Poteen: The Irish Liquor
Poteen? What’s all this nonsense about? Everyone knows the national drink of Ireland is _ _ _ _ _ (_) _. Well, yes, Irish whiskey has traveled the world over, and is surely up there with the best of them. But, is it actually the national drink?
“Guinness!”, you cry! That iconic dark Irish beer fermenting deep in the marrow of a people. Perhaps. But that pushes whiskey even farther down the list then, because a ball of malt doesn’t even measure up as the national liquor. That accolade in fact belongs to the perfect madman spirit…Poteen (See Note 1).
So now that you have got it straight, perhaps a minor disclaimer: poteen is whiskey. At least when made in its original form, using malt barley as the base. Alas, the dwindling resources available to the everyman has seen this sweet Irish liquor veer away from aficionado single malts, made from only the fluffiest of local grains, towards alcohol ergonometry. Given a wide birth for decades, poitin has in recent years been making a notable comeback on the Irish drinks scene.
The poitín still, tucked away in some hidden corner of the Irish landscape, has become the stuff of lore. A legendary icon of the rebellious Irish spirit, typically set up by local farmers in the most secluded and inaccessible areas of the island. Places far from curious eyes, where you could quietly build a poitin still, get the fire burning, then leave it to pump out hearty raw whiskey. If the turf smoke drew unwanted attention, you just happened to be in the area, walking your favorite sheep Betty, and yes you did indeed note a funny smell in the air, officer.
For the true Irish liquor has always been a covert, domestic affair. And was usually drank as soon as possible. But before you start in on the reprehensible binge drinking of the Irish, it should be pointed out that there was a very good reason this Irish spirit was consumed with such breakneck gusto: To destroy the evidence.
Alas, potcheen is Irish moonshine. That’s why you brought Betty along..
With strict British Crown dominion of Ireland underway, in 1556 production of the Irish liquor was made subject to license. However, unable to successfully tax or restrict it, poteen-making was effectively banned outright by the British administration a hundred years later. Centuries of to-ing and fro-ing on taxation, restriction, and prohibition were to follow, and only since 1997 has the national liquor once again been fully legal.
That’s not to say that the intervening 350 years saw an absence of potcheen-making. Far from it. The clamp-down just pushed distillers underground, and most Irish knew someone (who knew someone) operating a poitín still. Also affected by the high taxes, the Scots were so good at hiding their setups that we’re still uncovering full-scale distilleries that have been tucked away in the forest since the 1700s!
In the role of moonshiner – part scoundrel, part artisan – countless enterprising rural dwellers thrived. And many a fortune was made. In fact, so high in quality (and comparatively low in price) was the output of some of the illicit stills spontaneously sprouting from the Celtic countryside that, by the late eighteenth century, many legitimate whiskey distilleries were seriously struggling. Unable to compete with the quality, potency and price of small-batch Irish liquor direct from the land.
By the time changes in licensing restrictions ended the Golden Era of poteen in 1823, many legit Irish distilleries had ceased to exist.
Poteen is Smooth Irish Alcohol
The success of the illegal poitin stills was not surprising really, they were giving the customer exactly what they wanted. High-quality Irish liquor made by a knowledgeable expert in their field (literally), without a price tag inflated by all the frilly bits stuck on later. For his part, Paddy the Moonshiner’s business model was a simple one: using the ingredients, utensils and privacy you have to, set yourself to turning out an Irish liquor of dazzling purity and depth.
One for the ages, consumed for both recreation and medicinal purposes. Do it with love and do it regularly. With a bit of luck, you’ll bring to the populace a clear, full-flavored and versatile Irish liquor, emphatically kick of mule in character, and suitable for all occasions. Potcheen was quaffed at wakes, prescribed to beat the flu, and rubbed into arthritic joints.
As regards internal use, (good) poteen usually tastes quite smooth – despite its high alcohol content. You can of course make a poteen that’s 80 proof (40% ABV), but it’s typically higher. Commercial variants on the market today range from 80, all the way up to 180 proof for those of ‘extra strength’ (and quadruple distilled). Historically, this white whiskey made from barley was likely nearer the higher end of the scale – making it more ‘worthwhile’ for the peasant farmer to run the risk of illegal distilling.
But bountiful though Irish fields may be, making potcheen from the traditional malted barley was at a certain point put beyond the reach of the average peasant tenant. For him, the expansion of British rule meant rising food prices, dwindling autonomy and increased taxation. This also meant that the Irish farmer soon became pretty creative in the ingredients that went into his still, using corn, sugar beet molasses, even milk whey.
Then the game changer rolled in the door.
Putting Irish Potatoes to use
As covered in the Irish Buzz series Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish Food Traditions, the arrival of the all-conquering South American tuber was to forever alter the face of fair Erin’s Isle. The introduction of the potato was truly a pivotal point on the Irish path, and its emergence as a food for the masses sent a lightning bolt through this overwhelmingly rural country. But potatoes in Ireland not only provided the peasant with a stunningly potent source of nutrition, they also gave him a new edge in other fields.
It isn’t quite clear how much potcheen the Irish farmer was soon making from potatoes and how much from grains and other crops. But by a certain point in Irish history, periodically liquidating a portion of your assets had become common practice. The thirsty peasant now had a liquor-making product that was both easy to cultivate and could be sourced locally – from the potato farm out back.
Spud Almighty also had key advantages over grain: it grew in abundance and it was cheap as chips. In a system which typically saw Catholic tenant farmers working to meet crop quotas set by Protestant landowners, a diligent and not too poor tenant could produce enough cash crops (to pay the rent) and enough potatoes (to feed his family). With a little left over to make his family recipe for moonshine.
But the potato farm also came with another bonus.
Just as in their South American homeland, potatoes in Ireland lived subterranean, so Spud was often hard to quantify. This meant that the precise assets of a peasant’s potato farm could be difficult to record.
And although they may lack the Latino temperament, potatoes from Ireland can also be capricious creatures, taking well to a particular patch but not so well to another. Sometimes they rot, are too hard, too wet, too dry. So some leeway was required when it came to reckoning yields. Those potatoes that could be siphoned out of view or were the worst of the harvest, unfit to eat, could often be turned into the best moonshine.
Potato farm discipline
What’s more, sheer abundance meant the farmer could usually slip out enough to whip up his special Irish potato recipe. Because we’re talking huge quantities here – by the late 18th century, the average Irish human ate 6-7 pounds (2.7-3.2 kg) of spuds per day! And with the tenant farmer bringing his other yields (grain, dairy, livestock) to market while he himself lived largely on potatoes, this meant that the crop was more in the private realm of the farmer. In a system where the average Catholic owned very little of their own and whose rights could be undermined at will.
For the Irish potato farmer, colonized and subjugated in his own country, not owning the land he worked but paying rent through the fruits of his labor, spuds were one of his few possessions. Naturally, he sought to maximize their potential.
Got some extra spuds this month? Let’s put them to use!
Feeling blue because you haven’t got some extra spuds this month? Use your role as head of a household of fifteen.
“Everyone over the age of twelve is to eat ten pounds less potatoes this month – on the 31st you’ll be rewarded with a session so glorious you’ll think the sweet elixir flowing from your cup has been sent by god himself.” Thirty-one days with an extra level atop the miserable wedding cake of life you’re forced to eat, then three days of soothing, magical lush? You got a deal!
Irish shots that sooth
Although poteen is often produced from what some may consider rough materials, it is anything but harsh. To the body and soul of tough peasant farmers it brought something delicate and inspirational, Irish alcohol as sweet to the tongue and as soft on the throat as late-night summer singsongs.
Even a (good) poitin made solely from those gnarled blobs of starch-carbohydrates vitamin bombs we call Irish potatoes doesn’t burn going down the hatch. Something to do with ancient wisdom, perhaps.
Or maybe it’s some kind of smart liquor? A spirit of higher consciousness, whose DNA realizes that to achieve its purpose here on earth, it’s best bet is to keep its host happily quaffing away (and coming back for more). Because, unlike some Irish drinks, making you suffer pain is not in potcheen’s job description.
Mystical Irish drinks
From the very first gulp, this will be evident, even to novice, soft-mouthed beer swillers. The true Irish liquor mysteriously exhibits a distinct lack of interest in chopping your trachea in half.
Swig from a decent example of this potent potato juice and your chest will for sure instantly be the recipient of a flurry of heavyweight fists. But it’s unlikely to bowl you over.
It’ll feel powerful, yet comforting. As if Muhammad Ali is indeed going to working your breast, pummeling away in a cloud of clobbers and curses. You feel the tumultuous pounding. But you don’t ache.
Allow yourself to go with the flow and, after a while, it’ll even feel more shiatsu than slugfest. Ali’s gloves have become wadded with cotton wool, marshmallow and cumulus. He hasn’t let up, he’s still hammering away at your thorax, but, to your surprise, you no longer feel in danger of dying. If anything, you feel more in danger of actually living, afraid to wholeheartedly embrace the seductive sprite enticing you to dance.
Psychotropic spud runoff?
Ancient Celtic hallucinogenic?
..You can understand why they banned it.
Potcheen was for/from peasants
Taste-wise, the difference between this Irish drink and others that tap potato power, like vodka, stems from the core of its character. Whereas with a vodka the general idea is to smooth out the flavors of the base ingredients so as to give a crisp finish, the Irish liquor is all about bringing out flavors. It wants the drinker to taste the depth and richness of each, not minimize their impact.
This makes distilling potcheen a lot more interesting, too. By playing around with the mash ingredients you find you can produce real differences in the end product. Adding here, tweaking there, you’re soon able to hone in on the particular taste you’re after. Rather than comparing poitin with vodka, a more apt comparison might be folk brandies like the Hungarian pálinka, or rakija if you’re a bit farther south.
Indeed, making rakija in the Balkans (where it is still entirely legal to do so, in the non-EU states), requires a similarly simple distillation setup: mash, pot, coil, water, fire. And just like potcheen, rakija is liquor for the peasant, made by the peasant – using whatever is on hand. Only that in such climates, there is usually much to pick from: pears, plums, grapes, quinces, berries, apples.
Poitin – the spirit lives on
Ireland does produce an abundance of apples, pears and different types of berries, and all of these have been used in making the national liquor. But you must bear in mind how impoverished the Irish tenant farmer was historically, and how difficult the conditions he endured.
If you got your hands on a barrel of plums, you didn’t use it to make booze – you put it up as dowry. In the vain hope of marrying off one of your less aesthetically gifted daughters! So where fruit did find its way into poitin, it was more common to use it for flavoring than as a base.
But given the abundant world many of us enjoy, when making your own poitin you are of course encouraged to add fruits or flavorings to your mash. Indeed, looking to carry on their heritage while helping it pioneer, the modern Irish home distiller often raids the local candy shop, popping various hard boiled sweets (hard candies) into their bottles. Any novice distiller looking to add a bit of sweetness might be best advised to follow such an approach. Simply make a straight batch and infuse it with fruits or flavorings later on.
But if you can get your hands on enough fruit or berries, by all means use them as your base (see Note 2). Only know that you’ll be making fruit brandy, a common tipple on every continent. Rather than the national drink of Ireland, a liquor subjugated but never subdued, continuing to drive forward, despite the odds. An indomitable spirit that burns only lightly, but still does so oh so brightly.
Fancy trying your hand at making this infamous moonshine whiskey at home? Head over to our Irish Shots section for our much-loved recipe for moonshine. You’ll soon be tippling poteen like an Irish outlaw of old.
Note 1. An Irish term, poitín is pronounced roughly as po’-cheen, you see it written in English all manner of ways, ‘poteen’, ‘potcheen’, ‘potheen’…
Note 2. In theory you can use whatever your can draw enough sugars from – which covers a wide range of edibles! The main factor is usually trying not go broke in the process: because you need a lot! Depending on the levels of sugars in the fruit or vegetable you’re using, that is. Potatoes worked out for the Irish peasant because although you need a large amount for even a small yield of poitin, he had Irish potatoes coming out his ears! Throw a stone in rural Ireland and you hit enough potential alcohol to help you forget the only hobby you can afford to pursue is stone throwing (and moonshining).
The most remarkable fruit brandies often come about when a fruit seller gets stuck with a load he can’t shift or a decomposing job lot too juicy to pass up. An ad hoc banana, orange, or persimmon moonshine recipe being the result. Irish Buzz dares you to make one from raspberries alone (or add some pears, should you find you’ve gone bankrupt along the way). Honestly, you won’t regret it. It’s so good you even won’t be content with just drinking the stuff. You’ll want to use it in everything you cook, as a sports drink for the gym, a douche scrub for cleaning body bits. For years after when you hear the R-word you will still be salivating on the shag, Pavlov’s dog style.