Don’t Forget Us: The Cratur
by Lisa O’Rourke
After watching a rural veterinarian revive a dying lamb with a drop of the “cratur”, you would have to wonder, what exactly is that “cratur” stuff? The lamb was very grateful for it anyway. Cratur is a euphemism for whisky, but I have heard it used more often for Poitín, pronounced (put-cheen).
“Truely a spiritual thing that the Irish did long ago when they trapped the pure and magical of nature to create from sunshine and rain, in the mountains and valleys, the original treasured spirit “Potcheen””.
The above quote is from a legal distiller of Poitín, the Bunratty Winery in Ireland. Poitín is the Irish equivalent of the mountain moonshine of the United States. Like the US moonshine, it has been mainly illegal to produce and possess. Also like the moonshine of the US, it is made and found mainly in the remote mountainous areas of the country and is something that is mentioned only discreetly amongst acquaintances.
When I first visited Ireland, I never heard anyone talking about it. Like many things, it was something of the past, and not something in which people showed much pride. Just like here, it has some connotations of a past that is less than educated. However, I would occasionally hear an older person say that many things could be cured with a “drop of the cratur, from arthritis to the common cold.
The first poitín that I was exposed to was presented one cold evening during Christmas, while my husband and I were visiting in Connemara. It was taken from an unmarked bottle stored at the back of a kitchen cabinet. The lady of the house admonished the husband for revealing that they kept such thing in their house, but we reassured them that we were not going to expose them. I was offered a glass. Just smelling it was enough to make me fear for the survival of my eyebrows, I was not about to ingest it! My husband happily had one glass, but that one glass was enough for all.
Time Magazine placed it at number one in its “Top 10 Ridiculously Strong Drinks” list in 2010. According to the magazine, poitín could reach 95% alcohol by volume. Other sources state that it comes in at anywhere between 45% -90% alcohol by volume.
I heard a story during my recent visit to Connemara. It was about a young man whose grandfather was a rather infamous poitín maker in his day. He was caught by the local guards during their pursuit of a dangerous criminal. The guards saw his still and some bottles hidden on the property. The grandfather displayed intelligence and bravery and helped to apprehend the criminal. The guards felt that they could not prosecute the man for his still under those circumstances.
They actually tried to recruit him to the guarda force at that point. The grandfather realized that his lack of literacy in English anyway would make that impossible since he would be unable to write reports, so he declined the position. He was allowed to continue his production unhindered, and the essence of his recipe has survived and been passed down and perpetuated through the generations. The young man who was at the center of the story is getting ready to begin legal, craft-style production of the grandfather’s recipe.
What is happening in Ireland is much like what has happened here; people are realizing that some of the products that they found backward or old-fashioned in the face of modern mass-production actually have value. There has been an impressive food revival, especially in West Cork, where they are making things like handmade cheese and sausages.
Anyone who believes that food in Ireland is not good really needs to improve where they travel. Organic is not a necessary label with many of these producers since they were never anything else. Along with food, there is also a craft beer and cider revival going on around the country, and again, just like here in the US, is very popular with the younger crowd. So, poitín was inevitably next on the list.
The history of poitín is probably as long as that of the country itself. The term poitín comes from the Irish word for small pot, which describes what the mixture would have been made in. A law was passed in 1661 placing a tax on spirits made for personal consumption. The law was reinforced in 1760 with another law that made it illegal to operate a still.
Poitín was made in rural areas, mostly in the mountains and places that would have been difficult to get to. Stills were often put on land borders so that one person could blame another for the still and its products. Just like the moonshine operations here, smoke was often a give-away that something illegal might be “cooking”, so the windy Connemara weather provided a good disguise for the stills.
Poitín, however, has had a bigger battle to fight. Due to the strength of the drink, there are many stories of people becoming very ill after drinking it, with even blindness having been reported. After my experience with it, the idea of someone becoming sick after drinking it seems likely but I have never heard of anyone actually losing their sight.
Poitín is also not consistently made from any one product. It could be made out of things like barley, potatoes or apples; whatever someone had plenty of. With the mix of ingredients and makers, the quality of poitín varies greatly. Yet there are families who have a reputation with the locals for making a batch of reliable quality.
So now poitín, the old-wives cure for arthritis and colds, is starting to become respectable. The families, who have had underground production for generations, may be the ones to profit finally from their grandfather’s secret recipe. The European Union has sanctioned that only poitín made in Ireland can be called that, so if you see it in a bar or liquor store, you know that you are getting the “pure drop” that is in so many songs and stories.
Other sources used: https:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poit%C3%ADn
Time, “Top 10 Ridiculously Strong Drinks” Nov. 16, 2010
Thejournal.ie-“How poitín went from illegal moonshine to being sold in Tesco” Nov.17, 2013.