Before you can be famous for great whiskey, you have to invent whatever comes before it. For the Irish, that was poitín (puu-tcheen). It means “little pot” in Gaelic, named for what early Irish distillers used to make the spirit. It’s been the subject of poetry, music, stories, fairy tales, cultural movements, and political diatribes. In some ways, it’s been more influential in Irish drinking culture than the whiskey we more readily associate with the island, and its history is a wild read that would rival that of our own illegal alcohol production.
Which means, yes, we’re basically talking about Irish moonshine, though this drink easily predates the American word we now use to talk about unaged, unregulated alcohol. Depending on who you get it from, you could get a sweet drink like so many of our own white whiskeys, or you could get a peppery, rough, ass-kicking drink (it can run anywhere from 80 to 180 proof). It depends on how loyal to the ancient spirit the distiller is.
You’ll also run into a crowd in Ireland that doesn’t fully support the commercialization of the drink, similar to how some Americans hold tight to the old definition of moonshine. But since we have an ocean in between us and the source, we have to drink what we can get here. This St. Patrick’s Day, pick up one of these bottles of poitín.
Glendalough Mountain Strength Poitín
Glendalough’s poitín is fairly straightforward. They’re not trying to reinvent a new style of whiskey. They just want to bring a traditional spirit back into the fold in an approachable way. This poitín certainly achieves that, with a drink that will cause some burning, but not so much that it will scare away anyone but the particularly risk averse. This is a good bottle to try if you’re not sure you should be dabbling in this unfamiliar style. If you like this one, go ahead and start experimenting with others. $35
Spirit of Dublin
Teeling Whiskey Co. makes another great poitín. We found it no less enjoyable than others, but it hits a little harder up front. There’s still sweetness and depth of flavor to savor, you just have to like when a spirit starts out with a strong kick.
The reason Teeling is a good company to guide you through your poitín experience is their mixing of tradition and innovation. They’re happy to pay respect to Irish tradition, but they’re not going to let it lock them into a single style or expression. Their poitín definitely honors the past, while still allowing them to make some changes. $38
From what we’ve heard from aging Irishmen, the best poitín is made by mashing together whatever leftover starches or sugars you have laying around the farm. If you’re going to take their word for it, Bán Poitín seems to be as close as you can get. It’s made from potatoes, malted barley, and sugar beets, three things that farmers centuries ago would have had ready access to. Those three together creates a unique flavor, so expect something exciting and delicious, but not so easy drinking. Much closer to what old guys meant when they said something would put hair on your chest. $40
Micil Irish Poitín
Maybe we don’t do enough botanical reading, but until we’d seen Micil Irish Poitín, we’d never heard of bogbean. We’re still not sure what it is either, so this recommendation is coming with a serious blindspot for one of the ingredients in the spirit. Whatever it is, it definitely adds some flavor we’ve never tasted to the poitín. It’s sort of herbal and spicy. Like a gin that leans into the juniper, but has some rye whiskey mixed in. That’s not quite the right way to talk about this poitín, but since we’ve never had another spirit with bogbean in it, that’s about where we can land without getting into wildly speculative mixtures and inventions. $35