Puttin’ On Poitín

Everyone has a friend who claims some percentage of Irish descent, with the number typically rising sharply when a pint of Guinness or Harp is being poured. I was at a dinner party last week, hosted by none other than Siobhán and Sinéad, Irish lassies through and through, and after a potato-heavy main course, they broke out the Poitín among raucous cries of sláinte!

For those not familiar with the tipple, Poitín is a distilled spirit that has traditionally been known as Irish Moonshine, and was an early precursor of what we now call Irish Whiskey, and dates back to the first century CE on the Emerald Isle.

Poitín takes its name from the Gaelic word for pot, as it was traditionally distilled in a small pot still, and is sometimes anglicized to poteen or potcheen. Irish distillers were early adopters of the column still when it was invented in 1830, quickly replacing the older and simpler pot still, due to its higher efficiency and cleaner flavours, but Poitín production is still anchored firmly in the older pot still, giving it a harsher and less refined finish.

In a nutshell, Poitín is an unabashedly unaged spirit, similar to hillbilly moonshine from Alabama, so was traditionally bottled immediately after distillation, without any time spent mellowing in oak barrels to take the rough edges off the spirit. Modern distillers of Poitín opt for a more refined approach, keeping the traditional pot still, but aging in oak for a smoother finish to meet modern consumer preferences.

In the grand tradition of sticking to the Irish, the English aristocracy outlawed Poitín in 1661, after His Majesty’s Revenue Service found that close to 0% of the Poitín distillers were paying taxes to the crown, which drove the small distillers underground, cooking up wee batches in secret stills hidden away from the watchful eyes of the revenue collectors, similar to my own private still, hidden in the reeds down at the end of the lake.

Poitín only became legal again in 1997, and despite being outlawed for three centuries, bounced back quickly, with skilled distillers coming out of the woodwork, and boasting ready-to-bottle stocks that had already been aging in oak for years. How this happened remains a mystery to the revenue collectors, but was greeted with much vim and vigour by the tippling masses.

Thanks to its clandestine past, and its origins as a precursor to modern distillation techniques, Poitín ingredients are much more varied than what we now call Irish Whiskey, which is almost always made from 100% barley. In no small part due to the Irish hillbillies in charge of production, Poitín was made from pretty much any available cereal grain, or starchy alternatives like corn, potatoes or sugar beets, with little regard to consistency from batch to batch, often covering off-flavours with herbs or botanicals to mask defects in the mashing process.

The Poitín available today has left its shady past behind, and is now recognized as a legitimate and upstanding beverage, and a close cousin, or perhaps grand-uncle to Irish Whiskey. Here in Canada, we have a few Poitín brands imported directly from Ireland, but thanks to the Irish diaspora, fully 14% of Canadians claim full or partial Irish descent, so we have domestic expertise in producing our own Poitín-styled hooch domestically, and several of our Canadian craft distillers have done just that.

If you would like to sample Poitín directly from the source, Mad March Hare Irish Poitín is imported directly from the Emerald Isle, and available in well-stocked booze merchants in Alberta. For a domestic example, look no further than to our western neighbour, the BC-based Victoria Caledonian Distillery, and their Oaken Poitín, made in the traditional Irish style, and then aged in small Portuguese red wine barriques for 3 years to meet Canadian whiskey regulations, and also widely available here in Alberta.

Instead of the traditional harsh flavours of an unaged spirit, the Oaken Poitín is mellowed by its time in the used red wine casks, extracting notes of spicy vanilla from the oak, and hints of honey and apricot from the red wine embedded in the oaken fibres. A bit pricey at $120, this does reflect both its unique nature, as well as an uptick in price from winning best in category at the 2021 World Whiskies Awards, so I consider myself lucky that Siobhán and Sinéad poured generously at their dinner party!

If you are hesitant to spring for an entire bottle, Poitín is commonly found by the wee dram at Irish pubs everywhere, so ask your friendly bartender!

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Nick Jeffrey

Nick Jeffrey

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