SO…two days ago, I got a box from a PR firm located in Annapolis, MD, my old home state and one of the cities I like best in all of America. (I discovered Clam Chowder at McGarvey’s, back in 1976, for which I am eternally grateful) Inside were two bottles of almost ridiculously luxurious Whiskey…from INDIA! They were from The Rampur Distillery, waaaay up there in the Himalayan foothills, a wildly unlikely spot to find someone making big Whiskeys in a place normally crawling with sherpas…but later for that. We’ll deal with the LOVELY Rampur Whiskeys later but for now…Poitín.
Okay, first order of business: NOT Poutine, the Canadian artery-stopper main dish of fries with brown gravy and cheese curds. We Americans are just now getting to the point of some comfy familiarity with that clunky Canadian term, so having an Irish booze (frequently called “Irish Moonshine”) with almost the same name is a tad, ah, confusing. I suppose, if you were really kinky/crazy, you could drink Poitín (pronounced “Po-TEEN”, which referred to the traditional pot still, the kettle which gave birth to Irish distilling) while eating Poutine but…PLEASE DON’T. I’m afraid it could be one of those matter/anti-matter deals and you’d cause the universe to disappear in a blinding flash of blue-white light. Probably not but…why take chances, amirite?
I had tasted Poitín ONCE, a LONG time ago, in Washington, DC, at a party thrown by staffers of the Irish Embassy. The bottle I tasted from had no label and was, in fact, illegal in Ireland, as it was for well over three hundred years, banned by a British government which openly feared the drunk/crazy effects of a white Whiskey that often topped out at well over 180 Proof (Ninety percent alcohol!) and not infrequently was tainted with various things that might just kill you. It for sure got you hammered FAST and pointedly, which was usually the goal. It was maybe not as outright deadly as the legendary Absinthe that used to routinely make widows and orphans but it was in the Top Three. Even the Scots, who loved inebriation not a hair less but mastered distilling in a safe and (almost) sanitary way before the Irish did, used to watch the Irish drink Poitín and go, “Whoa!“
(NOTE: I watched a YouTube video of young Irish people trying Poitín, which is really just newly legal there, for the first time. The reviews were mixed but one young lady read the label, which says “Quietly Distilled in Copper Pot Stills” and muttered, “Quietly, my hole.”)
Fast forward to last night and this rather elegant bottle of Mad March Hare Irish Poitín, which proved to be a lot more civilized and complex(!) (for what is basically a White Dog Whiskey, NOT the most complex of beverages) and drinkable than that bottle back in 1973, which was like sucking on a blowtorch.
For those not all Whiskey Wonky, let me explain that about 80% of all American Whiskey is NOT made from just one grain. There is an unofficial (read “non-legally binding”) category of US Whiskey that has its own trade association, the American Single Malt Commission (ASMC), which is pushing for the definition of “American Single Malt” to be made law. And the vast majority of all Whiskies in this country that are made with just one grain are barley-based. The ASMC has even published guidelines that their members have to adhere to if they want to call their Whiskey “Single Malt”…
-Made from 100% malted barley
-Distilled at one distillery
-Mashed, distilled and matured in the US
-Matured in oak, not exceeding 700L
-Distilled to no more than 160 proof
-Bottled at 80 proof or higher
The Irish have no specific regulations for Poitín and this stuff skips items three through six of the ASMC guidelines, which figures. But in a country where tradition has the relative force of law, they hardly need no stinkin’ rules. All that pretty, aromatic Irish grain (legit single malt) shows up in a sweetly oily texture and subtle notes of lemon peel and camphor and beeswax and melon and white grapes. If all those different flavors sound confusing, let me assure you that it is NOT necessary to dissect this stuff to enjoy it. On your tongue, it will make perfect sense and, unlike three other White Dogs I was asked to review (all of which Judye dismissed as “Nah, that’s just for mixing.”) this makes a fine straight sipper, as Judye pointed out last evening. “Wow,” she smiled, “I don’t think I would ever mix this with anything. It’s great just the way it is. MAYBE chilled a bit but no ice, even.“
So, there’s the review from my house’s harshest critic. Mine? This cleaned up, less crazy-making Poitín is interesting, satisfying, and delicious and requires no additives…although, as their website suggests, using this for a base spirit for what they dub an “Irish Mule” makes a whole lot of sense. I’ll probably try that this weekend and I betcha it’ll be just the thing for our current heat wave. If you’re looking for some context here, try this: it lands, stylistically, somewhere between a very expressive, even botanical, Vodka or a mild Genever (the forerunner to Gin, minus the juniper overdose) and a straight-up White Dog. It has FLAVORS, unlike your tedious mixer Vodka but not big, showy ones like botanical Gin. Shockingly, from my Irish ancestors, a clan not overly concerned with subtlety or nuance, Mad March Hare is both. It took me a fat Moment to realign my thinking about clear booze but, once it clicked, I was well and truly snared, like a hare in a basket trap.
Mad March Hare Poitín drags Ireland’s hard-drinkin’ past into the 21st century and loses little in translation. GOOD stuff!