Poitín is the least well-known drink from a country famous for its drunks. Poitín—pronounced po-CHEEN, usually with a moist slur on the last syllable—is the oldest distilled drink in Ireland, and maybe the world. Before there was Jameson and Bushmills, there was poitín.
Poitín is Irish moonshine, made with potatoes and a bucket. The world poitín comes from pota, the Irish word for a small pot. Long illegal, in 1997 it became legal to sell poitín again in the Republic of Ireland, provided it was made at an actual distillery, rather than, say, your barn. (It remains banned in Northern Ireland.)
However, the path to respectability remains slow, and most pubs in Ireland, when you ask for poitín, will inform you with a scowl, "That's illegal," like you've just asked for a rock of crack.
Donal O'Gallachoir is the US brand manager and co-owner of Glendalough distilleries, a craft distillery in County Wicklow that produces three varieties of poitín. He's in the process of getting it better known in the US, while his partners in Ireland are busy removing its stigma at home.
"It's the first spirit ever distilled," O'Gallachoir says. "Every bottle of booze on every back bar in the world has its roots in poitín." Monastic records show poitín was distilled at least as far back as 584 AD, but it was in 1661 that it went underground, to avoid paying an English distillery tax.
"It was then kept alive in an illicit romance in rural Ireland, away from the Crown," O'Gallachoir says. "Often poitín would be distilled in windy days so as to break up the smoke from the fire. A handful of families and regions kept poitín alive until it was legalized in 1997."
It's all very romantic, but made the wrong way it can strike you blind or even kill you, like any country liquor. O'Gallachoir stresses that many families made a craft out of it, and reputations were built on the quality of your poitín.
"Now there is a resurgence of the craft of poitín distillation, and the Glendalough Distillery is at the front of that," O'Gallachoir brags.
But is Glendalough producing real poitín? Some say no.
Mark Bagnall, assistant supervisor at the Irish Whiskey Museum in Dublin, says the poitín sold in shops is "not the same" as traditional poitín. "New people are making a new spirit, and that's what they're selling as poitín."
Bagnall says if it's real poitín, it's illegal. Or at least it's technically illegal—he says the best poitín in Ireland is sold by cops and it's "almost accepted" as long as your operation doesn't get too big.
He points to a big bust in County Cavan in 2015, where a man was found with a distillery in his backyard, and they seized 2,000 litres of wash and a pile of other material used to make poitín.
Bagnall says the poitín in the shops is basically unaged whiskey, made from grain rather than the traditional potatoes, and usually "only" 40 percent alcohol per volume, whereas illegal poitín can be up to 80 or 90 percent alcohol.
Bagnall grew up in the Irish midlands, and said poitín was easily found there. Not only did they drink it, but they used it as a topical rub. "My dad, years ago, had his knee reconstructed," Bagnall says. "A local man did his physio. He made a concoction that would stink, I'll never forget it. It was olive oil, plus Deep Heat, plus poitín." The rest of the staff at the Whiskey Museum also insist it's good for arthritis and back pain.
So, if it's everywhere, then why is it so hard to get?
It's like marijuana in Vancouver: They tell you it's everywhere, you can smell it everywhere, but as soon as you go around asking for it, the assumption is you're a cop and no one wants to have anything to do with you, even if your accent makes it clear you're from across the ocean.
Throughout the cities of Ireland I went looking for authentic poitín, and at each pub I was met with either a blank stare or a gruff rebuff that they didn't have any. At the Crane Bar in Galway, the bouzouki player-cum-barman was kind enough to say, "Now, that's illegal," and explained that if he did stock poitín, he would lose his license.
He and the other patrons did engage in a long discussion of where I could find it, but their best answer was that I drive deep into the country (I didn't have a car) and knock on doors asking. They seemed to believe the small city of Galway was much too large for anyone to drink poitín.
It fell to asking friends, Airbnb hosts, and people we met. Many of the people we spoke to, including the entire staff at the Whiskey Museum, were certain they knew someone who had it and called them up, only to discover that no, they weren't holding.
One kid we stayed with was certain he could get it and made a couple calls, but came back with a dime-bag of chronic instead. An old friend was sure his dad had it but, after a phone call, found it had been consumed. At one point, we had a small army of Irish weirdos out looking for the stuff.
Maeve O'Reilly, an Irish friend of ours now living in London, remembers drinking it as a teenager at the Oxegen Festival in Punchestown Racecourse. Someone slipped it to her in a plastic bottle and, being 17, she took a fat swig. "Paint stripper," is how she describes it. She's stayed away since, and says her family do, too.
Finally, I had to settle for a mickey of the legal stuff. Finding that alone was hard enough, but eventually I stumbled into a bottle shop in Kilkenny that had something called Two Trees Poitín, and we drank a few shots of it that night.
O'Reilly did not lie when she said it tasted like paint thinner—it's some godawful shit. The only other liquor I can possibly compare it to is baiju, the clear Chinese liquor that exists only to make living in China tolerable.
Even O'Gallachoir, whose job is to get people to drink it, admits it's an acquired taste.
"Poitín has such a distinctive flavour profile," he says. "It has the 'What the hell is that!' reaction when people taste it. Many people have never tried anything like poitín before." Still, he insists it's great in cocktails.
After two weeks, we left Ireland on the boat to France. No, we never got to try proper poitín. But at least I have my eyesight.