Recipe for Moonshine
This recipe for moonshine was traditionally produced in a pot still (the Irish term for this smooth moonshine whiskey – poitín – translates as ‘little pot’, see Note 1), with the constituent parts being: the main pot (vessel), with a wooden cap atop, the arm, and a worm (coil) placed inside a wooden vat. While today these pieces are typically made from copper, the Irish peasant would have distilled their poitin in stills built from the cheapest metal available: tin.
For the more well-to-do, the pot (and perhaps the arm) were made from copper, but the worm would’ve been the only copper mainstay across the board. Which was handy as, once the distilling of this mystical Irish liquor was done, the poitin still was quickly disassembled and the parts hidden around the countryside. Often underwater, in a local bog or river. It’s easy to provide an alternative explanation for having a copper pot, less so a copper coil. In making this easy moonshine recipe, it’s advisable to use such a pot still, but a modern column/reflux still is also suitable.
For more on the culture and traditions surrounding this ancient Irish drink, Check out our in-depth article Poteen: The Irish Liquor. We do a deep dive into the origins of poitin and the history of (illicit) distilling in the Irish countryside. For in truth it’s not just a drink, it’s a slice of heritage. Encapsulating the Irish soul.
Because knowing the intriguing history behind poteen makes your homemade version taste even better!
The list of what has found its way into the ‘authentic’ Irish moonshine recipe is an extensive one. Even today, poitin is made using various different ingredients. Poitin is also renowned for its broad range of quality, from the elixir of the gods to certain death in a shot glass. So it is with folk recipes. And just as with many Irish dishes, the recipe for moonshine is easy and flexible at heart.
Because times were tough, you made your poitin recipe from whatever you had. Just like your family’s Irish potato soup or preferred recipe for Dublin coddle emerged from the ingredients you had on hand, so too was it with your particular take on moonshine whiskey. What’s more, your poitin not only reflected your level of expertise, but also your level of affluence, containing as it did that which you could afford to spare. And that also varied greatly.
In fact, the range of ingredients for poitin was even broader than those of even the most traditional Irish food recipes, with each input defined by one essential feature: its ability to produce sugars which could be turned into alcohol. Milk whey, sugar, treacle, sugar beet pulp, any grains you could afford.
It all depended on whatever was going at the time. Poitin was of course by tradition a product of malted barley, but centuries of protracted restriction, taxation and, ultimately, prohibition, meant that in practice the Irish liquor was made using various combinations of base ingredients.
Irish potatoes for Irish moonshine
For the impoverished tenant farmer living on 7 lbs of spuds per day, this often meant working Irish potatoes into the mix. You used whatever you could get your hands on. The best moonshine was costly to produce and included large quantities of oats.
But as it so happens your loyal horse Irish Moonshine has just been taken to the knacker’s yard prematurely, leaving behind his retirement nest egg without an appointed heir. What better way to honor the oath he took to you than by you taking the oats he honored? Irish shots ringing out in salutation of the fallen.
The general rule for what made it into your moonshine recipe was: if you could spare it, it went into the poitin still.
Easy Moonshine Recipe
This easy recipe for moonshine uses potatoes and malted barley for the base. Either of these could be used by itself or in tangent with other ingredients, but the processes involved will be similar. The quantities we used produced a smallish batch, but if you’ve a shindig coming up and need more on the Irish drinks front that cane be accomodated.
Simply keep the same proportions as you make the necessary adjustments to quantity. Including table sugar helps to up the yield, so count on about half a US gallon (2 litres) of end product at 100 proof (50% ABV) from the quantities given below.
Ingredients for Moonshine Whiskey
Makes enough poitin for a small, spirited gathering
- 1 1/2 packets (21 g (3/4 oz) distiller’s yeast; turbo yeast will do a swift job, but it’s not recommended
- 30 lb Potatoes
- 3 lb Malted Barley
- 2 lb White Sugar
- 2 1/2 US gallons (10 litres) high-quality water
- Water for Cooling
For the unacquainted, the wash, or wort, is simply your base, unfermented liquid. The first step in this recipe for moonshine is to ferment your cereals, by brewing them as you would during the beer making process. Although poitin is quite a versatile creature and many types of cereals can be used, the best moonshine traditionally had barley as its backbone. And with good reason, barley contains a high amount of enzymes, meaning there’s lots of lovely starch to be converted into fermentable sugars, and ultimately into potent Irish liquor.
You can use different types of barley, standard malted barley or ale often feature in the best moonshine recipes. The most important thing is that it should be sprouted and not spray-dried as the drying process tends to wipe out a lot of the enzymes. In the past, the peasant would’ve dunked the grain in a bog then dried it in a kiln he’d built into the Irish countryside specifically for this purpose.
1. Malt your Barley by soaking in water overnight (8 hours); a sterilized Fermentation Bucket is a hospitable place for it to pass the night-time hours. Next morning, Spread out the grain on a clean surface in a shallow layer, leaving it to Sprout. This process will take about 4 to 5 days. You should Turn the barley each day, ensuring the air dries it evenly. [Skip this step if you’re not malting the barley yourself.]
2. Crush the barley. Use a Mill, but make sure you don’t grind it too finely. You want a rough consistency, and can even do it by hand if you’ve got a bit of elbow grease about you. Traditionally the poteen maker performed this part using a mill stone and the fighting Irish spirit (so don’t whine).
3. Taking an adequately sized Brewing Pot, Precook your Potatoes. Irish potatoes are nutritious little vitamin rocks, so pop them into a pot for 12 minutes on medium heat. Scrubbed clean and chopped into chunks, but unpeeled. Parboiling the potatoes will take that hard edge off. Discard the water once the time is up and Mash the spuds.
4. Given the ingredients, Step Mashing works best. Place the potatoes and the malted barley in your brewing pot and Cover with good quality Water. Bring the pot to 113 F (45 C) and Hold at that temperature for 15 minutes, Stirring it often to prevent sticking.
5. Crank up the heat to 131 F (55 C) and Hold for another 15 minutes. Do this again at 149 F (65 C), and a final 15 minutes at 158 F (70 C). Stirring all the while.
6. The starches should at this point have all broken down, Increasing the temperature to 176 F (80 C) will finish the process. As soon as you hit 176 F, quickly Reduce to a temperature where the Yeast can be pitched (ideally to around the 70 F (21 C) mark). If you’ve a proper cooling setup, this isn’t a chore. Otherwise, get out the ice buckets and garden hoses, there are various methods. Stir the Sugar into your wort and make sure it has dissolved before you begin the cooling. The specific gravity should be in the 1.070 range.
7. Transfer to your Carboy/Fermentation Bucket. Pitch your yeast, adding it to the liquid and stirring to help the little yeasties on their way. The toiling Irish poitin maker would’ve used bread yeast back in the day, but thanks to the wonder of globalization things like distiller’s yeast can make short work for you. Using turbo yeast is not advisable, but if you do decide to use it, opt for the classic rather than the ultra-rapid fermentation at the speed of microwaving they’re selling you.
8. Close your vessel and add an Airlock. Allow to Ferment for several days; if you are using turbo yeast it’ll be done pretty soon. You’ll know it’s ready when you no longer hear it Gurgling. (If you haven’t heard the voice of brew belching or it has petered out too soon, fermentation may be stuck or your yeast may have died, Give it a Shake or two.)
9. Once fermentation has finished, Siphon off the majority of what’s in your bucket and transfer to your still. This will be about 80-85% of the contents – leave the bottom part where it is, there is a reason it has sunk so low, it’s of bad character and thus can be of no further use to you in your valiant quest for the best moonshine.
10. Now to the business end of this recipe for moonshine, Distilling all that lovely Irish alcohol. To prevent his sweetheart from escaping, the poteen maker of old sealed up all the joints of the poitin still with an oatmeal paste, and filled the cap with water. Best moonshine tactics also included erecting the poitin still on common grounds, to aid denial of ownership, and using only the driest of turf for the flame, as it produced less smoke (and thus less visitors coming to inquire as to your position regarding illegal potcheen making).
As always you’ll want to keep the fire burning strong and Discard the first liquid produced. This is methanol. This is known to hamper vision. As the still gets up to full heat, the evaporating liquid produces this methanol (as its boiling point is 148.5 F), before the ethanol (with a higher boiling point of 172.8 F) starts to come through. Methanol occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, but consuming it in large quantities can make you pretty sick, and in concentrated quantities induce serious health effects (See Note 2 below on helping to ensure safe distilling).
11. Now its time to Pop your fermented liquid into your gleaming, stellar and sterilized still. Irish moonshine is traditionally run through the poitin still twice, testing the ‘singling’ of the first run to see when the run has come to an end. You do this by throwing a glass of it on the fire. If it ignites, the run is still ongoing. For the punchiest of final products you can quadruple distill, but the alcohol content of poteen is already quite high. In fact, your bigger concern will be diluting it down to more quaffable levels, for those of your companions still with soft mouths (but wicked tongues).
12. The potent first pint of ‘doubling’ (the second run) that came out of the poitin still, the ‘pure drop’, was traditionally set aside for medicinal purposes, to treat arthritis and other ailments. Carry out the fire test again with the doubling, but when it does no longer ignites continue to collect the watery ‘feint’ coming out. Use this to proof the poteen to your desired level of alcohol content and dilute further with water as necessary.
13. Pour the first shot of your potcheen into a glass held in your right hand, then Throw the contents over your left shoulder. As you do, Invite the faeries to drink and issue Words of Praise. With a bit of luck, they will be appeased, your illicit act overlooked and your children spared retributive misfortune.
14. Bottle your creature for later or drink this unaged potato whiskey like a peasant of old, all in one great night of Irish shots and shindigging – so as to quickly destroy the evidence, and get back to acting like a law-abiding potato farmer.
15. Made in the traditional way, this recipe for moonshine produces that infamous Irish liquor poitín, unaged whiskey, or ‘white whiskey’. But if you’ve got a nice wooden cask hanging about, feel free to throw in your Irish moonshine for a few years. You’ll get to play Jehovah, turning what looks like water into what tastes like a top Irish drink. The continuing denomination of ‘poitin’ as opposed to (a kind of) whiskey or perhaps ‘potato whiskey’, is a mite confusing it could be said. Despite their many admirable attributes, Irish peasant farmers knew little about (non-livestock) branding.
16. Infusing poteen with fruits or various flavorings is common practice these days, with many home distillers using various kinds of boiled sweets (hard candies) for this purpose. Simply crush them up a little, then leave the sweets to gradually dissolve into the (bottled) poitin.
Distilling may be illegal or subject to license in your location, do inform yourself concerning local regulations before undertaking private distilling.
Note 1. The various English versions (‘poitin’ (without the fada on the ‘i’), ‘poteen’, ‘potcheen’, ‘potheen’, etc.) are all bastardizations of the original Irish term.
Note 2. Moonshining is generally quite a safe pursuit. Provided you know what you’re doing, you’re in essence performing the same process as a commercial distillery. The problem is that the (novice) distiller doesn’t always understand what exactly it is they’re doing, or are bootleggers loath to throw away any of their merchandise. Do of course do your own further due diligence, but tossing the first 3 oz (90 ml) of liquid from the still would be appropriate. Irish Buzz is in love with your eyes: we encourage you to keep them safe (and (moon)shining).
If in doubt, the flame test is always fun to do. Simply Set the liquid alight: if the flame is yellow it’s methanol, if blue it’s ethanol. Or, if that’s too many -thanols and shades to remember – and your brain happens to be part of a human, rather than a repository for some kind of alcoholic carpet sample book – simply recall the rhyme:
If it’s yellow, it’ll blind a fellow. If it’s red, it’s full of lead. If it’s blue, it’s good for you!
..in a more general sense, similar to the way Guinness is “good” for you.