category. They have a perception now that it is made with high-quality ingredients, with traditional processes and made lovingly and traditionally in a specific region,” says Ó Griallais. “Increasingly consumers are moving away from an association of the category as a cheap, rough, coarse party shot that’s just a way of drinking more alcohol. Tequila managed to turn this perception around by educating people, providing them with a great spirit and showing people how it can be mixed or consumed neat”.
Ó Griallais’s ambition for Micil Distillery is that it will become the brand that helps the poitín category progress and find a consumer base. “Let’s give Patrón the credit it deserves, that brand, in particular, has lifted the reputation of the Tequila category. For us, we want to be the brand that helps the poitín category achieve this by having our focus on quality and authenticity,” he says. “We want to show people the huge potential and the huge enjoyment that’s available with this spirit. The ambition going forward is we want to drive the poitín category on. We want to have a globally recognised brand. That’s the ambition; that Micil Distillery and our poitín would be considered and recognised up there as one of the greats”.
As you begin a new year there’s an urge to broaden your horizons and grow. Exploring the world of booze and finding a new go-to spirit is as good a way of doing that as any, in my book. Micil Distillery wants you to give poitín a chance. Maybe you should. And that’s not the patriot in me, or the historian talking. That’s the love of really good booze.
Micil Irish Poitín Tasting Notes:
Nose: Incredibly fruity, with raspberry jam, Ribena and plenty of stone fruit. There’s a touch of peppery heat, wild herbs, honey and a hint of menthol.
Palate: Tinned peaches, blackcurrant and some delicate angelica notes, with a helping of peppermint and touches of peppercorn and red chilli warmth.
Finish: More stone fruit while the herbs also return.
Micil Irish Heritage Poitín Tasting Notes:
Nose: Earthy, aromatic peat is at the core with floral notes (violet mostly), red berries and garden herbs emerging through it.
Palate: Apricot, vanilla, blackberry and a little honey give the palate a sweet and juicy opening, which then develops with peat smoke and a hearty twist of black pepper.
Finish: A little aniseed and mint linger.
Micil Irish Gin Tasting Notes:
Nose: Fresh and fragrant with bright juniper, creamy angelica, citrus peels and helpings of earthy herbs, green cardamom and aromatic spice from orris root and cumin powder.
Palate: Hugely herbaceous and well-spiced, most of the notes return from the nose alongside hints of lemongrass and liquorice. Piney juniper pushes through these to make itself known sharply.
Finish: A little black fruit sweetness appears after a while, among liquorice, a little lime and the remnants of the well-balanced juniper, angelica and citrus peel core.