Poitín, Anglicised as poteen or potcheen, is an alcoholic drink that has been in Irish life for as long as humans have been on this island. To get an idea about how powerful it is, consider this: it is also used to clean machinery. It is like a light sneaky rain that is always on the edge of turning into a malevolent storm in your bathroom.
Nicole Buckler reports.
Most Irish people are familiar with the alcoholic beverage Poitín. These days, it is made commercially and therefore safe in small amounts. But, there are still people who make poitín themselves in illegal stills. It is this brand of poitín that you need to tread carefully around. For those who are yet to be initiated, it is the kind of booze that you consume knowing that if it all goes wrong you will lose the use of your eyeballs and end up in a jail cell somewhere in your underwear.
We asked the public, what did you think of poitín when you tried it?
– I started drinking poitín. All I know is that I woke up in the morning needing new furniture.
– After a night of drinking poitín, I came down in the morning to see the bottoms of the plastic cups had burned out.
– The poitín I tried was flavoured with strawberries and cloves to take the really bad taste away. It didn’t work.
– It was my drink of choice one night and I ended up sleeping in a bath.
– I used to have a 500ml bottle of the stuff. It took me months to drink it. And God! The hangovers! I now use it to clean the walnut wood table.
– My father once told me when he was young he was told to drink up a small shot of it. He didn’t want to lose face, so he slammed it down. Straight away he fell off his chair and power-puked all over the room. He never touched the stuff again.
– My granny lived until age 99, and she said it was God and poitín that kept her alive.
– Poitín is some of the most foul stuff I’ve ever had, it’s just plain awful. It smells like sugared nappy rash.
– The label should say, “Do not expose to flame, extremely flammable.” You’d think the Irish would already know that however.
– Poitín is not the same when it’s legal. It needs to come from some shady character up a mountain somewhere or in bandit country.
– Be careful: it’s vodka on steroids. Test it neat by all means, but drink it with your favourite additive straight after that.
– Last time I bought a jar out I fell asleep on the lawn and woke up at 6:30am in a light drizzle.
-It snuck up on me like a ninja. Next thing I knew I was on my roof.
– You get your eyesight back after only three days.
– Tasted like hell, felt like hell the next day too. Me and my builder passed out after drinking a bottle at 8pm. Five stars.
– It’s a punch in the face, throat and stomach.
– This stuff would take the fur off a running bear.
For those who have not yet experienced the sweet pain that is poitín, it is a traditional Irish beverage that your uncle from Wicklow will be able to describe to you. It is highly alcoholic (60%-95% ABV). The name poitín actually comes from the Irish word pota, which means “pot.” There are a few reasons for this. Poitín was the poor person’s drink. Unlike the large whiskey distillers, who had stills the size of luxury mansions like Bono’s, poitín was distilled in a small pot still. That way, the still could be made from anything available, and secondly, it could be hidden during times that poitín was outlawed.
There is no definitive record of when poitín came to life in Irish history. But of course humans were making alcoholic beverages almost as soon as they left the trees. So it is hardly a surprise that the early Irish worked out that barley grains could serve them well in this respect. While there is no official start date for poitín brewing, there are some passing references to it around the time St Patrick’s monks started putting quills to velum.
Before the arrival of potatoes to the Emerald Isle, poitín was made from barley. It was soaked for a day in a large barrel of water to signal germination. The grain was then spread out on the floor near the fire to dry and ripen. When it first began to bud, it was ground up, dried further and put into the mash barrel. This is where individual recipes came into play. Some poitín brewers could add yeast, while other were happy to let the natural yeast work away and do its thing. It stayed in its barrel home for up to a month, depending on the brewer’s preference. Then it was ready for the still. The liquid was drained off and put into the pot. The brewer would get the fire roaring, and the rest of the work did itself.
The initial part of the mix, called the fusel oils, are thought to be highly toxic. If you want to keep your eyesight and don’t want to drop dead after the first slammer then avoid it. This bit was always dumped onto the ground, for the “faerie folk” who probably appreciated it deeply until they had to live through a week-long hangover with no eyebrows. Many people have said that they have seen it burn a hole into the earth and out the other side again.
What was left after the first dumping was then bottled and corked super-tight. And, it was hidden in the bogs and in dark damp places that the law enforcers couldn’t find. You could probably still to this day stumble across a well-aged stash in a mountain cave if you looked hard enough.
While many people think that poitín was only ever made from potatoes, this isn’t true. Potato poitín was a recent invention, made subsequent to the introduction of the potato in the 16th Century. But once the potato was our friend, there was no going back. Potatoes are starchy and perfect for the job.
These days, we all have six degrees of separation from someone who still makes their own poitín. It’s not just made from potatoes, it can be made from a variety of things, including just sugar. While smoother and sweeter, many old timers say that it does not have the taste of the old poitín. The older recipes have been perfected over time, and the enjoyment is in the smoky sweet aftertaste that you don’t get in modern brews made from sugar. It was the turf fires, according to many fans, that give the poitín its soul and flavour. While the brew is steeped in legend and republican myth, the long of the short of it is that it is one of the strongest alcoholic beverages in the world and its fame precedes it.
For centuries poitín was illegal in Ireland. It was outlawed in 1661. There are a few opinions as to why these laws came into force. It was a lethal brew that caused death and drunkenness and blindness when it went wrong. It was entirely too strong and caused problems in 17th Century society. However other people will say that when the invading British introduced excise duty, the authorities found it impossible to collect tax on poitín. No amount of regulation could persuade the Irish to give up their inexpensive homemade brews. So it was outlawed completely, causing production to go underground.
During time of prohibition, it was difficult to make poitín on the sly. Large clouds of smoke rose over the land as the peat fires burned. So brewers took to making it on days where winds were high and smoke could disperse easily. The stills were placed on borders of property so the authorities could never prove who owned the still. And they were hidden on mountains, in caves, and even in boats on lakes. Despite all the hassle that came with production, it was common for communities to let widows do the poitín distilling to grant them a source of income.
The Irish have always considered poitín a necessary item at weddings and wakes, because it could be distributed without a lot of expense. Even today, when you go to a country funeral, a few bottles of poitín will turn up on the kitchen table, anonymously.
Poitín is very entrenched in Irish culture, so much so that the first fully Irish-language feature film, made in 1978 was called Poitín. The story involved an illegal distiller, and is set in the remote wilds of Connemara. In fact so important is poitín to Irish culture, that in 1997, the Irish Revenue Commissioners withdrew their opposition to poitín being sold under license in the Republic of Ireland (poitín remains illegal in Northern Ireland). In 2008, Irish Poitín was accorded (GI) Geographical Indicative Status by the EU Council and Parliament.
Now in 2016, two Irish distillers hold licenses to produce poitín, Knockeen Hills, and Bunratty. Their products aren’t quite the rough illegal poitín produced in the past. Bunratty is 45% ABV, far weaker than illegally distilled poitín. Knockeen Hills however, comes in at 90% ABV, which puts it right up there with traditionally-brewed poitín. This brew is not for beginners. In fact, it is not for anyone who is scared of any shade of hangover. But it is a great way to sample the legend that is poitín.
So now, if you know a bloke who knows a bloke who hands you a bottle of the good stuff, then accept it. And hopefully it isn’t the type of poitín that burns a hole through the bottom of the cup. Or your face. Go well.