Spirit of the underground

The romance died when the Irish legalised poteen, says Richard Johnson
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I hate lounge-bar philosophers. Like the bearded man in my local. "Descartes goes into this pub, right? The barman says: 'Pint is it?' Descartes says: 'I think not' – and disappears." The bearded man explained that this was an existential joke. "You see, it was Descartes who said, 'I think – therefore I am.' Which is why he disappeared!" The joke still wasn't funny. But it reminded me of my own Descartes joke. 'I am – therefore I think.' Or would that be putting Descartes before Deshorses? Now that's funny.

Anyway, I've managed to avoid the bearded man recently. But today is St Patrick's Day, and the bearded man is Irish. At least he says he is. His feelings about things Irish don't really transcend Paddy McGinty's theme bars and Riverdance. But I have decided I will shut him up by filling my hip flask with poteen. The actual recipe for poteen (pronounced "pot-cheen") is a closely guarded secret, though a good drop should contain yeast, barley, sugar and water. The ingredients are fermented in wooden barrels, before the beer or "baor" is run through a home-made still.

Poteen has been the Irish countryside's drink of choice for hundreds of years – ever since 1661, when the English, attempting to rebuild their post-war treasury, decided to introduce a charge on spirits. This forbade private distillation not licensed by the State, and poteen production went underground. It stayed that way until the Irish Revenue Commission withdrew their opposition in 1997. So poteen is now legal. And approved by the EEC, probably. I don't like to sound reactionary, but the world is a sadder place for it.

You see, I liked the way distillers always managed to stay one step ahead of "the revenue". It was romantic. They disguised their high-octane product in empty Lucozade bottles, and dropped it off in milk churns, hollow gateposts and confessional boxes. Policemen in poteen country (particularly west of Cork) were entitled to a Britches Allowance. It allowed them to replace all trousers ripped in the line of duty – well, chasing distillers through furze, boghole and blackthorn is an expensive business.

Now that poteen is legal, it tastes, well, different. The spirit slips down too easy. It's still got top notes of barley – not unlike a single malt. Trendy London bars (including Lab and B@1) are even using it as a cocktail base. But I remember, with fondness, the days when women would rub poteen on to their joints to cure arthritis. And men would rub it on to their chests to loosen catarrh. Times have changed. Would you use legal poteen as an embrocation for your greyhound? I don't think so. At these prices, it would be cheaper to buy another greyhound.

But I know a friend of a friend who still distills his own poteen. Not that I have any idea what I'm buying. Which is risky. To test poteen, one old moonshiner told me to mix it with milk. If the milk curdled, the poteen wasn't fit for drinking. The other way to test it was to throw it on to a peat fire. If the flame was purple, it was safe to drink. Maybe. In very small quantities. If the flame was red, pour it straight into the petrol tank. Or offer it to lounge-bar philosophers with beards on St Patrick's Day. Maybe.

You can e-mail Richard Johnson at drinkwithrichardjohnson@yahoo.co.uk.

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