“A Drop of the Cratur”
When people talk of Ireland the subjects of thatch cottages, turf fires, tall tales, and Poitín are sure to always crop up. In fact, when it comes to alcoholic drinks Ireland's famed for its smooth whiskey, and for its iconic, world famous beer, ‘Guinness’. There’s Today there is more to explore in the pubs, of course, from highly competitive craft beers and ciders, to ‘Baileys Irish Cream’, the products of a growing number of micro-distillers, and. of course, the legalised version of poitín (pronounced ‘potch-cheen’). It is known by other names in other countries (Hooch, Moonshine, etc,) but it is the Irish who were the original creators, and it was the Irish that spread its use across the globe. Some would say that it is only the Irish who show such pride in having created one of the strongest alcoholic drinks in the world, which is still made here in large quantities on this small island. Poitín traditionally has an alcohol content of 60% – 90%, and that will certainly dull the taste buds of any man!
But did you know that there no definite record of just when poitín came into the life of the Irish nation? It is believed to date back to at least the 6th century. It was an ancient farm-based spirit that was made in a single pot still and took its name for the Irish word for ‘little pot’, (Pota). Traditionally it was, and is still, made from the starch-filled crops that are grown on the farm. In the more modern times these crops have been limited by definition to potatoes, cereals, grain, whey, sugar beet and molasses. Under English rule, however, it became necessary to have a license to produce poitín from 1556, when the English administration decided they should regulate the production of such a toxic offering. There had been pubs active throughout Ireland since the 11th century, and the widespread ethos of having a drink when and where one pleases was difficult to regulate, especially in such a troublesome land.
Not surprisingly the production of Poitín quickly became a lucrative, though illegal, trade in Ireland. Then on Christmas Day 1661, taxation on alcohol was first introduced because, with the end of ‘Cromwell’s’ Commonwealth’, King Charles II came to the throne of the British Isles and needed to raise public funds that had been depleted badly by ‘English Civil War’. This was only one among a series of taxes that the King introduced, but this first excise tax on alcohol also included spirit production. In the beginning this new excise duty was widely enforced within the cities and towns but was largely ignored by those who resided in the rural areas of Ireland.
Poitín distilling continued to rise, as the Irish got wise to ways of avoiding taxation by hiding their spirit in concealed cellars, and the London Parliament responded by implementing tighter legislation. In an all-out campaign to maximise the collection of excise duties in a more efficient manner throughout Ireland, the first revenue personnel were appointed by the Irish Government in Dublin, during 1662, but the efforts of these officers of the law achieved little success. Not surprisingly, with ample alcohol available, the people made particularly good use of it. It was at this time that the custom of ‘Wetting the Shamrock’ became a popular tradition, known as the drinking of ‘Pota Pádraig’ (Patrick’s Little Pot’), as did the ‘Wearing of the Green’ on St. Patrick’s Day. There are records of English visitors noting that very few Irishmen that they encountered that night were found to be sober.
It was in 1771 that the government passed “The Pot Still Act”, the aim of which was to prevent corn being ‘wasted’ and used for distilling. But the act had a very disastrous impact on those businesses which legitimately distilled whiskey and other spirits, for they now became liable for these crippling taxes and many were forced to close-down their operations. The tax itself was based on pot still capacity, which simply meant that the government in London would generate tax revenues regardless of how much spirit was produced or hidden. But the Irish had a few more tricks up their sleeves, such as distilling in smaller capacity stills. This meant that they could charge, boil, and empty the stills around the clock, making spirits while paying less tax. According to contemporary sources, however, the finished product was very rough and not at all pleasant on the tongue. The best poitín, and the cheapest, was still to be found in the stills of those who paid no mind to government taxes or revenue men.
The rough terrain and isolation of the West of Ireland became the major source of illegal stills and places likes Inishmurray, for example, became infamous for the making of Poitín. This was due, in part, to the fact that there was no natural embarkation point that gave easy access to the Island, which meant that any visits by the forces of law and order were few and far between. Thus, because of the lack of official interference the people of the island became known as the makers of the best illegal whiskey in all of County Sligo and marketing their famed product as "Old Inishmurray". On those rare occasions when government Revenue Officers did arrive on the island, they had to hire boats from the locals, who would quickly pass on warnings to the poitín distillers. Then, because there was an absence of any sheltered landing spots on Inishmurray, the local boatmen always circled the Island as they searched for the easiest available landing place. The warnings and the delay in the arrival of the revenue men ensured that the islanders usually had their illicit brew well hidden by the time anyone got ashore. As a result of all this endeavour, by the late 1800s, in Inishmurray the making and sale of poitín was the main economic activity for all the population and provided the greater part of their income.
Another small island, Inishkea, off the coast of Mayo also had an extremely limited source of income. Fishing and potion provided the islanders with products that could be sold or traded on the mainland. Like the people of Inishmurray, the Inishkea islanders had found themselves a ready market for their illicit poitín within the clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, and among the local police forces. There were always customers on Achill Island, who eagerly awaited any new shipments of poitín that came their way. Unfortunately, the piecemeal shipping of the illegal whiskey eventually led to tragedy in 1898 when an islander and his daughter were lost at sea while rowing to Achill with a cargo of poitín.
Towards the end of the 18th century it became quite common for illicit stills to be built and operated on those estates where the Landlord was absent. The income helped pay rents to the agents, who took a healthy interest in the profits that could be made. Determined to suppress illicit distilling and act was signed into law by King George III, in 1787, which was called the ‘Peace Preservation Act’. Through the introduction of this act it was hoped the government would be able to ensure that its laws were enforced and obeyed throughout the Kingdom, including Ireland. As part of this ‘Peace Preservation Act,’ Protestant Chief Constables were appointed in each Barony in Ireland. These Baronial constables became known, generally, as the ‘Old Barneys’, and they lacked discipline, supervision and even uniforms. Furthermore, the ‘Old Barneys’ and were responsible for more disorder and unrest than actually keeping the peace.
Then, in 1779, those who distilled spirits had to obtain a license to do so, which meant that private distillation was now outlawed throughout the Kingdom and Ireland. It was a tough time for the countless illicit distillers in the country, who found that the most effective form of escaping the law was to emigrate. The whiskey that was now legally distilled under this new licence, and on which the excise duty was paid, became commonly known as ‘Parliament Whiskey’. But, with these additional taxes, licences, quotas, and new regulations the quality of ‘Parliament Whiskey’ declined while the cost of production increased and was passed on to the customers, giving the illicit distillers that remained a large market. In fact, it has been estimated that during the four years between 1802 and 1806 there were over 13,400 unlicensed stills seized by Revenue men, which demonstrates that the illegal trade had not yet disappeared.
In 1814 a second ‘Peace Preservation Act’ was passed, which increased the numbers of uniformed constables, and placed a Magistrate into each Barony. This new police force was known as the 'Peace Preservation Force' and one of their main tasks was to work with the revenue men and clamp down heavily on the illicit distillation trade. It was recorded that in 1822 there were about 500 revenue men (or ‘poitín peelers’) stationed in 71 revenue stations, and this number rose to almost 1100 by 1836. Many of the men who made up this new ‘Peace Preservation Force’ were demobilised soldiers who, having returned from the Napoleonic Wars found themselves looking for employment. The new taxes and the introduction of licenses didn’t eliminate the poitín tradition in Ireland, they just forced the poitín makers into the hills and other remote areas of the island. Now, with the two forces facing each other the war between the poitín makers and the authorities began in earnest.
Those who chose to continue their illegal poitín making always chose windy, broken weather to go about their business to ensure that the smoke from the still fire would be widely dispersed. The still was heated by turf fire and attended to for several days, which allow several runs to go through the process. The grey, sweet-smelling smoke that rose into the air was the tell-tale sign that alerted the police and revenue men to the still’s location. It was only with the advent of butane and propane gas to provide the necessary heat that made detection from smoke more difficult. The illicit stills continued to grow in number and when one was seized its replacement would begin operations a few days later. To bring further pressure on the illicit distillers, the authorities drew up a plan which would prove to be highly effective in the struggle. More and more police stations were opened throughout Ireland, which accommodated a number of officers that varied from time to time, and from place to place. This proved to be a master stroke, causing the making of illegal whiskey to be greatly reduced everywhere. In one fell swoop the principle economic activity of many remote rural communities quickly ceased to function, and the inhabitants had to return to a life based on the wretched subsistence that they could obtain from tilling their meagre holdings. As a result, the population of these communities went into sharp decline and those that remained found that they could barely subsist.
It can be said that the demise of the poitín trade in Ireland truly began during the 1820’s, with a combination of factors contributing to it. These factors included an increase in the number of police and revenue raids, a reduction in duties on ‘Parliament Whiskey’30 making it more affordable, the Famine and, also, the increase in popularity of Guinness in rural Ireland. Between 1780 and 1822 the number of legal distilleries in the country dropped from several hundred to just forty, many of which were involved in the production of Poitín. The key ingredients of the Poitín at this time were Potatoes and Sugar and Yeast, which is vastly different from the ingredients that are used in modern whiskey distillation, namely Barley and Water and Yeast. Illegal poitín was still being produced in the more rural areas of the country. But, because the stills were fuelled by turf, the rising smoke would alert watchful police and raided. To combat police and revenue raids the illicit distillers employed men to act as lookouts, ho were posted at vantage points around the still’s location. Some inventive men used iron rods as to detect unwanted visitors. By putting a plank on the road, with vertical iron rods placed on it, they could hold their ear to the other end and hear galloping horses’ approach from five miles distant.
Generally, in the rural areas of Ireland, the local communities supported the poitín makers, and many raids by the forces of law and order became full on confrontations between the two groups. Adding to communal anger with the police and revenue men was the introduction of ‘The Parish Fine,’ which was imposed upon an entire parish in which an illicit still was discovered. One such confrontation was recorded in newspapers describing a revenue man with an escort of twenty troops seized three illegal stills and was subsequently approached by an angry crowd. The escort troops opened fire on the crowd and killed several of their number. When word of the killings spread throughout the district a large crowd quickly gathered and sought revenge. The troops had, by this time, reached the town of Ballybay, and it was on this place that the mob converged. They angry mob attacked the troops in the town and the ensuing confrontation left only six of the soldiers and the revenue man as survivors. While such encounters were not widespread, many similar events did occur. This was due to relationships between the people and the police becoming strained as the years passed, and the inhabitants struggled to subsist in their poor environment. In many remote areas the police found themselves subjected to a boycott, which effectively cut-off their supplies and communications. When it became obvious that there was no prospect of a resolution to the problem, the police/revenue station was eventually closed, which was the signal for the resumption of illicit distillation in the area.
In 1831 the 'Illicit Distillation Act (Ir.)' increased the powers of the new revenue police. Revenue men, commonly known as ‘Gaugers’ were employed to collect taxes and issue fines on behalf of the Government, and because of this work they quickly became marked men. They had to face the anger of the poitín makers and their families who were extremely reluctant to give up this extra source of income. At the same time, the ‘Guagers’ also discovered that many landlords were also unwilling to help by giving up the poitín makers. Although many of the landlords in Ireland were also Magistrates and Law Officers, the poitín makers were rent payers and maintained the income of the same landlords. On many occasions the ‘Guagers’ enlisted the help of the army in carrying out their duties, but this too proved very problematic. The army in their red coats could be seen from a distance, and they struggled through bog land and over the hilly terrain with their heavy uniforms and equipment allowing the poitín makers to escape capture. Nevertheless, in 1832, a government report on illicit distillation stated clearly that although Poitín must have been plentiful in past days, those days are gone and that poitín is almost extinct. In 1837, however, a 'Poor Law' report was published in which it was stated that an Irishman could get 'dead-drunk' for as little as two-pence. It reflected the price of 'Parliament Whiskey' being as much as thirteen shillings per gallon, while poitín was only three shillings per gallon. As the price of corn continued to fall, the poitín makers were able to pass this reduction on to their customers, whereas the legal whiskey still had to pay all the government taxes. As a result, illicit distilling continued unabated into the early decades of the Twentieth Century, particularly in the Urris hills of Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula. In fact, the Urris hills became such a hive of poitín making that the area quickly became referred to as ‘The Urris Poitin Republic’.
Poitín production enjoyed a mini-revival at the beginning of the 20th century, due to the fact that the Police (The Royal Irish Constabulary – RIC) were now focussing their activities on the war with the I.R.A. an Ireland’s fight for Independence. Although the focus of law enforcement was now diverted from the illicit poitín maker, the Sinn Fein rebellion offered no security. Many members of Sinn Fein were, indeed, ‘Pioneers’ and were very much opposed to poitín making and the drinking of alcohol in general. The rebel leadership were of the opinion that if men fighting for freedom were drunk on alcohol they couldn’t train or fight efficiently. At this time, when someone was suspected of involvement in the poitín trade they were hauled before local ‘Republican Courts’, where fines were imposed and the poitín maker was made stand in front of the congregation at Mass while his still was destroyed. Because the R.I.C. were seen as agents of a foreign power, attacks upon the staff and property increased and became widespread. The attacks and boycotts brought about an increase in resignations from the force, which encouraged the poitín makers, who could now work in relative comfort. Then, following the ‘Truce’ in July 1921, the R.I.C. was finally disbanded in 1922.
With the formation of the ‘Irish Free State’ in 1922, the Provisional Government’s immediate concern was to bring stability back to the country. The ‘Civic Guards’ (Garda) were the first Free State Police Force to be established in 1922, recruiting many former R.I.C. members, and this once again allowed the forces of law and order to clamp down on the illicit distillation trade. The Free State government very much concerned, from an early date, with containing the alcohol problem in the country. The Intoxicating Liquor Act (1924) reduced the opening hours of public houses and, three years later, another act reduced the number of licensed premises. These steps once again, brought about many bitter and bloody encounters between the Garda and the illegal distillers throughout the country. In this renewed conflict the first Garda officer to be killed while on duty searching for a poitín still was Garda Thomas Dowling, from Fanore Garda Station in County Clare, who was shot dead during an ambush on his raiding party in 1925.
The distillation of Poitín remained illegal in Ireland from 1661 until the 7th March 1997. Finally, after centuries of vilification and illicit distillation in hidden locations, production for export purposes was finally made legal in Ireland in 1987. In the beginning this permission was just assigned to Oliver Dillon, from Bunratty Winery, but in 1989 the law was expanded to include other producers. It wasn't until 1997, however, that the Irish Revenue Commissioners finally permitted the drink to be sold for consumption within Ireland. Then, in 2008 it was granted Geographical Indicative Status by the EU. Despite this progress, poitín still remains illegal in Northern Ireland.
In the mid-twentieth century the introduction of bottled gas had made poitín making quicker and harder to detect. In various locations so-called poitín makers suddenly sprang-up and began to distil large batches for profit. To cut expenses and improve profits they added various chemicals like bluestone, or parazone, to increase the effect of the poitín. Having something approaching mythical status in Ireland, Poitín popularity grew and plenty of rural people were able to point to their own source of the stuff, which was probably outside of any official production oversight. There are still numerous stories doing the rounds about poitín making people blind or exploding in barns as a result of a failed distillation process. Meanwhile, the legal Poitín that can be bought in Ireland today is much smoother and more palatable to drink, being approximately 40% – 45% proof. However, if you look hard enough it shouldn’t be too difficult to find someone who is still producing some excellent home distilled Irish Poitín the way it used to be made.
Traditionally poitín is created using grain or potatoes as a base, which are made into a wash to be distilled in a homemade copper still. Open turf fires are then used to heat the still before a corn flour and oatmeal paste is applied to seal the still joints to avoid alcohol loss. In order to determine the cut points, the distiller would throw a sample of the spirit onto the still and observe if it caught fire. The old style of poitín distilling was from a malted barley base for the mash, the same as single-malt whiskey or pure, pot-still whiskey distilled in Ireland. In more recent times, some distillers deviated from using malted barley as a base of the mash bill due to the cost and availability instead switching to using treacle, corn, and potatoes. It is believed that it was this switch led to the deteriorating quality and character of poitín in the late twentieth century. The quality of poitín produced was highly variable and depended greatly on the skill of the distiller and the quality of their equipment. Reputations were built on the quality of the distiller's poitín, and many families became known for their distilling expertise. But, equally, a bad batch of poitín could put a distiller out of business almost overnight. In those cases, alleging that the drink could cause blindness, it is likely that such an outcome was possible due to the modern trend adulterating the drink with chemicals, rather than lack of quality.
The legal version of poitín is not widely consumed in pubs of Ireland, but neither is it unheard of. In fact, there are some bars that have started doing cocktails with the stuff, too. However, you can now bring poitín home from numerous off-licences throughout the country, which can be anywhere between 40% and a borderline ridiculous 90% alcohol. Legalisation has brought a great increase in the number of legalised stills and, having risen to an EU-recognised Geographical Indicative status, authentic Poitín can only be produced and sold under that name when made in Ireland. But it is regional enough that you’re fairly unlikely to stumble across Poitín outside of Ireland, and this makes it a great gift.
Poitín is Ireland’s most ancient spirit and is often referred to as Ireland’s mezcal, cachaça, grappa and, most commonly, moonshine. The main question for the uninitiated, however, is, “Will I like it?” If you haven’t tried it then you can join the majority of native Irish who are in the same boat. Sadly, many Irish pubs don’t even stock it because it is considered to be a speciality drink that is vastly different from the casual tipple, as whiskey would be. Take a tip, however, from someone who has tasted both legal and illicit Poitín and, if you decide to give it a try, take it easy. Finally, I would suggest that a glass of Poitín is something you should try at least once in your life.