Irish Poitín, also known as potcheen or poteen, or sometimes as Poutine, is a traditional Irish distilled beverage with a rich and intriguing history that dates back over a thousand years. This potent spirit, which is often compared to American moonshine, has been deeply ingrained in Irish culture and has played a significant role in the country’s social, economic, and political fabric.
Irish Poutine – A History
Poitín’s origins can be traced back to the 6th century, when early Irish monks began distilling alcohol using a rudimentary process. The term “Poitín” comes from the Irish word “pota,” meaning “pot,” which refers to the small copper pot stills used in the distillation process. Historically, Poitín was made from malted barley, potatoes, sugar beets, or even grains like oats, wheat, or rye, depending on local availability and preference.
Over the centuries, Irish Poutine gained popularity across Ireland and became a significant part of the informal economy. However, in 1661, the British Crown imposed a tax on distilled spirits, which led to widespread illegal production of Irish Poutine, primarily in rural areas. The spirit became an emblem of resistance against British rule and remained illegal for over three centuries. Despite its outlaw status, Poitín remained a significant part of Irish life.
Is Poitín legal in Ireland? Yes, but it wasn’t until 1997 that the Irish government lifted the ban on Poitín production, allowing it to be legally produced and sold once more. Today, Irish Poutine is experiencing a resurgence in popularity, with a new generation of craft distillers and enthusiasts rediscovering and celebrating the ancient spirit.
The Distillation Process
The traditional method of distilling Irish Poutine is a time-honored and intricate process that requires skill, patience, and attention to detail. While modern distilleries may use more advanced equipment, many of the core principles and techniques have remained unchanged for centuries.
The first step in creating Irish Poutine is fermentation. The base ingredients, such as malted barley or potatoes, are combined with water and yeast, allowing the mixture to ferment for several days. The yeast converts the sugars present in the ingredients into alcohol, resulting in a liquid called “wash” with a relatively low alcohol content.
Next comes the distillation process. The wash is heated in a copper pot still, causing the alcohol to evaporate. The evaporated alcohol, or vapor, travels through a coiled pipe called the “swan neck” and is cooled down, eventually condensing back into liquid form. This liquid, known as “low wines,” has a higher alcohol content than the original wash.
The low wines are then distilled a second time, further increasing the alcohol content and refining the spirit’s flavor profile.
The Role of Poitín in Irish Folklore and Traditions
Irish Poutine occupies a special place in Irish folklore and tradition, with many colorful stories and legends surrounding the spirit. In rural Ireland, Poitín was often considered a symbol of hospitality and camaraderie. It was common for households to have a hidden stash of Irish Poutine to share with neighbors or unexpected guests.
The illicit production of Poitín also lent itself to numerous tales of cunning and trickery. Distillers would go to great lengths to hide their operations from British authorities, often producing the spirit under the cover of darkness or in remote locations. This secretive nature gave rise to legends of “poteen men” who could expertly evade capture while producing high-quality spirits.
In addition to its social significance, Irish Poutine has played a role in Irish folk medicine and healing practices. The potent spirit was believed to have curative properties and was often used as a remedy for various ailments, such as colds, toothaches, and even arthritis. In some cases, Poitín was applied topically to alleviate muscle pain or mixed with herbs and other ingredients to create tonics and elixirs.
Furthermore, Irish Poutine has been associated with various Irish rituals and celebrations. For example, during the traditional Irish wake, Poitín would be served to mourners as a symbol of respect for the deceased and a way to share in the grieving process. The spirit was also consumed during important life events, such as weddings and christenings, as a means of fostering community spirit and toasting to good fortune.
Given its high alcohol content, Poitín is best enjoyed in moderation and with respect for its potency. Here are a few serving suggestions to help you appreciate the unique flavors and characteristics of this ancient Irish spirit:
- Neat or on the rocks: For those who appreciate the full, unadulterated flavor of Poitín, it can be served neat or over ice in a small glass. This method allows you to savor the spirit’s complex flavor profile and experience its warming effect.
- With a splash of water: Adding a small amount of water to Poitín can help to open up its flavors and reduce the intensity of the alcohol. This is a popular way to enjoy many high-proof spirits, as it allows the more subtle notes to shine through.
- In cocktails: Poitín’s distinct flavor and potency make it an excellent base for a variety of cocktails. Classic Irish cocktails, such as the Poitín Sour or the Irish Mule, showcase the spirit’s versatility and pair well with other ingredients. You can also experiment with your own cocktail creations, using Poitín as a substitute for other spirits like whiskey, vodka, or rum.
- Food pairings: When it comes to food, Poitín pairs well with hearty, flavorful dishes that can stand up to its intensity. Traditional Irish fare, such as soda bread, smoked salmon, or a hearty stew, can complement Poitín’s robust flavors. For something sweeter, try pairing Poitín with a rich chocolate dessert or a cheese board featuring strong, aged cheeses.
Poutine in Modern Times
In recent years, Poitín has experienced a revival, with a growing number of craft distilleries and enthusiasts embracing the spirit’s rich history and unique character. This resurgence has led to a greater appreciation for Poitín and a renewed interest in its production and consumption.
Modern Poitín distilleries are experimenting with innovative techniques and ingredients, pushing the boundaries of what Poitín can be. Some distillers are aging Poitín in oak barrels, similar to whiskey, to create a more rounded and complex flavor profile. Others are infusing Poitín with botanicals or fruits to create unique, flavored variations of the spirit.
This newfound interest in Irish Poutine has also led to its increasing presence in bars and restaurants across Ireland and beyond. Bartenders are embracing the spirit as a versatile and exciting ingredient in cocktails, helping to introduce Poitín to a new generation of drinkers. Glendalough Poitin is one of our favorites.
How strong is Irish Poitín?
Irish Poitín can range in strength from 40% to 90% alcohol by volume (ABV), depending on the distiller’s preference and technique. Its high alcohol content contributes to its reputation as a potent and powerful spirit.
Irish Moonshine Bust
Check out this hilarious video of a bust of an Irish Moonshine still in the 1960’s.