Talk of Irish whiskey always gets louder this time of year. The spirit has seen galactic growth. In 2020, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade organization, more than 5 million 9-liter cases of Irish whiskey were sold in the United States, generating $1.1 billion in revenue for distillers. Compare that to just over a decade ago, when sales clocked in at 1.1 million cases, generating $197 million.
There were more than 200 licensed distilleries in Ireland in the 1800s, and the United States imported more Irish whiskey than any other before Prohibition, which contributed to its demise. By the 1990s, there were just three operating distilleries in Ireland. Today there are more than 35 and counting. But all the excitement around the recent coup has driven discussion of Irish whiskey’s origins into realms occupied by academic-level spirits cognoscenti. (Read: super-nerds.) That’s changing. These days you might spot bottles of poitín (POT-cheen) in the whiskey aisle. The clear spirit is an ancestor of Irish whiskey, much like mezcal, which traditionally comes from small, family-run operations and is the forebear of tequila.
The earliest record of poitín, Gaelic for “pot,” a reference to the still shape, dates to the sixth century, when it was distilled by monastic settlements in Ireland. It fell off as whiskey evolved into a commercial industry and in 1661, an excise tax was levied on spirit-makers. Urban operations handed over their dues, but some distillers fled to the countryside where they set up secretive enterprises. Poitín is often called Irish moonshine, but that implies the crude firewater associated with American Prohibition-era bootleggers. That’s not the case here. Skilled Irish distillers produced the drink through a labor-intensive process and contemporary producers want to make that point.
“With the American craft distilling revival in full swing, we started seeing producers rediscover older whiskey styles, like rye and bottled-in-bond bourbon,” said Donal O’Gallachoir, founder and American brand manager of Glendalough Distillery, in Wicklow, Ireland. “We started asking, why is nobody doing that for Irish whiskey? Poitín has been completely overlooked, but it’s the backbone of Irish distilling heritage.” Glendalough released a poitín in 2014.
Long unregulated, poitín was granted a geographic indication (like Champagne or Burgundy) in 2015 that legally defines it as an unaged spirit distilled in Ireland from grains. Other ingredients, like potatoes and beets, are allowed, too. There are also regulations around production methods. The result is a full-bodied malty spirit. John Ralph, who created Mad March Hare Poitín in 2015, suggests using it as the base in classic whiskey drinks. Describing poitín as “a brown spirit in a white jacket,” he recommends it in a Moscow mule.