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'Poteen: Susy Atkins reports on a controversial drink's move to the mainstream'

The Wine And Spirit Weekly
7th June 2002, No. 6056 Page 37
(Editor: Tim Atkin MW)

"There’s a trend towards unusual spirits, and poteen is one of the most interesting, with a great story behind it."


Poteen is battling in some quarters to cast off the centuries’ old image of a mad Celtic moonshine. But with the modern version of this grain-distilled spirit securing listings in major UK independents and multiples, mainstream respectability and success may be just around the corner.Susy Atkins reports:-

It probably won’t come as a great surprise to learn that illicit poteen – Irish moonshine – is still readily available both north and south of the border on the Emerald Isle. But it must be raising a few eyebrows among Waitrose customers as they stumble across the licensed stuff while picking up their usual gin or vodka. For in February, Waitrose stocked up with Knockeen Hills, one of just a handful of legal poteens now made under licence in Ireland and exported to the UK.

The irony is, of course, that poteen’s illegal status was, historically, perhaps the most exciting thing about the product. Banned in the 1660s by King Charles II, poteen has been made from grain or, more famously, potatoes and plenty else, ever since – mainly distilled in small, out-of-the way operations.

It’s one of Ireland’s oldest cottage industries. Around 1990 the Irish Revenue Commissioners granted the first licences for export only; a few years later poteen could be made and sold under licence for sale in Ireland itself.

Apparently, the Church was not amused.

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Currently, Knockeen Hills, a triple-distilled grain spirit with a decent collection of positive press cuttings and awards, is in Bottoms Up, Thresher and even Dublin and London cocktail bars, where it is being hailed by trendy mixologists as a new cult ingredient. And now it’s in Waitrose. Victoria Joyce, spirits buyer for the supermarket, is enthusiastic: ‘We came across Knockeen Hills at a trade show two years ago. I’ve tasted a lot of poteen over the past few years, but this one stood out – a good quality white spirit backed up with great packaging.'

'‘Right now we are looking out for unusual spirits,’ she continues. ‘For the past two years or so we have noticed a new willingness among customers to experiment with niche products from the spirit section.' So, poteen has joined the likes of South American Pisco, Cachaca and fabulously flavoured vodkas – exotic, cultish drinks which are ‘doing particularly well’, according to Miss Joyce. She attributes this partly to the cocktail bar revival: ‘Style bars have led consumers to try unusual spirits,’ she says. ‘We follow that up, but also try to predict new trends.’

But there’s something else going on here, according to Miss Joyce. She also believes all Irish drinks have a newly fashionable image. ‘Waitrose has also just taken on a new Irish whiskey from Cooley’s. The Irish image is being rejuvenated and it’s a good time to add more Irish drinks to our portfolio,as long as the integrity of the product is right.’

Knockeen Hills has initially gone into just 19 stores, with Miss Joyce aiming for between one-quarter and half a case sales at each per week. ‘Most of these unusual spirits lines are listed initially for six months, and increased or decreased as we see fit after that,’ she says. The launch is backed up by in-store tastings (this time, aptly enough, around St Patrick’s Day, customers were offered poteen mixed with soda, which must have brightened up the usual trolley dash). Miss Joyce has other promotions in mind, including an in-house magazine feature.

One crucial factor, according to Miss Joyce, is that Waitrose has secured stocks in 50cl flasks. ‘We tailored the bottle size so the price remained relatively low [£14.99]. The 70cl bottles result in a high price point, which we don’t feel is the right angle. The 50cl allows us to keep the price down and that stops us frightening off new customers who don’t know the product.’

Thresher and Bottoms Up are ‘rationalising their spirits range’, according to First Quench spokesman Jonathan Butt 'At those branches which show a demand, however, it can still be ordered in.'

Oliver Dillon, the Shannon-based producer of another legal poteen, strongly believes the marketing focus now has to be on the younger clubbing scene’. ‘It’s taking off as a drink for the younger generation, who treat it as an exciting alternative to vodka in cocktails,’ he says. 'There’s a trend towards unusual spirits, and poteen is one of the most interesting, with a great story behind it.’

The importer of Knockeen Hills into the UK, tells a similar story. ‘There are two aspects to the sales,’ he says. ‘First and foremost, we sell it to the Irish abroad, as a heritage drink. The other side is the bar and club scene, where it is seen as a contemporary drink, the new vodka or Tequila.’. So on-trade appears to be the part of the market poteen producers are keen to develop.

Eily Kilgannon, international public relations manager of Pernod Ricard-owned Irish Distillers, says 'We believe [Irish Distillers’] Jameson has a contemporary image, relevant to the urban bars, while Bushmills [also Irish Distillers] reflects heritage.’ In other words, poteen is not required in the portfolio'. Interestingly, the poteen brand Hackler, made for a short spell at the Cooley distillery in County Louth, was apparently phased out because it provided competition for Smirnoff once the two ended up with the same distributor (United Distillers).

Indeed, is legal, good-quality grain spirit poteen so very different to vodka? Many tasters would say not, although the importer counters that the water is slightly different and the flavourings (‘a secret recipe’, for Knockeen Hills) differ. More pertinently, the enduring, illicit Celtic moonshine image is a unique selling point.

So are the new sightings of poteen in UK supermarkets a sign of greater things to come? Waitrose has a knack of picking up wine and spirits when they are obscure and running with them as they become more generally recognised. The safest argument is perhaps that poteen is now firmly established as a niche product rather than a bizarre oddity, and in that respect it falls into line behind many formerly obscure spirits.

The above is an extract of an article that appeared in the 7th June 2002 issue of 'Harpers' The Wine & Spirit Journal. ©