Text and Photos by Caroline Miller
The Great Wagon Road Distilling Company in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood is the first distillery in North Carolina to have its own bar, The Broken Spoke. My friends and I wandered into The Broken Spoke one summer afternoon after enjoying a delicious pint at Sugar Creek Brewery next door. As I perused the drink offerings, I was surprised and delighted to see poitín listed on the menu. Poitín (often Anglicized as potcheen or poteen) is an un-aged whiskey made illegally for centuries in Ireland from cereals, potatoes, grain, molasses, or sugar beet—essentially, Irish moonshine.
Owner Ollie Mulligan, of County Kildare, Ireland, has a tradition of poitín making in his family that goes back generations. In fact his grandfather, Patrick Quinn, was charged with illegal possession and production of poitín in the town of Drumlish, County Longford from which The Great Wagon Road poitín gets its name. Ollie bases his 100 proof poitín off of the same recipe his grandfather used. As I discovered after careful personal research, it is far smoother and sweeter than is often expected from an un-aged whiskey.
Although the influence of Ollie’s homeland is apparent throughout the distilling company and The Broken Spoke, it compliments influences of his new North Carolina home. The name of the distillery itself refers to the road that brought Scotch-Irish immigrants from Pennsylvania to the piedmont of North Carolina in the mid-18th century. The labels of the Drumlish bottles feature the word “Poteen” just above the phrase “Carolina Whiskey: Made in the USA.” All of this is placed on top of a background that incorporates a newspaper article about his grandfather’s court appearance for the poitín related charges.
North Carolina’s moonshining tradition has even had a hand in ensuring the quality of the Drumlish poitín. The process of proofing—adding water to a spirit to lower the percent alcohol by volume––depends largely on the mineral content of the water used, and greatly affects the taste of the whiskey. So in order to determine where the Great Wagon Road Distillery would get their spring water, Ollie sampled moonshine made from multiple locations with freshwater springs before deciding on one spring to purchase.
The Great Wagon Road offers tours during which visitors can sample all of the spirits that the distillery produces. In addition to Drumlish, the distillery also makes a vodka called Bán and ages some of its Drumlish in new American white oak barrels to create an American single malt whiskey called Rúa. During the distillery tour, visitors see that these spirits are not made in the simple small pots, or “pota,” that give poitín its name. Instead their main still is a large German-made copper still complete with modern touch-screen controls.
After the tour, visitors can enjoy a cocktail and live music next door in the spacious but cozy Broken Spoke bar. Some of their specialty drinks incorporate the Drumlish, taking un-aged whiskey away from its association with backwoods moonshining and incorporating it into cocktails to be enjoyed in an urbane yet not at all pretentious setting. The distillery has taken poitín, a spirit often defined by its illicitness, and made it available legally in any ABC store and used in sophisticated cocktails. The Drumlish poitín of The Great Wagon Road Distilling Company serves as an example of how food and drink culture are constantly adapting to fit the needs of those for which they have meaning.