New life is being breathed into the traditional Irish spirit poitín, which for centuries was brewed up illicitly around the country. Now a new generation of distillers are putting their own spin on the old moonshine, but still retaining its bad boy credentials, like Bán Poitín.
How many bottles of poitín have you got or even seen on the back bar? But after centuries in the spirits wilderness, poitín is now an accepted part of the spirits family and more importantly has a growing fan base, both in the bar world and (very) discerning drinkers.
A hellraiser of the old school, a glowering, brooding bad boy with a dodgy past and a rakish reputation, poitín is Ireland’s most notorious spirit.
It is to Irish whiskey what mezcal is to tequila, and what absinthe is to Pernod, an underground, formerly illegal spirit native to Ireland and a pre-cursor to modern day whiskey.
Banned in 1660 for over 300 years because of its incredible potency (typically, poitín could be up to 95% abv), and the fact that the Irish government was unable to get the poitín makers to pay duty on it, production was driven underground.
But it was produced illegally for centuries, and subsequently demonised by the church.
It wasn’t until 1989 that legal production for export was allowed in Ireland, and in 1997 the Irish Revenue Commissioners finally allowed the drink to be sold for consumption within Ireland.
But despite its decidedly rackety history, poitín is now enjoying something of a renaissance, and Irish couple Cara Humphries and her partner Dave Mulligan (pictured), have recently launched a new brand, Bán Poitín, which is stirring up the bar world.
Made at the Echlinville distillery in Newtownards, Northern Ireland, from locally sourced ingredients including potatoes, malted barley and sugar beet, Bán Poitín is a heady brew of 48% abv. The biggest difference to modern Irish whiskey is in its colour.
However, unlike whiskey which is aged in oak, Bán Poitín is bottled straight from the still. “Bán doesn’t need wood to give it character – it’s a statement of origin, a serious drinker’s drink, not for the faint hearted,” claims Humphries.
“At the minute bartenders are loving it,” she continues. “It is also connecting with anyone who is interested in small independent spirits, or chasing stuff that’s new. It’s words like ‘illegal’ and ‘notorious’ that get people going, and it sits well in dive bars and rock and roll sort of places.”
While the original poitíns were as addictive as the craic, and probably tasted – and felt – like fire, modern day producers such as Bán Poitín are making a liquid one can actually enjoy. While poitín is most commonly compared to whiskey, the addition of beets and potato gives it a very different flavour than a simple grain distillate. Bán Poitín has full mouthfeel, is slightly sweet, and is a surprisingly robust sip.
But how to serve it? After all, it’s not a drink you come across every day.
Humphries says there are no hard and fast rules. “We always say to people to ‘drink it like you would your whiskey’. If you like it neat start there, with ice and water. But it goes awesome with stout, boiler maker style, neat as before in a cocktail and we have a new shot serve that we released on St Patricks day – the Bán & Black; a shot of Bán chased with a shot of stout, pickle back style.”
So how does Bán Poitín compare to other poitíns already on the market?
“There are a few poitín’s out there but none that are purely poitín focused,” explains Humphries. “Our goal is to make it accessible to everyone, take it out from the underground but respect the tradition of the poitín’s maker.
“We grow and malt our own barley and the potatoes come from down the road so ingredients-wise it would have been close to how the old boys used to do it. OK they didn’t have big shiny stills but we do use copper pots again as it would have been!”
The spirit is double pot distilled to retain the flavour of its ingredients, and unlike gin, nothing is added, nor like vodka stripped of its flavour. Malted barley is the backbone of the spirit, with potatoes and sugar beet molasses also used during the fermentation.
Launched last autumn, it is now available online and in some major retail outlets and independents, as well as a number of hip and high end bars in and restaurants in London, including The Sun Tavern, The Blind Pig, Hawksmoor and the Cooly Calleh.
It’s even stocked in Selfridges, showing how respectable the former Irish moonshine has become.
But however far poitín has come, it’s still not a drink for the faint-hearted.