Ah, moonshine. The name evokes images of the backwoods, of whiskey runners dodging the government, of stills patched together, and mason jars of clear liquid passed around for the enjoyment of all. Maybe even, for the hardcore, going blind from the stuff.
Here in the US, we’ve had a moonshine moment. In 2015, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, white/corn whiskey sold 2.2 million 9-liter cases, making it the second largest group, behind bourbon/Tennessee whiskey (which had 17.4 million of the 20.4 million cases sold).
It might not be a surprise, but we weren’t the first ones to be making moonshine. The fellows who first started making whiskey in the hinterlands of Appalachia and elsewhere had to come from somewhere, and that somewhere happened to be Ireland (and Scotland, but we’re focusing on Ireland here). For centuries, the Irish have been making their own moonshine, which they call poitín.
The word poitín comes from the diminutive word for pot, as the liquid was (and still is) made in a little copper pot still. Pronounced by various people as po-teen, po-cheen, or pu-cheen, poitín has been made in the bog lands and backwoods of Ireland for centuries (though not legally until 1997) and passed around in just about the exact same way that people today share true moonshine.
(Funny how drinking traditions can be the same, regardless of place and time, isn’t it?)
Made primarily from barley or potatoes, the proof ranges widely—from as low as 40% ABV all the way up to 90 or 95% ABV.
You read that right. Ninety-five percent alcohol by volume. The high end possibility here is what makes it capable of being the strongest drink on the planet. It’s easy to see why, for centuries, it was illegal to produce (what with the literally having the ability to make you sick and all).
Now, though, the times they are a-changing and, slowly, Irish whiskey companies have been putting out their own poitíns. Most aren’t for sale in the US, but Connacht Whiskey Company, based two and a half hours west of Dublin in Ballina, has begun to import their Straw Boys Poitín. Made from malted barley in the traditional small copper pot still, Straw Boys Poitín is nowhere near the strength of the stuff you’d find wandering the bogs of Ireland (it comes in at 45% ABV), but hey, if you’re going to start drinking a new spirit, it’s probably for the best to start on the easier stuff. At the very least, you’ll get to actually taste it, instead of becoming violently ill by downing something made almost completely from alcohol.