Inner View: The Smuggling Nun Poitín

Inner View:
The Smuggling Nun
By John O’Brien, Jr.

Growing up in Fairfield, Connecticut, Maura Clare loved reading about her Irish heritage. In her late teens, she stumbled across mention of poitín and was immediately fascinated by the rich history around Ireland’s original spirit. At the time, poitín was still illegal, and had been since 1661. Maura was amazed that Ireland’s ancient, distilled spirit had persevered as an underground tradition and symbol of defiance, for over three centuries.


One of Maura’s cousins – a Franciscan nun originally from County Clare – knew of Maura’s growing obsession with poitín and eagerness to try it. Sister Mary hunted down a sample of the hooch and smuggled it back into the U.S. in a holy water bottle for Maura. And so, the seeds of inspiration for the Smuggling Nun brand were planted, to come to fruition decades later.

Poitín is pronounced POT-cheen, with the emphasis on the first syllable. Poitín means little pot in Irish—a reference to the small copper pot stills used to make it. It is believed poitín dates as far back as 6th century Ireland, making it the precursor to virtually all distilled spirits we drink today.

Throughout history, poitín has been primarily produced from malted barley. Over hundreds of years, the Irish and Scots learned to age it into whiskey. Although barley is almost always the base ingredient, thrifty farmer-bootleggers might add other excess grains or fruit to their mashes.

Sometimes potatoes were added, too, after they were introduced in Ireland in the late 1500s. In the early 20th century, enterprising bootleggers determined to make the best-tasting poitín, learned to blend a little treacle and beet sugar into the barley mash before distillation.

When English colonizers outlawed poitín in 1661, it became the world’s first illegal alcohol, l and the basis for all bootlegging subculture to follow. In Ireland, poitín became virtually synonymous with the word illegal. That mindset was so entrenched, the Irish didn’t get around to legalizing it until only 25 years ago.

“To this day, some will still insist that if it’s legal, it’s not poitín,” Maura laughs. “Some also believe that poitín is always harsh. The moment they taste Smuggling Nun, they realize that well-made poitín is delicious and smooth, while retaining authentic flavor and strength.”

For the bulk of her career, Maura lived in Boulder, Colorado, working as a producer of high-profile events that often showcased celebrities, performers, and dignitaries. She visits Ireland regularly, both for work and recreation.

Volunteer endeavors included helping with President Mary McAleese’s visit to Colorado and becoming a founding, executive board member of Irish Network Colorado and Irish Network USA.

In 2013, Maura put all the above experience to the test, when she decided she wanted to learn how to make poitín herself. She reached out to her Irish connections for help in finding someone willing to teach her.

Poitín Recipe
Maura said it was surprising to discover how secretive the Irish still are when it comes to poitín. Finally, a friend made a quiet introduction through his family to a retired bootlegger-farmer in the Glens of Antrim, whose father had been the distilling partner of Michael McIlhatton. “McIlhatton” is a song recorded by Christy Moore that immortalizes that bootlegger as the finest of poitín makers.

Over subsequent years, Maura worked with “Stephen Still,” her ten-gallon copper pot, to practice and perfect the McIlhatton recipe. During the pandemic, Maura sold her house to finance the business and moved back to her native Connecticut. Smuggling Nun’s County Down distillery went through an extensive process to procure the finest ingredients and scale up the formula for production.

In 2022, the Smuggling Nun became available to purchase online in most states, with free shipping on two bottles. The brand has debuted in select U.S. bars and liquor stores in New York and Connecticut and has been awarded international medals for the liquid and accolades for package design.

San Francisco World Spirits Competition tasting notes read, “Approachable in style, with bright cereal notes, a subtle smokiness and fine minerality. The vegetal, savoury elements appear within the smooth, delicate palate.”

Poitín is becoming increasingly popular with cocktail enthusiasts and spirits aficionados in Ireland and other European countries. Poitín Now, the world’s first poitín conference, was held in Dublin this fall, where Maura and the Smuggling Nun joined other brand producers in talks and tastings. Industry insiders predict awareness and demand for poitín will grow dramatically in the States in 2023 and beyond.

How best to drink poitín?
Maura suggests, “If you like your spirits straight, Smuggling Nun is incredibly smooth and flavorful. You might sip that with alternating tastes of Guinness – or any Irish-inspired black stout. We call that “Black-and-White. And it’s a standout in cocktails. Our signature drink is the ‘Dublin Donkey,’ a poitín mule.”

Another favorite on the website is the Belfast coffee, which is like an Irish coffee, but made with cold press, poitín, and demerara sugar. Heavy, fresh, unsweetened whipped cream is then floated on top and sprinkled with nutmeg. Maura adds, “You can also simply combine the Nun with some tonic or a little juice and seltzer. I like the sparkling limeade from Trader Joe’s as an easy mixer.”

With the enormous success story of Irish distilled spirits, which grew 19% as an industry in just the last year, the time has come to honor and celebrate poitín as the original spirit of Ireland.

I was fascinated by its underground status, and I was also fascinated by its links to the rebellion. It just was so interesting to me that something like that, something that’s so much a part of Ireland’s history, could thrive in such a quiet way over centuries. I was curious to taste it; my cousin who is a Franciscan nun was going over to Ireland and knew of my interest. She’s the one who hunted some down when she was back there.

Of course, it was still illegal at the time. She smuggled it back in a holy water bottle for me. It was very nice of her to do that.

Poitín Pronunciation
There is sort of a range between, I’d say there are three variations. One is phonetically POTEN, but that’s the most rare. Sometimes you hear something more along the lines of pot chain: a harder P UHT, and then a softer EN.  But definitely the most common is pot cheen.

There are a whole host of things that it is called, other than poitín, and a lot of them are sort of affectionate expressions or words. Are you familiar with the song, The Humors of Whiskey? The lyrics are absolutely brilliant.

One of my favorite terms for poitín is The CRATUR, so of course it’s “little pots” in reference to the little pot still in which it was made.

So stick to the cratur’ the best thing in nature
For drowning your sorrows and raising your joys
Oh what moderation gives hope to a nation
Can give consolation like
poitín me boys

Did you know right away that you wanted to make this a business or were you experimenting as you went along?
I didn’t start visiting Ireland regularly until many years later, so it got shoved to the back of my mind. It didn’t really seem to have any relevance in my life back when I was younger. It wasn’t until about ten years ago that it occurred to me that I could make it myself, I could learn to make it myself, and I started looking for someone to teach me.

I was looking specifically for a mentor in Ireland who knew how to make it and was willing to share a recipe with me. I suppose the idea that it would be exciting to bring something like that to market had crossed my mind, but that seemed very far off dream. My first step really was to think about making it myself as a hobby. By that time, I had been visiting Ireland on average of once a year, and I had become involved in the Irish American community in Colorado, and to some extent, nationally through Irish Network USA. I used to recruit Irish presenters for the International Conference that I worked on in Colorado.

I knew those people and I also have some family in County Clare. I reached out to everyone I could think of with a tie to Ireland or in Ireland. No one could think of anyone who’d be willing to talk to me.

After some time, an expat that I had met in Denver told me that the husband of one of his sisters had a cousin who used to be a bootlegger on the side and that person was willing to talk to me.

[He] was in the Glens of Antrim. I went to visit him on his farm, and he shared a recipe with me. I have been back to see him, and I’ve talked to him on the phone back when I was learning to make it, when I was experimenting with the recipe. I called him occasionally to ask questions.

Later I found out from his cousin that the person who taught me was the son of a man who was McIlhatton’s distilling partner, so the recipe that he gave me came from McIlhatton’s original recipe. There’s a song written about McIlhatton that’s been recorded by Christy Moore and covered by many other bands. You could say that McIlhatton is the most famous of Irish bootleggers and that his illegal hooch is the most famous of Irish moonshine.

McIlhatton you blurt we need you, cry a million shaking men
Where are your sacks of barley, will your likes be seen again?
Here’s a jig to the man and a reel to the drop and a swing to the girl he loves
May your fiddle play and poitín cure your company up above

So what are some of the things that other than trying to find someone to actually talk to you about the recipe what were some of the other challenges as you were experimenting?
The first big challenge was to get the still. I ordered one online. It came in machined sheets of copper. Of course, I had absolutely no clue how to solder them together. A friend introduced me to a neighbor of hers who knew about distilling and also happened to be an electrician; that person put it together for me.  

The next challenge was getting the fermentation process down. This included understanding the heat, the ambient heat in the room, and the type of yeast to use. Getting the fermentation to be not too fast, not too slow. That includes finding the right yeast and temperature.

The easiest way to explain it is to say you don’t want it to be too aggressive and you also don’t want it to be too slow. If that is done correctly, the smoothness is certainly a factor, yes. What I learned is that in the early 20th century, beet sugar became readily available and affordable in Ireland; the most enterprising bootleggers who wanted to make the smoothest poitín learn to add a little beet sugar and a little treacle, or what we call molasses, to the mash in order to smooth it out. I want to be clear that that’s not infused in the final liquid.

My poitín is not sweet, but the mash is smoothed out with beet sugar and molasses. That’s why this isn’t just White Dog. White Dog is unaged whiskey. I think of white lightning as coming from an American corn mash.

I can’t describe how exciting and delightful it is to see the liquid come out during the distillation process and that I don’t make it personally anymore outside of commissioning it to be done bespoke for me at the distillery in County Down, so that’s the only place Smuggling Nun is made now. When I was perfecting the recipe, seeing that liquid come out never lost its thrill. It’s magical.

I decided to go all in with the business during the pandemic. It was a “if not now, when?” moments. I worked with the distillery back in County Down remotely. They sent samples to me in the States, and we gradually came to the final scaled up formula.

I had to go through the process of building the brands, including the package design with designers, and submitting the formula and the labels for approval by the TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau). I had to find an importer, a warehouse, and a company that would do my initial distribution in at least a few states.

Poitín in Thirty States
I can ship to thirty states; a list is on my website. It is in some liquor stores and bars in New York and Connecticut. The biggest factor [in brand awareness] is social media at this point.  In the New York metro area word of mouth is significant because I’m very involved in Irish American business organizations in New York City. The Irish Network USA community has been very supportive too.

Federal Express handles the shipping. Luckily there are companies who specialize in doing this.

There are three ways that I suggest trying Smuggling Nun. If it’s a pub that regularly serves cocktails, the Dublin Donkey is popular – that’s a Moscow Mule made with poitín. Another version is the Belfast Coffee, which is a cold press Irish coffee – it’s not hot, it’s a cold press Irish coffee with poitín in it, and cream floated on top. A more basic way to enjoy it is what we call a Black & White, which is a glass of stout and a shot of poitín.  You alternate sipping each.

Smuggling Nun is not intended for shots; it’s a premium poitín. it’s got a lot of flavor. Sipping it is recommended. I think is good because when people are wrapping their heads around what poitín is like, and how to use it, so many people are familiar with mules, they get that right away.

What are some of the things that have really surprised you and people’s response to it?
I guess how surprised people are by it, by the story, by the taste of it; that’s exactly what surprised and fascinated me from the beginning; how this amazing, distilled spirit has been such a secret for so long and how good it is. Especially for the Irish and Irish Americans, to think that the spirit of Ireland which is poitín is not celebrated the way it should be is something that needs to be corrected.

I know that the other Irish poitín producers feel the same way that I do about this. We are all getting together on November 20th to do the first ever poitín conference and tasting. It is called Poitín Now.

I occasionally run into an expat and sometimes they express doubt of about the authenticity, until they try it and inevitably, they always say, Oh yeah that’s the stuff

In a blind test would you know your whiskey?
Yes, both by the scent and the flavor. It’s completely intoxicating, but I don’t mean that literally. To this day, when I’m doing a tasting, between visitors I just inhale the scent from the bottle because it’s so entrancing to me. As far as the flavor, it’s very hard to describe. The best I can do is to say that because of the malted barley, there is a slow warmth that spreads out on your tongue. There is just a subtle hint of smokiness. It is because it’s premium and very smooth. It doesn’t hit the back of your throat.

Since poitín was unregulated for centuries and there were people making it who didn’t know how or didn’t care about making it properly, there was a wide range in the quality. There’s is just a complete fallacy that poitín can’t taste wonderful. If it’s properly made it’s delicious.

One of its properties is that it’s got strength. That was one of the things that we focused on in developing the final formula. We wanted to make it as strong as we could, without giving up any flavor. 45ABV (Alcohol By Volume) was the ticket – not 46, not 44.

With every version, we were focused on finding the exact right ABV (the ABV, when doubled, is the proof. Either way both appear on the label). I always tell people that because Smuggling Nun has a strength and a flavor that stands up.

When making cocktails, it is not necessary to do a heavy-handed pour; you can adjust the amount of alcohol you’re adding to a mixed drink to reflect the strength that you choose to have. A poitín cocktail does not need to blow your socks off. It’s going to lose some of its impact if it’s too strong.

I have customers who enjoy drinking it straight, so I’d say it’s a matter of taste. Lower alcohol-content cocktails are gaining in popularity.  There is absolutely no reason if that’s what someone wants, why they can’t put 1/2 an ounce of Smuggling Nun in a cocktail, rather than 1.5 ounces.

Where do you want to go with Smuggling Nun next? What is your journey?
I’m very much looking forward to expanding into other markets in the United States, as well as being available in Ireland. I’m looking forward to working with distributors to see the potential for poitín as a category and want to partner with Smuggling Nun to really put poitín on the map. I’m looking forward to working with other Irish poitín producers to raise awareness of the category. I feel very lucky to be working in a realm that’s collaborative and cooperative and friendly, rather than focused on competition.

If there is one thing I’ve learned about this whole experience, and maybe this was even more true because it was born during the pandemic, I’ve had to learn to remain very flexible and open to different opportunities that have been presented. I’ve learned to pivot and pivot and pivot, and I have no doubt that will continue. I think that’s just the terrain now, and even mure so when dealing with what’s considered a new category of distilled spirits. What is ironic is that it’s the oldest or one of the oldest categories/types of distilled spirits, but it’s also the newest thing on the liquor scene.

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