The term “moonshine” usually evokes images of outlaws, Appalachia and Mason jars. But Americans certainly don’t have a monopoly on the concept, as most booze-making cultures throughout the world have some romanticized history of illicit production.
The Irish call this liquid “poitin” (sounds like “puh-tcheen”), a Gaelic term that loosely translates to “little pot,” as in pot still. Its origins have been traced to the Middle Ages, predating just about every distilled beverage across Europe.
And, for much of its existence, it was illegal. When Ireland was under British rule, the crown tried to collect as much tax revenue from Irish distilling as possible, but couldn’t control all of the small pot stills in rural areas. So the Brits outlawed poitin production and chased it underground.
Three-hundred-plus years later, in 1997, poitin came out of hiding and was legal once again. But it took nearly two decades and a full-blown Irish whiskey renaissance for poitin to resurface in a meaningful way.
“The reason it survived so long was because it was a craft that was passed through the generations,” explains Jack Teeling, founder and managing director of Dublin-based Teeling Whiskey Co., which also produces a poitin called Spirit of Dublin. Teeling comes from a long line of distillers; his father, John, founded Cooley Distillery in the ’80s (now owned by Beam Suntory), and the family traces its whiskey-making heritage back to the late 18th century.
“With the taxes on the legal pot stills,” Teeling says, “[distillers] worked them really hard and really fast, and some of the distillate wasn’t as clean or as pure as some of the illicit kind.”
That’s because illegal distillers, free from the long arm of the taxman, could take as much time and care perfecting their spirits, often resulting in a superior product.
Over the centuries, small, rural distillers would make poitin from anything fermentable they could grow or forage. Sometimes that was Irish whiskey’s base grain, barley; other times it was everything from whey and potatoes to molasses and sugar beets. Spirit of Dublin poitin is a 50-50 split between malted and unmalted barley.
In many ways, the legit poitin resurgence is mirroring a similar trend in the States. A few years back, spirits drinkers witnessed a mini explosion of “moonshine” brands, complete with folksy, down-home backstories and, often, Mason jar packaging. But their existence isn’t just about glorifying outlaw heritage. There’s a very pragmatic reason behind them: The distillers needed something out in the market generating a profit while their whiskey matured in barrels, so they took some fresh-from-the-still clear corn- or wheat-based spirit, bottled it and called it moonshine (though many have resisted that label and just called it “white whiskey” or “white dog”). The same dynamic is playing out in Ireland, especially as new distilleries open and whiskey production ramps up once again.
That’s really where the similarities end. Flavorwise, the American and Irish whiskeys are worlds apart. Poitin usually has a very intense, nearly off-putting vegetal aroma; the best way I can describe it is “sour onion and tomato stew.” On the palate, there’s often a slightly creamy mouthfeel and some faint raisiny notes.
Throughout poitin’s illicit and legal existence, ABVs have varied wildly; in some cases it’s been upwards of 80% (160 proof). Teeling’s Spirit of Dublin comes in much lower at 52.5%.
Another new brand on the market, Mad March Hare, has settled on an approachable 40%. “We have a very simple strategy,” explains Andrew Mitchell, co-founder and marketing director of Mad March Hare International. “We’re trying to bring poitin back into the mainstream.”
Whether the mainstream ever fully embraces poitin remains to be seen, but here are three brands that are hoping to make it happen.
Glory Irish Poitin
Parent Company: West Cork Distillers
Base: Barley and beets
Spirit of Dublin Poitin
Parent Company:Teeling Whiskey Company
Base: Half malted barley, half unmalted barley
Mad March Hare
Parent Company: Mad March Hare International (contract distilled)
Base: Malted barley