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The spirit of the Irish


Barman Tom O'Brien with one of hius 'Poitin Sours' cocktails at the Exchequer Bar.

Barman Tom O'Brien with one of hius 'Poitin Sours' cocktails at the Exchequer Bar.

'Poitin Sour' cocktail at the Exchequer Bar

'Poitin Sour' cocktail at the Exchequer Bar


Barman Tom O'Brien with one of hius 'Poitin Sours' cocktails at the Exchequer Bar.

Today bars across the world will rock with fake Irishmen in green skyscraper hats and ginger leprechaun beards.

There's nothing new about this cultural appropriation of Irishness. A great many of our exports enjoy huge popularity in other countries, whether it's the Irish pub concept and 'the craic', Riverdance and Mrs Brown's Boys. What is a little more surprising is that poitín is being embraced so enthusiastically in trendy bars in London and New York. Even in its native country, after a 400-year ban was lifted in the Nineties, there's a certain apprehension about imbibing it.

Essentially moonshine whiskey, distilled from potatoes, barley, grain, treacle, sugar beet, even crab-apples, and invariably hitting insanely high levels of alcohol-by-volume, the illegally produced stuff could hit anywhere between 50 and 90 proof, where standard high-street spirits, such as gin and vodka, hover around the 40-45 mark. Modern poitíns now available, and legal, range between 40 and 60 proof.

When I was young, my cousins told me about weekend poitín binges in Galway that had left one participant blind and another falling into his fireplace and being unable to extricate himself. I tried a couple of shots one evening, pouring it over chunks of ice. It burned my throat like a flame-thrower. I went groggily to bed and woke at 4am with a raging thirst, whereupon I drank two pints of water - and stayed locked in an alcoholic stupor until lunchtime as the diluted moonshine coursed like a virus around my bloodstream.

    Its history has been a furtive, secretive, under-the-counter one. In 1661, a law was passed here, saying distillers must pay a tax on spirits produced for private use. The home still was suddenly subject to government levy. Unsurprisingly, the home distillers failed to co-operate, and in 1760 a further law made it illegal to operate a still without a licence.

    The poitín still was basically a "wash" of fermenting barley (or potatoes or whatever) in a small copper pot, heated by turf fires, preferably in wet or cloudy weather to disperse the smoke, and distilled along pipes and tubes over several days. The idea of the poitín outlaw, brewing up his raw, explosive nectar on the hillside, took root in Irish culture. The Pogues' song "Fairy Tale of New York" in which the old man in the drunk tank sings "The Rare Ould Mountain Dew" is all about our national grog.

    It was declared legal in 1997, provided its alcohol content was reduced. Today, several Irish companies make it and sell it through pubs and off-licences.

    Alastair Higgins of the Celtic Whiskey Shop on Dublin's Dawson Street, where they have seven types of poitín on shelves, finds that it's becoming popular choice. "There's a bit of a crossover with whiskey drinkers and there's also a bit of a prestige in cocktails at the moment so you will see several cocktail bars around town doing things with poitín," he says. And there are lots of reasons to enjoy it, he maintains. "Some of the poitíns would appeal to vodka drinkers in that they can be quite neutral tasting but tend to have a bit more punch, a bit more fire and strength to them," he says. "Others would be closer to a raw whiskey, which is unaged, like the Teelings poitín. It has some of that malty biscuit flavour you get from a whiskey that's quite young and Teelings poitín is certainly one that you could just sit down and drink straight from a glass and enjoy like a whiskey or even like the Italians do with grappa, after a meal with a coffee."

    According to Aaron Wall, mixologist at Burmese restaurant The Meeting House on Dublin's Sycamore Street, poitín offers unrivalled scope as a cocktail base. "Poitín goes well with delicate uplifting flavours like lemon, lime, fresh herbs and spices," he says. "However, I believe the best way to serve it is with ginger and a squeeze of lime. I have found that most vodka drinkers find it hard to discern the difference between vodka and poitín if they were drinking it in a cocktail, or even with a simple 'mixer'. So it would be nice to see more people enjoying the spirit and 'buying Irish', particularly over the St Patrick's Day weekend."

    Over at the Exchequer Bar on Dublin's Exchequer St, where they serve Glendalough poitín straight up in high balls (mixed with ginger beer or Coke) and in signature cocktails, bar manager Tom O'Brien says that Irish drinkers are becoming more receptive to the idea of ordering poitín. "Everybody has a story about potitin, whether it's their father, their grandfather or themselves and when they hear it they think 'Oh God, this is going to blow my head off'," he says. "Poitín can be between 50 and 90pc when it's illegally produced and it's very hard to negotiate where it is on that scale. Now that it's a product properly distilled by a company, it's something that Irish drinkers haven't quite adjusted to yet but they're slowly coming on board with the idea."

    Poitín has certainly come a long way from its less than salubrious origins. These days you could practically call it posh, as well as legal and trendy. In 2008, it was accorded Geographical Indicative Status by the EU council and parliament, which means that - as with champagne in Champagne and parmesan in Parmigiano - only poitín made in Ireland is to be considered the Real Stuff. It now has protected status, backed by law - a sign that we're is emphatically proud of a drink that used to horrify civilised tipplers with its rough, abrasive, fiery attack; but which must have seemed a perfect emblem of the rebel spirit, as it flowed through the tubes and alembics of its distillation, while its makers blinked in the turf smoke on the hills in the Cavan or Wicklow moonlight, and waited, and waited, for the first drops to fall.

    Additional reporting by Claire O'Mahony

    Irish Independent