Much like the Bourbon Belt in America during Prohibition, Ireland has a rich history of getting boozed up outside of the law. And if you have the chance to go to Ireland and want to get your hands on it, you’ll have to ask for it by name: poitín.
Often called the original water of life (which is where the word, ‘whiskey,’ comes from), poitín has an ancient history so engraved in Irish culture, it’s even in the language. While the word itself comes from, ‘pota,’ meaning, ‘little pot,’ it lends itself to the word póit, which means, ‘hangover.’ Basically, it’s hard to have a póit without a pota of poitín.
The distilling of poitín goes all the way back to nearly 550AD. And from day one, it could be made from, well, nearly whatever was on hand. Malted barley and sugar beets came first, and then with the discovery of the New World, potatoes were added into the mix. These days, poitín can be made from just about anything– rye, granulated sugar, and more. Because of that, you can find poitín made with all sort of ingredients and flavors– fruity, peppery, smoky, and plenty of others.
Unlike vodka, which is also made of potatoes, poitín actually has a naturally sweet taste. Although don’t take that for granted– at 60-90% ABV, it’ll get you drunk. Fast. Various enjoyers have described this process as, ‘violent,’ ‘disturbingly fast,’ and, ‘it blows the head off ye.’
Like moonshine, poitín mostly found its home in rural, mountainous areas where it was easier to hide the pot stills from law enforcement. Fortunately for Ireland, it was also mostly brewed on rainy days, as the smoke from said-stills could be easily hidden by the grey and gloomy atmosphere.
If you make it over to Ireland and want to get your hands on the good stuff, here are a couple rules to remember:
1. It’s pronounced, ‘puut-cheen.’ Not, ‘potion!’
2. Legend has it, if you’re hungover on poitín, don’t drink water (it will just make you drunk again!)
3. We’re serious about #2. Apparently, it has something to do with how dehydrated poitín can make you the morning after. Or maybe the alcohol crystalizes in your stomach and the water melts it. We don’t know. We’ve consulted a number of Irish gaffers on this and they all have different stories.
4. Rubbing it on your joints can apparently ease arthritis.
5. Leave it alone long enough, and it’ll clean anything.
6. Add some ice or a bit of water to avoid blacking out too fast. Or drink it straight. You’ll learn your lesson quick enough.
7. Connoisseurs say to avoid the stuff made at distilleries and sold in grocery stores. If you can find it brewed the old way– by someone’s unlicensed uncle or brother, in the mountains, in a small, copper pot on a rainy day– do it. You might not remember you night on poitín, but you can always say that you did it the right way.