One way or another it looks like Ireland will still be in the news this month. It is also time for the annual onslaught of green face paint, Guinness hats and shamrock bunting to celebrate St Patrick’s Day on 17 March. Forget the border question for a while and enjoy some good old-fashioned Irish craic.
Create a balanced drinks list for a party with Guinness, of course (from Dublin) as the cornerstone, with Jameson Irish Whiskey (with an ‘e’) and Cork Dry Gin from the Republic of Ireland and Jawbox Belfast Gin and Magners Antrim cider from Northern Ireland.
Then, as a special feature, include Poitin, a drink that embodies all the folklore, mystique and history of Irish enterprise. Pronounced Potcheen, many of us will have heard of it but few will have tasted it, put off possibly by its illegal past and erroneous reputation for turning the drinker blind or mad, or both.
Produced by monks (as ever!) in the 1500s, it was made illegal in 1661. Clandestine production continued in remote forests and moors using whatever ingredients were to hand, becoming shrouded in mystery, intrigue and mythical potency anywhere between 40 per cent and 90 per cent abv. Illicit distilling even followed the Irish immigrants of 200 years ago to New York.
Its name is derived from the copper pot used to heat and distil the mash over open fires and not from ‘potato’, which is a popular misconception stemming from one of the main ingredients. Pushed underground with no production controls it acquired illicit romanticism and an exaggerated reputation as a knock out drink.
In 2008 the EU awarded Poitin Geographical Indicative Status which defines it as a clear, non-aged spirit produced in Ireland or Northern Ireland. As recently as 2015 the Irish Government added a technical file defining the production process and allowable ingredients: “traditionally brewed, fermented and distilled from cereals, grain, whey, sugar beet and potatoes, and a minimum of 40 per cent abv.” Plenty of scope there for branded variations. A dozen brands with differing product claims are listed on the website www.celticwhiskeyshop.com with prices ranging from £35 to £58, and strengths from 44 per cent to 90 per cent a.b.v.
Where to start?
Try Spirit of Dublin Premium Irish Poitin, launched in 2015 by the Teeling Whiskey Company, Ireland’s leading independent whiskey producer. Their new distillery is the first in Dublin for more than 125 years.
It is a clear white spirit triple distilled through copper pot stills from a traditional recipe of unmalted and malted Irish barley, giving it a distinctively sweet cereal taste. Bottled straight from the still at 52.5 per cent with no maturation process, it is expected to be drunk neat, with water or a mixer or as a chaser with Guinness. Priced at the Celtic Whiskey shop at £30 for 50cl.
There is wide distribution across Ireland and in specialist drinks shops and Dublin Airport.
In England the only stockist I have found for the genre is Harvey Nichols offering John O’ Connells Small Batch at 72 per cent abv, 35cl for £40, so not cheap. Or the Sun Tavern in Bethnal Green where the landlord makes Poitin a feature.