Quick, name three things you can make out of a potato.
“I’m a big fan of collaborations with people outside of the industry as opposed to the brewery collaboration,” says Bent Brewstillery owner Bartley Blume as he discusses the brewery-distillery’s latest distilled creation, an Irish poitín.
It’s not just the choice of spirit that makes their poitín interesting, though, it’s the source. The beverage starts with leftover potato peels from The Anchor Fish & Chips, in nearby Northeast Minneapolis. “This is probably the first distillery-restaurant collaboration in the state of Minnesota,” Blume said.
The collaboration provides The Anchor with a win-win situation: Recycle a product they don’t use and revive a spirit style from owners Kathryn Hayes and Luke Kyle’s homeland of Ireland. For Blume, it was an opportunity to work with a like-minded local business and the appeal of a challenge to create something new. The new spirit, which offers a smooth and earthy profile with a sweet finish and a hint of smoke, is set to debut mid-August. (Check back here or watch Bent Brewstillery’s social media channels for an official announcement.)
But how did the collaboration come to be in the first place? And why did they decide to produce a spirit largely unknown to the U.S. market?
The concept started when Anchor co-owner Kathryn Hayes sat down with Blume over a pint. The Anchor regularly sells Bent Brewstillery’s beers, so in a way they were already business partners. During the conversation, Blume recalls Hayes mentioning throwing away a lot of potato peels. “We put them in the compost, but there should be something interesting that you can do with those,” she told him. This steered the conversation to poitín and its long history.
While its Irish roots go back centuries, the U.S. government doesn’t have an official classification for poitín, which requires Bent to file it in the catch-all “specialty” category. The 40–80% ABV spirit is a clear, potato-based Irish moonshine. But don’t call it vodka. “It shares ingredients but it doesn’t share a flavor profile or origin,” Blume notes.
Although it became legal for export from Ireland in 1989, it still isn’t readily available in a commercial sense. “Irish poitín is really non-drinkable,” says Anchor co-owner Luke Kyle, who samples it from time to time when he travels home. “It’s made with one mission only,” he notes. “Last time I was in Galway, I wouldn’t even swallow it. I just spat it out—and I don’t usually spit out booze. A friend of mine, on the other hand, took that bottle and I didn’t see him for a couple of days.”
Production of the spirit means reduced waste and expense for Anchor and aligns with their focus on sustainability practices. “If Bartley can take this thing that’s just going back to the earth and turn it into gold, why not?” Kyle expands. “Instead of paying someone to take them away, we’re getting paid in a sense.”
A batch of Bent Brewstillery’s poitín starts with roughly 10 five-gallon buckets of potato peels, or about one pound per bottle. “With the rumors I’d heard about poitín being harsh and like moonshine,” Blume explains, “I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to produce. I wanted to make something that tasted good. I wanted to create something unique and sip-able as opposed to moonshine, which is something where you hold your nose and shoot it back.”
To do so, Blume began experimenting with a bucket of peels from the restaurant. “Being able to use the peels is a huge part of the flavor of this spirit,” he says, noting that’s where a potato’s flavor lies. However, he had difficulty getting the right fermentable qualities in test washes so, on a whim, he added molasses to give the spirit more body. “Just by luck of the draw it came out to be something really good,” he says. The liquor also passed Kyle’s test. “Bartley did a great job of making something that was an old traditional way to make liquor but actually make it taste good,” he says.
As a relatively unknown spirit on the market, marketing the drink will bring a few challenges. Those familiar with traditional poitín may be afraid to shell out craft prices for a drink known more for its intoxicating properties than its flavor. Those unfamiliar with the spirit won’t know how to drink it. While Blume always distills with neat consumption in mind, he says he’s planning to include cocktail recipes on Bent Brewstillery’s website to promote the new offering.
Another challenge comes into play on liquor store shelves, where the clear, potato-based liquor doesn’t have an obvious place on the shelves. Although it’s sometimes confused with vodka, Blume thinks the poitín fits better next to Irish whiskey. Along with stores, Blume also hopes to place the spirit in Irish establishments around the Metro, as well as in his usual distribution circles. Lacking a full liquor license, The Anchor unfortunately can’t actually sell the liquor at the restaurant. “We can cook with it,” Kyle says, adding that they regularly offer a tongue-twisting menu special, Poitín Poutine, to feature the spirit.
Always a fan of a challenge, Blume doesn’t seem fazed by the possible hurdles facing his newest product. “We’re always going to be making new and different things,” he says, promising more collaborations to come. He says he embraces the marketing challenge “because that’s the kind of stuff we’re going to do all the time.” It’s part of being a craft distillery. “I’ve got a list a mile long of the experiments I want to do,” he says, acknowledging production conflicts that will limit or delay them.
With The Anchor and Bent Brewstillery, though, “it’s just two companies that like each other and want to have fun,” he says. “This is the tip of the iceberg for us.” What’s next? “We’re talking to some other people to about doing some really cool collaborations, which are outside of the distilling world,” he says. For now, though, it’s the summer of poitín.