Man Cave Poison: Poitin


Part 4 of Andrew’s ‘Man Cave Poison’ series explores Poitin, a traditional Irish distilled liquor.

I’d been in Boston for six months before I made the painfully American mistake of believing that I could keep up with an Irishman; I paid for it the day after and even the day after that. Here we’ve got our fair share of Irish, ex-patriots or not, but they do make it a difficult time in the pubs, especially when they’re so damn friendly, gregarious and you’ve got a competitive streak. Okay, maybe that’s just me but I’ve spent many a morning regretting the day I ever met anyone from the Emerald Isle. Then I look over and realize I married an Irishwoman and suddenly regret my regrets.

Over the years I’ve learned my limits, sort of, and realized that Irish liquors have stages: cider, beer, whiskys or worse. Today, dear friends, we’re learning about the Worse category. Now, I’m going to do something I don’t normally do to anyone, let alone a stranger who has decided that my article is worth two seconds, but I’ll prove my point in a moment: I want to question your fortitude.

There was once a time when I could be baited by simple dares, simple challenges put forth innocently then, once the stakes started to rise, became less and less innocent until they were just stupid and painful. I’m sure we’ve all been there, right? Maybe? There was one dare that I ccouldn’tresist: I ate a habanero pepper whole and raw and cried for an hour afterwards. Totally worth it though.

The Worse: before there was whisky, there was poitin. Distilled from…whatever the hell they could grab, up to and including peat, poitin is the much older ancestor to the more refined whisky that the Irish perfected and it has hit a renaissance of sorts. Banned in 1661 by the English, poitin existed in the shadows, living in jugs and jars hidden under the table or out in the barn for centuries. Here in America, we’ve had a decent history of banned liquors, including absinthe, moonshine and poitin. But new rules have been established, shifts in societal tastes have allowed for the bitter and violent and old liquors have become new again.
Glendalough Distillery has brought back the poitin of the very ancient ancestors of those who live on the Blessed Isle, distilling a wash of fermented barley and beets. Truth be told, it smells like earthy death and tastes like bark and absolute rage. With a couple drops of water, however, the poitin calms the hell down and takes on a smoothness and character unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. At times earthy, deep, woody and yet a sweetness one only gets from quality vegetables, this poitin is very new, unique and calls towards a deeper kind of drunk I’ve ever known, like I want to go hike in the hills just to stare at the naked moon, dig up a field of peat just to break an honest sweat or fight to reclaim an island that unjustly claimed by a foreign country.

Ahem, sorry, tangent. I should also point out that the Glendalough that I bought was called Mountain Strength. Mountain strength, as in, how strong they would brew it in the mountains. As in, there is no way in hell any human being should be drinking this strong.

Knockeen Hills also makes a poteen, which is how its pronounced by the way, that’s made of…I don’t know, the distilled sweat of angels? Knockeen Hills is way calmer than Glendalough but seems to lack the ancient authenticity of the other poitin. That being said Knockeen Hills makes an infinitely more mixable poitin than Glendalough, which, if you want a Scotchy analogy, is like Dewar’s going up against a Glenlivet.

So the dare: I dare you to take up the challenge of poitin at least once in your life. It might not be a whole bottle, it might not be in the back roads of Donegal playing that weird street bowling or drinking the stuff out of a jar but if you see a lone bottle in a bar somewhere collecting dust, ask for a shot at least. Live a little, huh? And don’t forget to breathe out afterwards; it helps with the burn.

Update time!: I’ve found a bottle of Bunratty Potcheen here in the States! Sorry, because of how desolate Massachusetts is with their liquor laws, any bottle of any liquor that isn’t Jack Daniels or Captain Morgan is fascinating.

Bunratty Potcheen, which they claim is spelled that way to reference the pot stills it’s distilled in, has a sweet ethyl smell, like fresh moonshine and definitely tastes fresh. There’s an old Appalachian phrase for fresh moonshine, ‘Panther Piss’, and claims to be aged no more than thirty minutes and that’s how Bunratty tastes. Sweet, fiery and nearly medicinal, this poitin is quite close to the modern moonshine most people can get from the crazy old man up in the hills.

But, of course, you won’t know if you’d like it until you try it.