If wetting the shamrock on March 17, look a little higher up the bar shelf. Poitín (pronounced put-cheen), a long-banned Irish moonshine, is slowly re-emerging from a checkered history of legend and prohibition to become its homeland’s most trending spirit. From becoming a regular in Dublin’s top cocktail menus to, yes, flavoring gourmet ketchup, poitín is having something of a renaissance.
While American moonshine is typically made from corn meal, poitín is yielded from an eclectic crop of cereals, sugar beet, molasses, and, geography a given, potatoes. Traditionally produced in small, peat-fuelled pot stills, it’s an unaged, clear-colored liquor — and notoriously potent. So much so, in fact, that even the Gaelic word for hangover (poit) derives from the elixir.
It’s been a renaissance loaded with lore for poitín. The drink traces roots back to sixth-century Christian monks who produced it as Ireland’s original aqua vitae. It would later be banned for centuries under British Rule, and poitín has only seen the light of legalization in Ireland since 1997. It was during this age of prohibition that the production of poitín went underground, with rural bootleg distillers making a crust by running clandestine operations in the country’s remotest fringes. For those punters seeking a fix from a local supplier, “Is the cow milking?” became the ciphered street speak to inquire about its availability.
A poitín revival has long been on the boiler in Ireland, spurred by the country’s current national tide of nationalism and nostalgia. Pair that language and cultural revival with local hipster booze trends that have sired everything from Guinness craft lagers to a micro-distillery movement, and póitin’s comeback was a niche market in waiting. Today its production is mushrooming in distilleries all across the island.
Glendalough Distillery, sequestered in the shadows of the Wicklow Mountains, is Ireland’s first craft distillery, exporting small batches of poitín to destinations from Hamburg to Hong Kong. “Poitín is basically to Ireland what tequila is to Mexico” says Dónal O’Gallachóir, brand manager for the outfit. “We wanted to bring back the heritage of distillation in Ireland — and as poitín is the precursor to whiskey and so many other spirits, it had to start with that.”
While poitín’s strength makes for a husky shot or boilermaker, its motley flavor profile has seen the drink being largely adopted by the Irish craft cocktail scene. “I think it’s because poitín really offers Irish people a native alternative to American bourbons and ryes, so we can really take ownership of our distilling culture,” explains O’Gallachóir. The drink’s heritage has been recognized legally, and now poitín enjoys the same European Union protection as the likes of Cognac or Chianti.
Hibernian hooch seems here to stay, as evidenced by the new generation of Irish poitín drinkers, sipping the sweet, malty drink in the hipper bars of Dublin, Cork, and Belfast. Purists might still inform you that the finest poitín remains the home-brew variety only found by those really in the know. And only if the cow is still milking.
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