It is illegal to make liquor privately or water publicly.
- Lord Birkett (Attributed)
To put it simply, poitín is a potent Irish alcoholic drink. The drink itself is centuries old, as are the customs surrounding it, but it has also been referred to as 'moonshine' or 'benign liquid'.
In 1661, the British government changed excise duty regulations to encourage large company stills. As Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom at the time, the Irish came under direct control of the English parliament, and the laws affected Irish breweries. Most large towns and cities had their own large stills: for example, Murphy's in Cork, Guinness in Dublin and so forth. However, smaller stills existed all over the country and were hard to tax.
Poitín-making flourished in more remote areas of the country. This was the first officially-recorded instance of poitín, but certainly an alcoholic beverage, called Uisce Beatha1, was being made in Ireland when the Normans invaded. The Normans adopted it and eventually corrupted uisce into 'whiskey'. In 1662, members of HM Treasury realised that excise duty wasn't having a big effect on 'bog stills'. The product of the small pot - poitín2 - was banned. Poitín itself was an alcoholic mixture that varied from parish to parish and was usually around 40% ABV3. Particularly in hard times, the bogs of Connemara and the hills of Donegal were scattered with secret stills. However, in 1997 the Irish Revenue Commissioners withdrew their opposition to poitín being sold in the Republic of Ireland (though legal production for export had been permitted since 1989).
Poitín in this particular area, as told to your trusty Researcher by the proverbial 'man in the pub', is made from malted barley. It is ground into a coarse flour, then mashed into a sugary liquid called 'wort'. Yeast is added to begin a two-day fermentation process. A malt beer results, which is put in a still and heated. The distillation process separates alcohol from water and gases. It is distilled again and the resulting liquid is about 80% ABV, immature malt whiskey or - poitín.
In other places in the 19th Century it was made of fermented potatoes, while some poitín was made of a mix of crab apples and barley. Whatever the mix, it was and still is one of the most alcoholic beverages in the world.
Centres of Poitín
One centre of 'The Production' is the areas of south Connemara. In places such as Carna and Kilkieran, in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht4, you may find a few glasses of the 'Benign Liquid' in an obscure forest clearing or behind a pub counter. Another of the last strongholds is in north County Cork.
'Oh, my God I Think my Throat is on Fir...'
These were the last words of a foolish man after drinking a small tot of privately-distilled poitín. This applies to the lower proof poitín, as some of the hell-fire available should not be drunk by anyone who has not built up a lot of tolerance to the lower proofs.
How to Test Poitín
Today, two Irish brands - Knockeen Hills, and Bunratty - are officially licensed to produce poitín. However, if the idea of imbibing privately-distilled poitín has scared you, here are two little tests to detect it. If you come across some of the 'bog water', pour a little into a saucer and light it5. If it burns with a blue flame it's more than likely not too bad, but if it burns with any other flame - run away quickly.
The second method to test poitín was a method used in Shebeens6, and involved placing a jug of cream or buttermilk on the table. The cream or buttermilk was added to the poitín to see if it curdled or not, which indicated if it was safe to drink, or not as the case may be. This practice may have given rise to cream liqueurs such as Baileys.
There are a million tales about poitín. According to legend, St Patrick, having run out of mass wine, brewed up the first poitín.
This story does in fact have a true basis. Many, many years ago a priest in Kilkieran was fined £100 when the authorities found poitín in his church. The money was given to the Archbishop of Tuam to use as he saw fit, and so he used it to purchase the Bells for Tuam Cathedral that still ring there today, which are sometimes known as the 'alco's chimes'.