|Sam MacDonald gives us a history of poitín|
The name means “little pot”, referring to the small pot stills used. Back in the day poitín-making was a cottage industry and everyone had their own special recipe. Things really changed in 1661, we are told by Sam MacDonald, brand ambassador for the Teeling Whiskey Co., as he gives us a canter through the history of the spirit. In this year the British government changed the licensing laws (and Ireland was part of the UK in those days) to favour large corporate distilling concerns over smaller domestic-scale stills that were hard to tax. (Presumably the idea was to drive the smaller concerns out of business and encourage Irishmen to buy their liquor from big companies that could be properly taxed.) This didn’t seem to have the desired effect, so the next year the small pot stills themselves were outlawed.
There followed hundreds of years of cat-and-mouse between the garda and the poitín makers. Sam tells us that the laws encouraged the big distillers to emphasise speed and volume, leading to a drop in quality—meaning that the small-batch illicit products edged ahead of them in desirability. Production was (and still is) centred in the more remote western parts of the country, away from the authorities’ prying eyes. In 1820 the laws in Scotland were changed and duty cut by two thirds, which had the effect of encouraging many a moonshiner to go legit; not so in Ireland.
|Shebeen's small but tasteful interior|
It seems that even today poitín is an unspoken part of the fabric of life. Dave tells us of his first exposure, at the age of 11, when he went into the bakery where his mother worked and saw what he assumed was a bottle of water. The old women in the bakery could have stopped him quaffing from it but thought it more amusing to let him carry on. Perhaps it was considered a rite of manhood. He tells us of one uncle who never touched the beer or wine at family meals, but sat there clutching a glass of clear liquid. The young Dave didn’t know what it was but remembered the uncle’s face becoming redder as the evening went on.
|Dave with some examples: the three on the right |
are moonshine products in reused bottles
So if poitín is such a neglected category, what exactly is it? What are its defining characteristics? How does it differ from vodka? I think the simple answer is that it is unaged whiskey, traditionally made from malted barley in a pot still. Given the modern interest in small-batch distillation, as well as the trend for releasing “new make” or “white dog” whiskey, poitín’s time must surely have come. (In fact one example we surreptitiously tasted turns out to be an unofficial sample of unaged whiskey from one of the major producers—sure enough, this pre-ageing sample is, to all intents and purposes, poitín.)
But Dave’s answer to the question is different: the distinction he draws is that, whereas vodka, certainly as a category, very often seeks to produce a smooth, clean finished product—to remove the flavour, if you will—the tradition of poitín is all about creating flavours. And in fact the make-up of the mash can vary a great deal. Particularly when distillation went underground, people started making it from potatoes, treacle, sugar beet, even whey from milk (which is how Knockeen Hills is made). Dave tells how people traditionally added fruit or other flavourings to the mix.* Modern production poitíns may be made from grain rather than malt and may be produced in a column still rather than a pot.
|Dave's own brand. The name Bán sounds like a reference to|
illegality but in fact means "white" in Gaelic
Next we tried a poitín from the Teeling Whiskey Company (the Teeling family were behind Cooley which was recently sold to Beam). This 61.5% spirit smells more like vodka to me, fruity with cooked pears and apples, and a hint of powdered sugar. On the palate it reminds me of grappa (a good thing, in my opinion) and tastes strongly of pears, reminiscent of Poire William eau de vie.
Finally we taste Knockeen Hills Gold Extra Strength, which is bottled at 90% alcohol by volume. They are circumspect about how and to whom they serve this and I approach it with respect. Again it is fruity, with those pears again, and that slight sourness (am I imagining it, or is there a hint of milk?). It’s surprisingly palatable neat.
After this we are invited to approach the bar and try some illicit examples that Dave has collected in his travels. You can see them in the photo, but needless to say the bottles are all recycled from legit whiskies. One was a bottle that an old lady had had in a cupboard for years—Dave reckons it must date from the 1970s. I’m amazed by the sheer breadth of aromas and flavours here: wood, varnish, ink. One tastes strongly of apricots and almonds, another reminds me of the smell of the sea. All this could be down to the way it is distilled, or what went into it—no one knows how they were made.
|A tray of poitín Old Fashioneds is produced|
So how does poitín work in cocktails? You would expect something with so much flavour to work well; I think that they have gone to some extremes with the recipes but are currently regrouping and getting back to basics. I try a poitín Old Fashioned, and it works very well, the distinct flavour of the spirit sitting clearly and effectively with the sugar and bitters. (In fact I have to check with Dave that this is all there is in the mix.)
I can heartily recommend a trip to Shebeen, and I strongly expect that poitín will rapidly grow as a category.
* Dave freely admits that he doesn’t know exactly how any illicit poitín is made as people won’t talk. As a Dubliner he is viewed through most of Ireland with suspicion and assumed to be an official of some sort if he starts asking about poitín. Everyone seems to know someone who makes it, but no one ever admits to doing it themselves.