Ireland’s history of distillation is as turbulent as it is long.
At its height of production in the 18th and 19th centuries, the small island boasted 200 licensed distilleries and perhaps as many as 2,000 illicit ones. But heavy taxation, regulation, two world wars, and the loss of a certain large customer due to Prohibition brought the industry to its knees, leaving only a handful of distilleries in operation to this day.
Loss of Independence – and Identity
Most of the remaining distilleries have ensured their survival by allowing themselves to be purchased by multinational conglomerates with multiple brands under their respective umbrellas.
That bittersweet progression reached a culmination of sorts in January 2012, when the last independently owned whiskey distillery in Ireland passed into foreign hands.
Now in one sense, this isn’t all bad news. Deep-pocketed corporations pouring money into a domestic brand can create or sustain jobs, modernize aging facilities, and open up new markets in far-flung regions.
But for a nation that cherishes its independence the way Ireland does, it must be galling to know that some of its most beloved products amount to little more than a line item on some foreign company’s balance sheet.
And while Irish whiskey has enjoyed an international renaissance in the past five years, there’s something perverse about Bushmills whiskey being owned by Jose Cuervo.
The Return of Craft
But Donal O’Gallachoir is helping bring Irish distillation back to its roots. Donal is one of the founders and owners of Glendalough Distillery – the first craft distillery in Ireland.
Founded in 2011 as the brainchild of five friends from Dublin and Wicklow, Glendalough Distillery represents an effort to recapture the character and heritage of a centuries-old industry that’s had more than its share of ups and downs.
“We wanted to bring back something real, something historic,” Donal tells me over drinks at Fort Point’s Blue Dragon. Glendalough’s brand manager, Donal relocated to Boston last year and has been bringing the distillery’s growing line of spirits to American shores.
And while Glendalough is a young distillery, Donal and company have cloaked their brand in Irish history, from basing their spirits on ancient recipes and methods to adopting the figure of St. Kevin, a 6th century Irish abbot, as something of a spiritual guide.
The Legend of Kevin
While from a distance it might look like Gandalf preparing to take down a balrog, that’s St. Kevin on the label of Glendalough’s bottles. The founder of Glendalough, the beautiful valley in Ireland from which the distillery takes its name, St. Kevin is known to have been a fiercely independent holy man, though the actual record of his life is long on folklore and short on verifiable facts.
The most enduring legend involving St. Kevin, immortalized in verse by the late Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, is that a blackbird once landed in his outstretched hand, and such was Kevin’s patience that he remained completely still for weeks while the bird built a nest and laid eggs, not moving until the chicks eventually hatched and flew off.
The blackbird story is an allegory of determination and independence, and it’s easy to see why a fledgling distillery would draw inspiration from the celebrated saint.
Those characteristics are evident as Glendalough continues its gradual rollout. The product line is small but growing, consisting of three aged whiskies, a gin, and a spirit that relatively few Americans may be familiar with – poitín.
Poitín (pronounced put-cheen) represents a fascinating chapter of Irish history and culture. A spirit traditionally made from malted barley, sugar beets, and potatoes in a pot still, poitín predates whiskey and is considered one of the oldest distilled beverages in the world, first appearing in written record in 584 A.D. Irish authorities prohibited its distillation in the 17th century, but production continued in secret, making it the Irish equivalent of moonshine.
And once it retreated to the shadows, poitín became the stuff of legend, with an alcohol content ranging from 50% to as high as 95%. After 300 years of illicit production, poitín was approved for exportation in 1989 and finally for domestic sales in 1997.
Poitín’s historical credentials make it an entirely appropriate product for a distillery trying to recapture the essence of old-school Irish spirit production. “It’s the definition of craft distilling,” Donal says.
At 40% ABV, Glendalough’s Premium Irish doesn’t quite approach the organ-melting potency of homemade poitín. But the recipe is rooted in tradition, dating back to the 1700s. Made from a mash of malted barley and sugar beet and aged in Irish oak barrels, the clear spirit has the body of a single-malt whiskey but a sweet flavor that’s almost reminiscent of rum.
Consumed neat or on the rocks, Glendalough’s poitín has a somewhat creamy mouthfeel with an overall earthiness and a blend of fruits that we don’t encounter often on our side of the Pond, like gooseberries and blackcurrants. It makes for an unusual but appealing tasting experience.
It also works well in cocktails, and Blue Dragon’s Cliffs of Glendalough features a bold, coffee-infused poitín with rich notes of chocolate and spices.
Resurgence of Irish Whiskey
An unfamiliar spirit like poitín might require some explanation, but Irish whiskey needs no introduction. After decades of playing second fiddle to Scottish whisky – in terms of popularity, anyway – Irish whiskey has spent the past several years reclaiming its onetime international glory. 2011 marked the first year that Irish whiskey outsold single malt scotch in the United States, and the spirit’s been on a global upswing since then.
That makes the timing of Glendalough’s entry to the market fortuitous. They offer three whiskies – 7-year and 13-year single malts, and as of this March, an intriguing product called Double Barrel. Hearkening back to a 19th-century style, it’s a single-grain whiskey that spends three and a half years in an American bourbon barrel before being transferred to a Spanish sherry barrel for six months.
The result is a whiskey with an oaky vanilla flavor and an unexpected fruit character. Donal calls it “light, sweet, and complex,” with depth from malted barley and sweetness from corn. It’s a very accessible whiskey, but surprising notes of spice, ginger, and nutmeg make it complex enough to interest a veteran whiskey drinker.
After sampling it neat, I ordered the Double Barrel in a cocktail, expressing no preference for the type of drink as long as it showcased the whiskey. Our bartender went all out and made “something special” – an Old Fashioned variation with the Glendalough Double Barrel, Benedictine, allspice-infused honey syrup, and old fashioned bitters.
Special indeed! The honey and spice smartly complemented the sweet and spicy notes in the whiskey, while the Benedictine added a bitter, herbal character.
Growth of a Brand
According to the Irish Spirits Association, Ireland exported about 6.2 million cases of whiskey last year, and that figure is projected to double by 2020.
Amid this rapidly increasing global demand, Glendalough Distillery is gradually carving out a small niche for itself. As of March 2015, you’ll only find their spirits in Boston, New York, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., but the essence of craft distilling is starting small and worrying more about quality than sales figures.
And Glendalough seems content to build their brand not with flashy ad campaigns but by establishing relationships with bar owners, managers, and industry professionals – people who appreciate a small-batch spirit with a unique flavor profile that can feature in an original cocktail.
Some good ol’ Irish charm doesn’t hurt either, as is evident during my conversation with Donal. Chatting with Glendalough’s brand manager is a genuine pleasure. The man has an inexhaustible supply of stories about his native Ireland, the history of Irish distilling, the spirits industry in general, his favorite Boston bars, you name it.
But it’s more than just idle chatter. Entertaining tales and anecdotes aside, Donal’s passion for Glendalough’s spirits is unmistakable, as is his respect for Ireland’s distilling heritage. The Emerald Isle's spirit industry is one of the oldest in the world and has endured staggering swings of fortune, from once having hundreds of distilleries to being nearly wiped out to having all of its major producers bought up by foreign investors.
Donal and company are adding a new chapter to that dramatic narrative.
And while it’s all well and good that huge corporations are bringing Irish whiskey to every corner of the globe, small craft distilleries like Glendalough are getting back to what made the stuff so popular in the first place.
“You can look back on it and say, I made that,” Donal remarks as I admire a bottle of his whiskey.
Call me idealistic, but that seems more satisfying than saying “My company bought the company that made that.”
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