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Poitin, Ireland’s Original Illegal Spirit, is Making a Comeback

Poitin, Ireland’s Original Illegal Spirit, is Making a Comeback

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Generally known as the uisce beatha, or “water of life,” poitin (additionally referred to as “potcheen” or “poteen”) is basically Irish moonshine that’s deeply rooted within the island’s historical past and lore. The spirit’s humble beginnings might be traced to sixth-century Christian monks who reportedly introduced the artwork of distillation from the Center East and created the potent brew. It’s prevalent all through Irish tradition from songs like “The Uncommon Previous Mountain Dew” and conventional oral tales handed by the generations.

Poitin continues to be served at necessary Irish events. From wakes to weddings, you’ll doubtless discover a bottle or two.

Poitin on display at Micil Distillery / Photo courtesy Micil
Poitin on show at Micil Distillery / Photograph courtesy Micil

“I come from six generations of illicit poitin distillers,” says Pádraic Ó Griallais, founder and director at Micil Distillery. “I [learned] all of the craft from my grandfather, and I used to be fortunate to have grown up round him, in any other case the model Micil—named after my great-great-great-grandfather—would by no means have been created or continued.

I used to be fortunate that my grandfather was a seanachaí (a storyteller/raconteur) as he made tales so partaking. It was exhausting to not love poitin, the craft, the heritage and the spirit in our household.”

“Poitin is symbolic of Irish liberation and oppression on the identical time.” –Pádraic Ó Griallais, founder/director, Micil Distillery

Throughout the 17th century, when Eire was beneath British rule, the federal government tried to gather a tax on poitin. It was not a straightforward job: Distillers merely hid their bottles and denied its existence to tax collectors. So, in 1661, King Charles II banned the beloved spirit. Many imagine the transfer was a part of an even bigger effort to repress Irish tradition by the British.

“It’s inextricably linked to Irish tradition and pleasure, because it’s exhausting to separate the 2,” says Ó Griallais. “Poitin is symbolic of Irish liberation and oppression on the identical time. It was a drink that small farmers made that would assist them pay the British landlords’ lease… It was a method for the Irish folks to specific their irreverence in the direction of the colonial British Empire.”

Its unlawful standing made poitin much more fashionable, and the spirit went underground.

Produced primarily in rural Eire, poitin was crafted in houses, sheds and within the woods. Many instances, it was distilled deliberately on land boundaries—if the illicit spirit was found by authorities, the problem of possession might be disputed.

“Poitin might have disappeared from the mainstream, however was saved alive by a small group of artisans that plied their commerce within the shadows,” says John Ralph, CEO of Intrepid Spirits, which produces Mad March Hare Poitín. “The individuals who continued to make it at dwelling had been in truth skilled, expert craftsman, or it was finished as a collective effort by all of the townspeople.”

Mad March Hare, one member of a new class of poitin / Photo courtesy Mad March Hare
Mad March Hare, one member of a brand new class of poitin / Photograph courtesy Mad March Hare

Traditionally, poitin is distilled in a small pot nonetheless and made out of a malted barley base. Variations within the mash invoice vary from crabapples to wheat, sugar and beets. When launched to Eire within the 16th century, potatoes had been used as nicely.

“Poitin might have disappeared from the mainstream, however was saved alive by a small group of artisans that plied their commerce within the shadows.” –John Ralph, CEO, Intrepid Spirits

The completed product various resulting from many elements, just like the area and the distiller, so no two recipes had been alike. A lot talent and energy was wanted to supply it, as malting, milling, fermentation and distillation was finished primarily by hand. When the Irish emigrated, they introduced this artwork kind with them.

Copper alembic still on display at Micil Distillery / Photo courtesy Micil
Cross-section illustration of an alembic still / Getty
High: Conventional copper alembic nonetheless on show at Micil Distillery (Photograph courtesy Micil). Backside: Cross part of alembic nonetheless exhibiting inside workings (Getty)

“Poitin in ‘Gaelic’ means ‘little pot’ and was the primary type of a brand new make whiskey that we all know of,” says Stephan Teeling of Teeling Distillery in Dublin. “Till it was outlawed, practically 100% of poitin would have been made out of barley. However as soon as it was outlawed, folks used potatoes and sugar beet as a less expensive substitute.”

“Farmers all all over the world at all times discovered a technique to make alcohol from extra cereals, and in Eire this was the start of Poitin,” Teeling continues. “As emigrant Irish households moved to all 4 corners of the globe, they introduced this distilling custom with them—therefore why Kentucky and Jarnac have deep Irish roots on the foundation of the Bourbon and Cognac business.”

In trendy instances, the folks of Eire began to embrace poitin’s illicit previous and sought to take away what had change into seen as an illegal ban. In 1987, rules had been loosened a bit, and some firms had been allowed to promote poitin for export solely. It wasn’t till 1997 that the ban was lifted.

Teeling’s “Spirit of Dublin” poitin being crafted within the distillery’s three copper pot stills / Photograph courtesy Teeling Whiskey

“The ban was eliminated by intense lobbying of some forward-thinking people and a few highly effective conglomerates that wished to revive the class,” says Ó Griallais. “The proprietor of Bunratty Potcheen must be credited with loads of that tough work. Diageo was additionally concerned in pushing for legalization to launch a model referred to as Hackler, which was later discontinued.”

Although the ban has been lifted, it’s taken one other 20 years for distilleries to actually embrace this forgotten spirit. Fashionable customers, curious to style one thing so intertwined in Irish historical past, have fueled a resurgence. Premium craft poitins like Mad March Hare, Teeling’s Spirit of Dublin, Bán Poitin, Glendalough and Micil search to dispel the stigmas related to lower-quality do-it-yourself poitin.

Steps have additionally been taken to protect the spirit’s heritage. In 2008, poitin obtained Geographical Indication (GI) standing by the European Union, which requires that the spirit be produced on the island. Later, in 2015, the Irish authorities outlined manufacturing strategies and created rules to weed out inauthentic bottlings.

Although hidden in obscurity for hundreds of years, poitin is an entirely Irish spirit with a narrative that must be informed. Now that it’s lastly stepped out of the shadows, the world is able to hear.

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