Monday, January 28, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: The Art of the Moonshiner

January limps depressingly to its close to the accompaniment of yet more priggish suggestions that if we will not limit our alcohol intake the crudest of economic sanctions will be applied.

Should this nonsense come to pass, the only honourable response will be to revive the ancient mysteries of the moonshiner.

The tradition of making of one's own illicit spirits is associated with two places in particular – the southern states of the US and Ireland – so much so that in deference to the tradition I shall refer to the drink as poitín from hereon in.

There is a connection here, of course. Both places have a long tradition of distrust for – and outright - hostility towards authority. Moreover, the American South was settled in large part by the so-called Ulster Scots. In Ireland the spiritual heartland of the poitín maker was Donegal and the west. You may also wish to speculate on the kinship between the Bluegrass ballad posted here (the modern homage is rather entertaining too) and old Irish staples such as this, or this.

I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler, I'm a long ways from home
And if you don't like me, well leave me alone
I'll eat when I'm hungry, I'll drink when I'm dry
And if moonshine don't kill me, I'll live till I die.

The romance of poitín is heightened by the fact that it is ideally made in wild, mountainous country as a solace for the desolation of the place and a moment's pleasure in defiance of the injustices of life. (And – let's be frank – some of the other ways in which the people of the Deep South and Ireland have shown their disdain for the authorities are rather less pleasant).

Still, I feel that it is a tradition that could easily be imported into England. The actual process is straight forward enough: you get your water, some rye and sugar, brew it up then distill it to separate the spirits from the rest (many of you will have done something similar in chemistry lessons at school; the only difference is – I'm assuming – you didn't get to sample it afterwards.) The only tricky bit is getting the equipment right – these should help you out, however.

What I'm suggesting is illegal, of course, but as I have said the defiance of the law is part of the pleasure and romance of making your own spirits. If you don't have the technical know-how on how to make the still and tubing properly, I don't, additional fun could be had trying to import the necessaries under the interfering noses of customs.

Another caveat, it is the custom in Ireland to pour the first glass of poitín away as a gift to the fairies: this is sound practice. The first fruits of your distillation are likely to contain the impurities that will make you go blind. Ideally you'd want to distill it more than once.

If all goes well with this plan to elevate the art of the moonshiner to its rightful place in England, we might be able to see another great Irish custom – that of the shebeen (or illicit drinking den). It's not that the illicit manufacture and consumption of drink doesn't happen here, already, of course, but what's lacking is the panache and verve with which it is practised elsewhere.

For guidance, here's a tale of a modern day Donegal shebeen, the Bog Hotel (complete with Polish barmaid). I gather that some locals have described the place as a den of vice and iniquity – little better than a hoorhouse said one: that's my holidays sorted then.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Actually, Bill, as the London Gin Craze of 1751 attests, we Brits have a fine history of illicit drinking. The verses accompanying Hogarth's famous Gin Lane engraving should give your modern moralists a runf or their money...

Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught,
Makes human Race a Prey.
It enters by a deadly Draught
And steal our Life away.

Virtue and Truth, driv'n to Despair
Its Rage compells to fly,
But cherishes with hellish Care
Theft, Murder, Perjury.

Damned Cup! that on the Vitals preys
That liquid Fire contains,
Which Madness to the heart conveys,
And rolls it thro' the Veins.

Puss

10:57 am  
Anonymous Mortdecai said...

The Italians are fearsome home distillers, too. I'm not sure they can be called moonshiners as it's not illegal there (probably due to the recognition of the futility of legislation against a determined Italian). For those who lack the time or the still (or maybe who are too blind to light the flame beneath the latter with fingers which tremor deliriously) it is possible to buy litres of pure alcohol in supermarkets for home flavouring.

It's probably no coincidence (and for those who have tasted it, even less of a shame) that much of the wine lake is distilled into rubbing alcohol.

Puss, how wonderful to bring Hogarth into this. There was something wholly likeable about him as a moralist, I always consider the counterpoint of Beer Street and feel sorrow that in the 21st Century moralists always take the absolute view instead of the relative one.

1:24 pm  
Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Mortdecai
Oh, I always try to drop a little Hogarth into the equation if I can. Good point about the relative view, although give me gin over beer any day.

Puss

4:56 pm  

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