Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bunratty Potcheen

I went into the liquor store the other day, wondering what I’d find that was missing from my cabinet at home. I wound up buying the one brand of unaged whiskey the store sold: Bunratty Potcheen.

"White dog," "moonshine," "liquid bachelor party" – call it what you will*, unaged whiskey is something of a fad these days, and there are a lot of craft distillers making it. Since it's not aged in wooden barrels (or anywhere else) before bottling, it's a clear liquor rather than caramel colored, and it lacks the complexity of flavor and aroma maturing in wood gives most whiskies.

Potcheen, or poteen, is the Irish version of moonshine, traditionally made from barley, though other grains (and even potatoes) can be used. The word comes from poitin, Irish for "little pot," and refers to the small pot stills used to make it.

Back in 1661, the Crown levied a tax on distilled spirits, and in 1770 all unlicensed distilling was outlawed in Ireland. You won’t, I expect, be shocked to learn that these laws didn't prevent the Irish from making potcheen without bothering the Crown about it, nor that they found the time to write songs about their moonshine.
Now learned men as use the pen
Have writ' the praises high
Of the sweet poteen from Ireland green
That's made from wheat and rye.

Away with your pills, it'll cure all ills,
Be ye pagan, Christian, or Jew.
So take off your coat and grease your throat
With a bucket of the mountain dew.
Old habits die hard, and it was only in 1989 that the Republic of Ireland first granted a license to make potcheen for export. Eight years later they gave in and let it be sold within Ireland. Still, the label of my bottle proudly (and, dare I suggest, shrewdly) states, "EXPORT ONLY… It is illegal to sell or consume this product in Ireland."

Bunratty, which also sells an Irish-style mead, plays up the outlaw romance angle in its marketing, but this is not your grandfather's poitin. For one thing, it's only 90 proof, where the old mountain dew would be closer to pure grain alcohol. (Knockeen Hills, the other company that sells poteen in the U.S., bottles it at 110, 160, and 180 proof.) For another, it's not distilled over a bog fire, and so lacks any hint of peat. And would your grandfather have added the "natural flavors" that make Bunratty more than a straight grain distillate? (Maybe he would, come to think of it; I wasn’t there.)

This potcheen's nose (look at me, nosing moonshine; like I said, it's something of a fad) gives me mineral oil and berries –- and if you have to ask why you would drink something that smells like mineral oil, then raw whiskey may not be for you. The taste has a fruity note, and though you know you're drinking grain spirit, overall it's surprisingly smooth going down when sipped. (Of course, if you want the sensation of 45% abv splashing against the back of your throat, go ahead and splash.) It has a dry, clean finish, with maybe a hint of artificial cherry flavor. A thimble of water didn't seem to do anything other than cloud the drink and water down the flavor.

I'm not sure how I'll wind up drinking the rest of the bottle. It's a pleasant and unusual drink sipped neat, and though I've seen claims that it can be used in any cocktail calling for whiskey or vodka, I'm not sure how well the fruity notes of the potcheen will actually mix. Though, now that I think of it, maybe a planter's poteen punch?

* You can call it what you will as far as I'm concerned, but there are those (including various governments) who are very particular with terms. Some people get their dander up if you use "moonshine" to mean anything other than illegally distilled liquor; others get upset if you call something "whiskey" that hasn't aged in oak barrels. Where chemistry, marketing, and culture meet, there's bound to be a lot of friction.

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