Whisky Magazine Issue 8
This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.
Copyright Whisky Magazine © 1999-2014. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.
Ireland is rich in myths about the magic powers of poitin, the aromatic spirit that was distilled illegally for centuries. But now it has a new life on the right side of the law. Susy Atkins traces its rise from moonshine to respectability
Go to the dark, smoky old bar in Bunratty, Shannon, western Ireland and you might well meet a poitin (pronounced ‘potcheen') maker. You can sit with him and enjoy a glass or two of his clear, fiery spirit. The locals will chat and drink poitin with you too, and they'll tell you romantic, very tall tales of Irish moonshine. The bottle sits on the optic, where everyone can see it, and is so popular it has to be replenished regularly.
What's strange about this scene is that it holds no interest for the local gardai (policemen). Until recently, all Irish poitin was illegal. Sure, it was made and sold both north and south of the border, and many respectable characters enjoyed the odd drop of it. But until Oliver Dillon was granted a licence to distil poitin in Bunratty, you could, in theory, be sent to jail for making the stuff.
Not so long ago, the parish priest couldn't forgive you for distilling poitin, only the bishop, indicating how evil the spirit was considered to be. Now Mr Dillon has a licence to distil poitin and everyone seems happy.
Before I met him in Shannon, I had only ever tried illegal poitin once – a gloweringly purple, sweet, plum-flavoured spirit regularly served up by a friend in County Fermanagh. It was surprisingly good – not too fierce, but rich and fruity and amazingly warming on a bitter and rainy winter night. My friend buys it regularly from an illicit distiller on the Donegal border.
“You have to be careful about your source,” he warns....