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Dublin: 16 °C Wednesday 27 August, 2014

How poitín went from illegal moonshine to being sold in Tesco

It is traditionally one of the most potent alcohol drinks on the planet, but poitín is having something of a moment with a whole new generation of drinkers.

Image: Kiinqueen via Flickr/Creative Commons

HERE ARE THREE things you may not have known about poitín.

One: It is one of the most strongly alcoholic drinks on the planet.  Homemade poitín can be anywhere between 50 and 90 per cent alcohol by volume (just to put that in context, an average beer is around 4 to 6 per cent and whiskey is roughly 40 per cent). Two: The first record of it is from the 6th century but it was illegal in Ireland for 300 years and was only legalised in 1997.

And three: purists may not like it but poitín is shedding its reputation as illegal moonshine and is for sale (legally) in shops and pubs around the country, where it is becoming increasingly popular with a whole new generation of drinkers.

“Everyone has a story about poitín. Everybody does” says Gary Gartland of Coomara Irish Spirits.

For a lot of people, poitín has certain connotations. Homemade. Kept on a shelf in a house to be taken out occasionally. Highly, highly alcoholic, and maybe even possibly illness-inducing, depending on what exactly was in it – poitín was generally made out of whatever materials were plentiful, so everything from potatoes to crab apples to barley has been used.

However as lots of other once old-fashioned Irish products have already made something of a comeback during the recession, poitín is having a little moment itself.

The comeback

There are at least five companies in Ireland now selling poitín which can be bought in pubs and off-licences, while London cocktail bar Shebeen is selling eight different types of poitín, including one version made from potatoes in San Francisco. Irish company Coomara Irish Spirits recently made the biggest ever legal shipment of poitín to supermarket chain Tesco, which began stocking the spirit earlier this year.

“What we’ve seen in the past few months since we started selling it is that people are curious and that’s why they’re ordering it,” says Paddy, the bar manager at popular pub Against the Grain on Dublin’s Wexford Street.

A few people have said that real poitín has to be illegal, but we’ve been trying to them how it’s distilled and properly made.

Illegal poitín is, of course, still popular but the scale of it is difficult to estimate. Just over two weeks ago Revenue Commissioner officials seized a fully operational mini-distillery – including 900 empty bottles – in Cavan.

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Love/Hate’s Fran, a big fan of the less-than-legal poitín

Popularity

Poitín is one of the small number of Irish food and drink products which have been granted Geographical Indicative Status by the EU, meaning that in the same way that champagne has to come from a certain area of France and Parmesan cheese can only come from a particular part of Italy, poitín can only come from Ireland.

There are many, many myths around the drink – including that St Patrick somehow brewed up the first batch after running out of wine while saying Mass – but the reality is more straightforward.

Many of the batches for sale now are around 40 per cent alcohol by volume, and can now even come in different flavours.

Coomara poitín is flavoured with wild berries and orchard fruits which, Gary Gartland explains, follows on from the tradition of poitín which years ago would have been made with hedgerow berries to soften the harsh taste. “We’ve refined the taste and taken the alcohol level down,” says Gartland. The drink can be drunk straight or, more commonly, used as a mixer for cocktails or as a long drink.

You’d get some purists saying 40 per cent [alcohol] volume is not real poitín but you never know what you were drinking before. At 80 per cent or more, I’d argue that it was paintstripper and you wouldn’t know what it was. We brought it down to the level of vodka and gin, which means people can drink it.

He describes the drink as ‘part of Irish culture’.

It’s something to be very proud of, especially for a country that’s been down on its knees. We’ve had success with Jameson, Guinness, craft beers, but poitín is where it all started.

One of the big reasons why people are curious to try it is because with the danger element gone, they can find out what it actually tastes like.

“The homemade version can be nearly pure alcohol, so it can be dangerous,” says Gartland. “I tried it once at a party when I was 17 and lost hours”.

Read: Poitín distillery discovered in Cavan >

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