Tuesday 4 March 2014

Poitín: Irish moonshine comes out of the shadows

Sam MacDonald gives us a history of poitín
To Kentish Town last night and a subterranean bar called Shebeen, for an evening swilling poitín (or poteen, pronounced pot-CHEEN), the notorious Irish white spirit which bar owner Dave Mulligan is championing wholeheartedly.

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 sounds like a strange state of affairs, akin to the way Prohibition was enforced in the US. In any town the local gardaí will probably know who makes the stuff but are unlikely to do anything about it unless leaned upon to make some token arrests. Dave tells us of a seizure made not so long ago where the officers tasted the contraband and realised how good it was. Loathe to destroy it, they placed a container under the pipe from the sink and decanted it through—so that they could tell the judge, in all honesty, that they dutifully poured all the poitín down the sink.

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
In fact it was made legal to produced poitín for export—properly licensed, of course—in 1988, and for sale in Ireland in 1997, hence the range of poitíns on the back bar at Shebeen. Dave says that when he started the bar he was planning to do classic cocktails and Irish whiskeys, but back home in Ireland he was telling his father about his new venture and the old man poured him a slug of poitín and suggested he tried it. Dave couldn’t believe no one was embracing this category and decided to make it his mission. It took eight months to gather together all the legal examples they could find and poitín cocktails now make up a third of the menu.

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
So we try three commercial products. First up is Ban, Dave’s own brand. It’s made for him by West Cork Distillers from 80% malted barley and 20% sugar beet. It has a strong, curious nose, smoky and vinous, with a hint of rubber in the same way that Reislings sometimes have. It tastes of toasted wheat or corn, with a slight sourness on the finish that I come to think of as characteristic of poitín. Although there are some examples at 40% ABV, most poitíns are stronger—this one is 52.7%, but is remarkably smooth given the alcoholic strength.

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
A bottle of Vestal Vodka also comes out, and you can see why, as it is quite similar. Vestal highlight the fact that it is only distilled once, hence the range of extra flavours that are retained compared to many super-clean vodkas. However, this does not seem to be the case with poitín—I think that much of it is twice distilled. Knockeen Hills is tripled distilled, apart from the 90% which is quadruple-distilled.

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.