American Potcheen – say what?

What is American Potcheen, you ask? Our latest whiskey inspired project at SOFL.

First, allow me to introduce you to the three types of whiskey that have inspired this potcheen project:

Single Malt Whiskey: The soul of Scotch whiskey. The product of one distillery using pot stills to double distill a whiskey composed of only barley malt and allowing the distillery’s “character” to take charge.

Single Pot Still Whiskey: The soul of Irish whiskey.  The product of one distillery using pot stills to triple distill a product composed of both un malted and malted barley.

Poition (Potcheen, the anglicized version of this wholly Irish word): An Irish catchall term related closely to American “moonshine” to describe a product that is distilled on a simple pot still and usually unaged as well as unsmoked but could include those elements as well.

It has often been said that the English came to America and built churches, the Germans built barns, and the Scotts-Irish built still houses.  Given our geographic and historical situation, we attribute much of our Hoosier distilling heritage in fact to the Germans who may have just been building oddly shaped, yet very nice, still houses.  Southern Indiana was also deeply influenced by the Scotch-Irish who found their way here mostly from Eastern Kentucky (where they had relocated after the Whiskey Rebellion from the East Coast) in search of farming and factory work and who also left for us a heritage of pot-still distillation.

Potcheen (Poition) is a Gaelic word that refers both to the type of still (Pota=small pot) and the unintended consequences of over consumption (Poita=hangover).  At its heart Potcheen is simply Irish moonshine, made by folk distillers for the common populace and sold or traded as a commodity.  As with all spirits a good distiller could make it so much more than its reputation would imply and could craft a spirit on par with the best Eau-De Vies the world has ever known.  Perhaps the most famous of the Potcheen men (Tinkers as they were known) was Michael McClehatton, famous not only for the quality of his distillate but for his kind heartedness to his neighbors.  Many a song and poem have been written of this folk hero and very rarely a negative word spoken, even by the revenue men who perused him as he hid his jars of clear whiskey in the Irish creeks to their chagrin.

Poitín [ˈpˠotʲiːn], anglicised as Poteen or Potcheen, is a traditional Irish distilled, highly alcoholic beverage (60%-95% ABV). Poitín was traditionally distilled in a small pot still and the term is a diminutive of the Irish word pota, meaning "pot". Traditionally distilled from malted barley grain or potatoes, it is one of the strongest alcoholic beverages in the world, and for centuries was classified as illegal in Ireland.

Pota = small pot

Like all folk distillers a Potcheen maker was often a farmer distiller taking advantage of whatever excess crop he could get his hands on and making due with what he had.  The consistency of the spirit was to be found in the fermentation and distillation of the product as opposed to the ingredients since those ingredients and proportions often did vary far and wide; Barley, Wheat, Oats, Corn, and in later years Potatoes.  The treatment of those ingredients may vary as well.  The most popular potcheens generally were composed of a majority of Barley and Oats (Potatoes didn’t come until later and were considered the equivalent of modern moonshiner using sugar to up the alcohol of a still beer/wash) and the barley may or may not have been malted and may or may not have taken on the phenolic character of peat in that malting process, this may or may not have been influenced by the Scotch bloodlines and their tradition of making heavily peated whisky (No “E” in Scotch!)  in the area of Islay just off the coast of Ireland.


Peat bog

It is from all of this that we take inspiration in creating an American Potcheen paying tribute to the folk distillers of Ireland (and later the United States) utilizing three distinct malt profiles and wheat grown on our estate farm and sweetened up a bit with oats.  The first in the series is a Smoked Apple potcheen that utilizes wheat as our main ingredient along with Munich 20L malt and an apple smoked malt as flavoring grains (with a third proprietary malt acting as the bridge to marry these distinctive earthy, smoky, and fruity flavors together) We include also a large proportion of Oats that add a subtle sweet and buttery note that lingers long on the palate.  The second in the series makes use of Indiana-grown malt smoked with true Indiana peat from our friends at Sugar Creek Malt Company! All of this is double pot distilled using very tight heads and tails cuts (akin to a clear spirit!) to about 130 proof, from there we take a page from the book of Scotch and put our own unique stamp on it by aging this distillate in twice used barrels that originally held bourbon and was followed up by grape brandy to create a uniquely American style Potcheen.

Malting kiln (medieval)

Malting kiln (medieval)

We mature the distillate for two years in our “Chai” but that may vary dependent upon the results.  Small projects like this are what really get our blood pumping over distillation; so many variables to consider in terms of yeast, malts, base grains, smokes, distillation types and still configurations.  This is the height of the Alchemical arts!