Merchant House's Nate Brown in praise of poitin

Nate Brown

21 November 2018

This month we’ve ‘celebrated’ National Calzone Day, National Cook for your Pets Day, National Pizza With The Works Except Anchovies Day, even National Harvey Wallbanger Day. So you’ll no doubt be thrilled to know that Sunday 18 November was National Poitin Day. But halt that eye-rolling for a second, let me state a case for the celebration of poitin.

Let’s go way back, back to a simpler time. I like to imagine a place out in the sticks, where the homeland country folk who fermented and distilled grains, cereals, starch and sugars weren’t looking for perfection. They didn’t concern themselves with definitions, bottle ergonomics, or taxes. They likely weren’t even cooking up the good stuff to make their fortunes.

Across the world those recreational distillers produced their spirits in tiny stills, homemade or handed down, with the simple, true intention of having a much-needed good time. Lord knows, an Instagram feed in the mid-millennia would have been dull. These poitin makers had their reasoning right.

And yes, ultimately they faced opposition and oppression (don’t we all?). The ruling classes tried to tax them, the entrepreneurial classes tried to out-muscle them, the gaugers hunted them down. The recreational distillers were forced out of business or underground. The stigma grew. Outlaws, outcasts, illicit. All because they didn’t analyse their product-market-fit for maximum ROI. They distilled because they wanted to.

The sad truth is that the further we push down this path to the ‘wow’, we lose sight of the justifying ‘why’

All of which is a distant memory in today’s drinking scenes. Today, despairingly, process is king. We work, rework and overwork ingredients, serves and mixed drinks to the point of abstraction to attract noise, attention, likes and retweets. We celebrate new finishes, new ageing techniques, sous-vides and vacuum distillates. These fears have been confirmed with the listing of ‘clarified octopus milk’ on a menu. Get (back) in the sea. 

The sad truth is that the further we push down this path to the ‘wow’, we lose sight of the justifying ‘why’. Restaurant tasting menus are testament to this. The focus is no longer on the guest, but on the talent of the chef. ‘Look what I can do!’, like an only child the chef screams from the plates. Good boy, well done. Aren’t you so talented?

I understand the need to get noticed. I understand the need to excite, just let’s not lose sight of the guest. We run the risk of alienating the real drinkers, the Martini lovers, the Manhattan sippers, the Sazerac slurpers. These folk are the bread and butter of any good bar industry. If we continue to (literally) force pretence down their throats, we’ll soon find ourselves asking ‘Where have all the drinkers gone?’, as they sit at home enjoying a no-fuss, pre-bottled Old Fashioneds from Deliveroo.

If it were about the ingredients, there would be no need for bars. Perhaps that’s where we’re headed? Though I like to think not. So why do we drink?

We drink for flavours, for the pleasure, for the confirmation bias of reading banana as an ingredient and tasting banana in the drink. We drink for community, for escapism, for release. We enjoy going to bars that make us feel a part of something, or apart from something. The best bars are those that make us feel happy, be that the local pub, or a luxurious five star experience on the Strand.

And so the rise of poitin offers a timely reminder of good reason for drinking. Poitin exudes the communal, the non-corporate. Forget the pretense, forget the dehydrated tomato skin. Poitin is a drinkers’ drink. Poitin is about sharing a glass together, community and raucous good craic. Poitin is drunk amongst old friends and new, standing, leaning lopsided at the bar and laughing away life’s troubles. And that for me is something worth celebrating, at least for a day.

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