History

Pot of gold

Ireland is rich in myths about the magic powers of poitin, the aromatic spirit that was distilled illegally for centuries. But now it has a new life on the right side of the law. Susy Atkins traces its rise from moonshine to respectability
By Susy Atkins
Go to the dark, smoky old bar in Bunratty, Shannon, western Ireland and you might well meet a poitin (pronounced ‘potcheen’) maker. You can sit with him and enjoy a glass or two of his clear, fiery spirit. The locals will chat and drink poitin with you too, and they’ll tell you romantic, very tall tales of Irish moonshine. The bottle sits on the optic, where everyone can see it, and is so popular it has to be replenished regularly.What’s strange about this scene is that it holds no interest for the local gardai (policemen). Until recently, all Irish poitin was illegal. Sure, it was made and sold both north and south of the border, and many respectable characters enjoyed the odd drop of it. But until Oliver Dillon was granted a licence to distil poitin in Bunratty, you could, in theory, be sent to jail for making the stuff. Not so long ago, the parish priest couldn’t forgive you for distilling poitin, only the bishop, indicating how evil the spirit was considered to be. Now Mr Dillon has a licence to distil poitin and everyone seems happy.Before I met him in Shannon, I had only ever tried illegal poitin once – a gloweringly purple, sweet, plum-flavoured spirit regularly served up by a friend in County Fermanagh. It was surprisingly good – not too fierce, but rich and fruity and amazingly warming on a bitter and rainy winter night. My friend buys it regularly from an illicit distiller on the Donegal border.
“You have to be careful about your source,” he warns. “Some people will put anything into poitin, so it’s best to buy it from someone you know well, someone you trust.” He keeps a bottle in the cupboard for medicinal purposes, “It’s wonderful mixed with honey, sugar, glycerine and hot water for getting rid of colds and the ‘flu,” he vows and he’s right.Despite the horrors of bleach-cleared spirit downed on Dublin housing estates, this is pretty much how many people in Ireland have bought, consumed and enjoyed well-made poitin for centuries. According to legend, production dates back to the fifth century. Then in 1662 King Charles imposed a ban on it, so one can only imagine how busy the trade had become. Even so, in 1730, an Irish doctor wrote in praise of the illegal colourless spirit, “It can be drunk to intoxication without impairing the health, it keepeth back old age, helpeth digestion, casts off melancholy, enlighteneth the heart, quickeneth the mind and spirit, breaketh the wind and keepeth the head from giddiness.” As long as you stick to just the one.Tradition dictates that poitin is made out of potatoes (poitin comes from the Irish for small pot), but plenty is made from grain, and some from fruit, especially apples. It was, and still is, distilled up in the lonely hills, out on small lake islands, or deep in dense woods – anywhere out of sight, in fact, and especially along the winding border between north and south.
In 1985, Dillon, a middle-aged engineer from Shannon, stumbled across an illicit still while out walking in the country. There was no one around, and he was inspired by what he describes as a “sweet aroma” which filled the air. “For several years I cherished the dream of making poitin legally and trying to win back its ancient good name,” he remembers. “I was sorry to see poitin disappearing because the younger generation weren’t interested in it. It was time to do something.” He researched the history of the drink at Trinity College, Dublin, then bought a old still near the Tipperary/Limerick border and set out to make a dry, grainy spirit with that same wonderful scent.He started applying for a licence in 1987 but the Revenue Commissioners turned him down. “They said they had serious difficulty with something called poitin, as it was linked to an illegal activity, and they tried to make me call it anything other than that. But that was the whole point of the exercise, so I pressed on.” And on. It was only after three attempts to get a licence that the tenacious Irishman got his licence. “Because I didn’t take no for an answer, I think they realised I was serious, and not just looking for a gimmick.”The final product is called Bunratty Potcheen. It is made from grain spirit produced at Irish Distillers. “The raw material comes from them, then I doctor it, reduce it and add flavour,” says Dillon, who won’t give away any details of his recipe, except to say that it’s distilled four times, with “natural flavours added before the final distillation, and good-quality Irish water is essential”. After ten years of working on the spirit, he’s finally pleased with the result. “Poor poitin is lifeless, with a non-descript aroma. I found the aroma the most difficult thing to get right, but I’ve achieved that sweetness now.”It certainly has a warm, inviting fragrance, with hints of vanilla and caramel, and a dry finish – quite unlike the few sweeter, more commercial versions that have popped up legally since Bunratty was introduced. Tasting his product – indeed, visiting Dillon in his distillery in the beautiful setting of Shannon near the Burren – you can sense the romanticism of poitin-making, a stark contrast to the clichéd image of lethal moonshine made in an old pig-sty. “I hate that image of the drink,” says Dillon. “I would like it to be seen as a craft, a cottage industry with traditional roots.”Dillon’s business, the Bunratty Mead and Liqueur Company, is located in the picturesque former coach house on the Bunratty Castle estate. He provides mead for the local medieval banquets held in the castle, and has started a museum for ancient distilling equipment in the coach house. He’s aware that he is playing the Irish tourism card, but he is also proud to be thought of as “the man who pioneered poitin’s revival”, as he puts it. He has an impressive collection of local newspaper cuttings on the story of his struggle to get a licence. But perhaps something of the mystery goes out of poitin when it is legalised. Perhaps the whole point of ‘a drop of cratur’ is that it is illicit, a secret. My friends in Fermanagh tell me that “hordes of people” they know drink illegal poitin, including “many policemen”, and that although it is not legal, it is (unlike, say, cannabis) tolerated and often enjoyed by all the most respectable members of society. It’s certainly not unknown to find the oldest members of the community eschewing whiskey for poitin. “I know an old man in a nursing home – he’s in his ‘80s – who won’t touch whiskey – he must have his poitin,” another friend confided.So what’s the point of legal poitin, if everyone has a jolly good time knocking back the illicit stuff? Well, for a start, Dillon seems to be making a decent living out of it, whereas most illegal distillers just do it for the love of it, apparently. And Dillon is keen that it is “considered fit for human consumption”, as he puts it. “I want to retain a certain mystique about the whole process, but I want it above board and for people to have confidence in it,” he says. And he is certainly bringing the traditions and taste of poitin to a new audience – many of the American and British tourists who visit Bunratty leave clutching a half-bottle of Dillon’s Potcheen.Back in the pub, the local drinkers tell me that a drop of poitin used to be used to help a sick cow or it would be rubbed on a greyhound to make it run faster. It has even given rise to an Irish phrase ‘poitin twang’, used to describe someone who tells lies persuasively. “They say that the poitin was once so powerful in the West of Ireland it was used to blow up rocks,” teases one old man in the bar, who has put a little spirit in his coffee. I’d still be careful how I handled the illicit stuff, but the legal version doesn’t blow me up. It simply instils a warm glow before I head out into the dark, rainy Irish night.