IRELAND HAS GIVEN us much, in terms of potables. For green-wearing day on March 17, we Americans are blessed with a fine array of themed drinks: Irish whiskey; Irish cream liqueur; black-and-tans for the conservative; or, for the classic, a pour of Ireland’s own Guinness Stout with, perhaps, a cloverleaf carved into the foam.
But Ireland has another local liquor that almost never shows up these days on St. Patrick’s Day menus on this side of the pond: poitín. Not to be confused with that particularly Canadian concoction of gravy-and-cheese-covered French fries (poutine), the drink in question is spelled, variously, poitín, poteen, potheen and even potcheen, and is pronounced (with a lilt, please) “puh-TEEN” or “puh-CHEEN.” Poitín is Ireland’s moonshine, the home-brew of the Emerald Isles.
Irish monks first distilled poitín — some say since the first century A.D.; others say as late as the sixth, depending on when Europeans learned to distill from the alembics of the alchemists, predating “whiskey” by centuries. It’s a humble spirit with a humble moniker, derived from the Irish word pota, meaning pot, the vessel used to make the drink.
People produced their own booze at will until 1556, when a license became required to produce it. The English then introduced a tax on alcohol on the decided unmerry date of Christmas Day 1661, rendering poitín essentially illegal. This measure, of course, resulted in a spike in production as people sought ways to get their tipple without paying a surcharge.
Poitín was made from anything: grain, potatoes, milk, tree bark — and generally was crafted in rural homes, where poor people burned turf (cut slabs of peat) for heat and to stoke their stills. To avoid alerting the authorities with the pungent smoke, they would wait until windy weather to do their distilling. The process subsequently was made legal again in 1997, and now even has its own fancy EU-recognized “Geographical Indicative” status.
To me, however, the concept of “commercially made poitín” is a bit fatuous, since making moonshine legally according to strict regulations defeats the whole concept of moonshine, much the way that Seattle’s many legal “speak-easies” are, by any real definition, just smallish bars (nice though they often are).
There is nothing particularly special about poitín to differentiate it from other clear spirits like, say, Everclear or vodka. The EU regulations that separate poitín from Irish whiskey seem mostly to separate it from whiskey in particular, although it sometimes is referred to as white whiskey.
While whiskey can contain only grain mash, poitín these days often is made from grain, sugar beets, molasses and/or potatoes (which, of course, no Irish monk before 1492 would have had access to) and is, by definition, unaged. If you want any semblance of “traditional” poitín, either make a friend in Ireland, or make it yourself, at your possible peril. (I do NOT advocate making home-brew moonshine to anyone. I don’t even make my own kombucha.)
Poitín was not always so scarce in America. Immigrants flooding to New York from Ireland during the 19th century brought their poitín recipes with them, and many a quintessential mountain moonshiner probably had an Irish grandfather. Poitín is relatively simple to produce (if you can rig up a still) and thus was a great favorite among poor immigrants in search of a cost-effective libation.
Poitín’s flavor profile is variously described as malty, earthy or grassy, so taste your bottle first before you decide how to use it in cocktails. Expect the higher ABV products in particular to be a bit harsh and, well … disinfectant-y. Like any moonshine, poitín is strong, and it can clock in between 40% to 90% ABV, so tread lightly. There’s even a word, poit, for a poitín-specific hangover, which is not the kind of green you want to sport on the morning of March 18.