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“Connecting the Present With The Past”™
Note: The following was contributed by an Irish relative in County Sligo, Ireland. He will be a guest contributor from time to time:
(This is a loose translation into English of an article I wrote in Irish some years ago for a local antiquarian publication. From my two short and most enjoyable visits to America, your laws on alcohol are more draconian than our own).
I have a theory that the skills of making poteen came into the Gaeltacht from English speaking areas as all of the terminology associated with its making, used in Irish, are English words such as still, worm, wash, mash, cap, first-shot and round. In my youth, the old people, speaking in Irish or English, called poteen “fuisgí”, and the legal variety they called “Parliament”. (i. e. a Parliamentary tax had been paid on it.)
I never saw poteen being distilled, but I often heard my father describe how it was made from barley. There is a lot of time-consuming preparatory work before the barley is ready fore distillation. In this post, where I am not sure of the quantity or time, I use a question-mark. Two (?) hundredweight bags of barley were required for a full round (four and one quarter gallons of poteen). They took one third from each bag and placed them in a third bag.
Steeping (3 days)
The barley has to be steeped in water for three days. Running water was preferred. During this time the barley expands 20% to 25%. This is the reason that a third bag is required.
Sprouting (10 – 12 days)
After steeping, the Barley is spread out on a dry floor to a depth of four or five inches. The top layer has to be kept wet. This is accomplished by raking the barley every day and by sprinkling the top layer with water. The barley gets very hot during the sprouting process. After three days or so, 4 or 5 rootlets, no thicker than a hair, emerge from the broad end of the seed. A couple of days later the sprout emerges from the pointed end of the seed. The time is dependent on the weather, but the sprouting continues until most of the sprouts are about one quarter inch long. The rootlets are about an inch long by now and the barley is matted together in a single mass.
Drying (2? days)
The sprouted barley has to be dried to stop the germination and to allow it to be ground up. It was dried in the big pot used for spuds. They had to stand with it all the time and stir the barley every 10 minutes.
Grinding (2? days)
The dried barley was then ground on a quern. A good grinder, usually a woman, could grind two stone in an hour.
Fermentation (5 - 7 days)
The ground barley was put in a big barrel together with 50-60 gallons of water and half a pound of bakers yeast to start the fermentation. When the yeast starts to work, little bubbles are released, forming foam on the top. Fermentation takes 5 – 7 days. At the end the alcohol content is 4 – 5%. This is now the “wash”.
IT IS AGAINST THE LAW IN THIS COUNTRY TO DISTILL ANY ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE
Distillation (8? hours)
A still would usually hold 10 to 15 gallons. Alcohol boils ay about 80C and water at 100C so therefore they did their best to keep the temperature of the wash at about 85C so that the alcohol was boiling briskly and only a little steam coming from the water. They tried to keep the thread of fuisgí coming from the still as fine as possible and at any rate less than a linen thread. The first cupful had to be thrown on the ground for the fairies. This was very wise as the first cupful contained poisonous, volatile, higher order alcohols and esters.
They found the wash was exhausted by lighting a dry tráithnín and putting it to the thread of fuisgí. If there was still alcohol coming from the wash, the flame would flare up; if not, it would quench. They had to fill the still six or seven times before the round was complete. They fed the solid material left to the pig. It was said that the poor pig could not go out a gap without banging his head
At the end of the round there should be four gallons and one quart ( taking into account the amount drank) If there was very much more, say six or seven gallons, they had to do another run, which did not take long as the alcohol content was high. If there was less than four gallons they made it up with water. Fuisgí has a proof rate of 55 compared with 40 for Parliament. At this strength if you drop a little drop into a glass it will make individual beads around the bottom.
IT IS AGAINST THE LAW IN THIS COUNTRY TO DISTILL ANY ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE. GOD HELP US.
But if you are a farmer in France you can distil as much brandy as you like for yourself and your friends. In some states in Germany you can even sell up to 60 litres of homemade schnapps to tourists. Harmonisation? How are ya!
(Harmonisation of its laws is an objective of the European Union and some progress has been made in the areas of transport, health and safety, and labour laws though harmonisation of taxes and excise duties are decades away.)
See more Irish family history articles and Irish genealogy lessons learned in earlier posts below and in the archives.
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