Poteen Making in 1930s Ireland - advice appreciated

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RMChapple
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Poteen Making in 1930s Ireland - advice appreciated

Post by RMChapple » Tue Dec 18, 2018 5:41 am

Hi All!
In another part of my life I’m a recovering archaeologist who still writes a weekly blog about anything that interests me … occasionally, it is even of interest to others too! (http://rmchapple.blogspot.com).

I’m currently working on a manuscript from Ireland’s National Folklore Collection that describes poteen (Irish moonshine) distillation in Killasser, Co. Mayo. The manuscript is a transcript of a 1936 interview with a Mr S.P. Ó Piotáin. He describes the process of distillation in a way that indicates (I think) that he had some first-hand experience of watching the process, though perhaps not of running a still. Anyone interested can read the original manuscript here [https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbe/9000223/7109679/9053174], but I would be very grateful for any insight that can be given on some specifics, or even general comments are welcome too.

Ingredients:
“Old connoisseurs of say that the quality of the poteen has very much deteriorated since the good old days when nothing was used in its distillation but malt. Now malt poteen is only a memory as it [is] now made from almost anything. The usual ingredients nowadays are sugar yeast chaff or oaten or bran. Usually about four stone [56lb] of sugar is bought which quantity requires about one pound of yeast.”

Q: Does this sound about right for a wash? I think so, but am interested to hear other opinions

Process:
“On the first night the yeast is dissolved in a basin of lukewarm water. About a stone [14lb] of sugar is also dissolved in about four 8 or six gallons of water. This solution as well as the yeast solution is carried to the barrel and poured into it. On the second night a second stone of sugar is dissolved and as before is poured into the barrel. On the third and fourth nights about twenty gallons of water and sugar solution is poured in. Together with is added about a stone of oaten meal. The barrel of course is covered all this time.”

Q: Again, does this sound about right? Does it suggest an intimate knowledge of making a wash?

The ‘Back’:
“On the fifth night a “back” of bran or chaff is put in. This “back” remains on top ensuring that the barrel is airtight. It is the working of the “pot-ale” in its work of fermentation that keeps this back on the top. To “work” properly or if working properly the mixture has about the same temperature as a cows milk. In late years boiled potatoes are put in as their high alcoholic content helps the work of fermentation very much. Raisins, currants and even beet root are added on some occasions. Up to recent years treacle was used more commonly than sugar; but it is supposed that one stone of sugar has the alcoholic content of one and a half or two stones of treacle. It is left buried until the “back” falls down to the bottom. As it is the fermentation that keeps the back up one would naturally expect that all is ready for distillation when the back falls to the bottom. All going well this process occurs on about the twelfth day after the barrel being buried. A gallon of poteen per stone of sugar is considered a very good yield.”

Q: From what I can gather from other sources, this ‘back’ was common practice, but I just can’t visualise how it would work. Is something similar used elsewhere? Please educate me further!
Q: He uses the term ‘pot ale’ here, but (in my experience) this is the residue left in the still. Is this correct or can the term be used more flexibly? In a section below it’s clear that he uses it interchangeably with ‘wash’.
Q: My feeling is that he has a very poor grasp of science in talking about potatoes having a ‘high alcoholic content’ … is this ‘knowing what it does but not how it does it’ common for traditional distillers?

Distillation:
“The still is placed on a “roasting” fire and the pot ale officially known as wash is poured in. A few gallons of this pot-ale is kept for the second distillation which is called the “doublin”. The head and arm is then put on and the arm is connected with the worm which rests in the “flake stan”. The level of the worm is tested to find out if the liquor will flow through. It must be remembered that the flake stan is filled with water. This helps to condense the alcoholic vapour into poteen which flows into a basin placed underneath the “spout” of the worm. The steam of course warms the water but cold water is added to cool the flake. At each juncture where [the] “head” is connected with the still and where the arm is connected with the worm a paste or dough call[ed] “luteing” is applied. If a leakage is suspected somebody goes around with a lighted candle as the vapour is highly inflammable so that the point of leakage is easily detected. The fire is slackened once the still is started to boil.”

“This first operation is called the singling and the average yield is five or six gallons per 4 stone of sugar. When the distiller thinks it be ready for doubling he takes a drop of the stuff and tries to light it in a saucer. If he fails to light it then it is ready to be doubled.”

“The still is well cleaned out and put on a slow fire as now there is more power in the steam than there was when the singlins were being distilled. The singlins are poured into the still as well as the drop of pot ale left in the beginning. Burned coals and nitre [saltpetre?] are often put in that the poteen may have a pure crystal colour. Head, arm and worm are connected as before; but more carefully as the pressure of steam is supposed to be increased three fold. To counteract this pressure a stone weight is left on top of the still head. I myself remember a still head being shot high into the air by the terrible pressure of steam exerted on it. Great care is now exercised to keep the flake stan cool while distilling the doublins.”

Q: Although I’ve not encountered them outside of poteen making, the singlins & doublins are self-explanatory terms. Are they used elsewhere?
Q: Is it normal to hold back some of the wash for a second distillation?
Q: Isn’t finding a leak on the still with a lighted flame just asking for trouble?
Q: I’m having difficulty understanding how the ‘singlins’ are considered ready for redistilling when they can’t be ignited. Am I misunderstanding something, or should it be taken to mean that the distillate coming through at this stage has so little alcohol it won’t ignite?
Q: ‘Burned coals and nitre’ … Is it just my inexperience, or does this just sound dangerous & impractical?
Q: ‘Pressure of steam’ as the still is an open system, am I right in thinking that this is just wrong? Could he be describing the dangers around distilling more concentrated alcohol and the potential for disaster when vapour and open flames meet? Would this suggest to you that while he may have seen a still in operation, he never operated one himself?


The Braon Bróigh:
“The very first drop of doublins “that comes down” is brought outside in a saucer that the fairies may first satisfy their thirst.”

Q: Years ago (long before I ever thought of distilling myself) I got to know a poteen distiller in rural Ireland. He was the one who first told me that the initial portion off the still was to be left out for the fairies. This is referred to in other places in the Folklore collection too & seems to have been a relatively common practice. At the end of this manuscript He also gives a list of terms & definitions and while he identifies the heads as having an unpleasant odour, he attributes it to its cleaning of the still and removing dirt. I now know that there is good reason to discard these heads as they contain lots of nasties & I think it’s interesting that this knowledge is codified into folklore. Are there other instances where this scientific/safety knowledge is passed down in alternate forms in other places?

Test of Strength:
The proof(?) of good poteen is supposed to be 110 proof liquor. Some test its strength by putting it in a saucer and lighting it. It continues to light until all the alcohol is burned out. What remains is just water. If there is only a small residue of water then the poteen is good and vice versa. Its strength is also judged by the length it holds a “head” or bead after being shaken in a glass or bottle. There is also a third test of its purity which is infallible. A glass is filled with the liquid and into it is inserted a little bit of unsalted butter. If the butter sinks to the bottom the poteen is 100% pure. If it rests midway in the glass then the poteen [is] 50% water. The butter rests when it meets the water which has a greater density than poteen and so holds the butter on its surface. I have tried this experiment myself and was satisfied with the result.

Q: I’m aware of the first test of quality (ignition), but the other two are new to me. Any comments on their efficacy would be appreciated!



The manuscript also gives a short list of terms and their meaning – any comments on these would be appreciated too.

The flake stan. This is the barrel through which the worm passes. It is always kept filled with water and kept cool to ensure that condensation takes place properly.

The Pot ale. The “wash” before distillation is known as pot ale. The froth of this when fermenting would act as a substitute for yeast.

Burn Beer. The residue after the “singlins” is called “burn beer”. This is thrown out of the still and given to the pigs. It resembles stirabout.

Faints. The weak poteen which comes through when the mixture in the still has given off in steam its alcoholic properties is called faints.

Bradn Brogac. The first drop of the “doublins” which come through the worm this reeks(?) with all the dirt from the head and arm hence the name. The fairies of course gladly imbibe this.

Luteing. A paste made from flour put as a plaster where the different sections join is called “luteing”. Before the process of distillation is over this paste is actually baked hard.

The Back. A quantity of bran or chaff put on the surface of the barrel to make it airtight is called the “back”.

“Singlins”. The raw unrefined poteen which comes down at the first distillation is called singlins. The poteen which “comes down” after redistilling the singlins is called “doublins”.


My thanks to all and any who can offer their expertise on this.

Robert

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Re: Poteen Making in 1930s Ireland - advice appreciated

Post by Fiddleford » Tue Dec 18, 2018 7:28 am

I use oats mixed with a bit of malt to make back when makeing all grain sometimes, not necessary i just feel good doing it. The peorpous of it is to create a cap to keep bugs out and air. I think I spelt it differently bahck or something

Commonly youll find people on here diluteing their singlings with wash to retain flavor as aposed to water which can dilute flavors, its good practice to dilute distillate

I dont know if i would want saltpeter in my spirit honestly but the burnt coals means charcoal probably and not actual coal... I believe coal wouldn't make a spirit to tastie

I dont believe there is enough oxygen in a still to cause an explosion it wouls more likely just shoot a stream of fire if there was pressure behind it I know this because I have seen it. Its also really humid if you think about it
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RMChapple
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Re: Poteen Making in 1930s Ireland - advice appreciated

Post by RMChapple » Tue Dec 18, 2018 7:33 am

I appreciate this - thank you!

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Re: Poteen Making in 1930s Ireland - advice appreciated

Post by coppercraft » Tue Dec 24, 2019 3:26 pm

This reply is just one year late but as the saying goes, better late than never.
Q: Isn’t finding a leak on the still with a lighted flame just asking for trouble?
Answer - It is a bit but, from experience, a flame at a leaking joint is easily extinguished as an alcohol flame is readily extinguished with water.
Q: I’m having difficulty understanding how the ‘singlins’ are considered ready for re-distilling when they can’t be ignited. Am I misunderstanding something, or should it be taken to mean that the distillate coming through at this stage has so little alcohol it won’t ignite?
Answer - You are correct, old moonshiners here in Newfoundland used this method to know when to stop the first run. The run is then re-distilled.
Q: ‘Burned coals and nitre’ … Is it just my inexperience, or does this just sound dangerous & impractical?
Answer - Poteen distillers knew what they were doing. The burned coal (clinkers) was likely added to provide rough surfaces to induce boiling, I use stainless nuts and bolts. The nitre (sodium nitrate) changes the boiling point of the water in the wash but not the the alcohol and the result is that there is more alcohol in the vapour that comes off with nitre added than without it. I use salt (sodium chloride) to achieve the same thing.
The Braon Bróigh:
We have a long tradition of fairies here as about half of our ancestors were Irish and all moonshiners throw away the first bit but I don't know of any moonshiner here setting it out for the fairies. If it didn't happen here with the very strong Irish influence it probably didn't happen outside of Ireland.
Test of Strength:
Watching the beads or "legs" formed in a glass is a common way of judging the alcoholic strength and I know it's used in the Appalachian moonshine areas of the US. I don't know of anyone using a lump of butter to test for alcoholic strength but the theory is sound. The specific gravity of pure alcohol is 0.79 and butter is 0.86. The second distillation is usually 70% ABV or more with would make it a bit less than butter. Butter would sink slowly in the potent poteen but it would sink to the bottom and would not stop half way because the SG of the poteen would be the same top to bottom. Locally, we use a potato to test the strength of a salt water pickle used for corning fish. A potato is thrown into the bucket of water and salt is added until it floats. Freshly caught and corned fish, pan fried... absolutely mouth watering!

Harry

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Re: Poteen Making in 1930s Ireland - advice appreciated

Post by shadylane » Tue Dec 24, 2019 5:29 pm

RMChapple wrote:
Tue Dec 18, 2018 5:41 am
“This first operation is called the singling.... When the distiller thinks it be ready for doubling he takes a drop of the stuff and tries to light it in a saucer. If he fails to light it then it is ready to be doubled.”

Q: I’m having difficulty understanding how the ‘singlins’ are considered ready for redistilling when they can’t be ignited. Am I misunderstanding something, or should it be taken to mean that the distillate coming through at this stage has so little alcohol it won’t ignite?
Only the very first of the "singlings" would have high enough proof to light it in a saucer.
As the run progressives, the proof will drop until even the vapor from splashing a small amount on the hot still can't be lit.
I'd guess, all the singlings AKA "lowines" that have been saved for doubling would have a proof of between 20 to 35%

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Re: Poteen Making in 1930s Ireland - advice appreciated

Post by ezlle71 » Tue Feb 04, 2020 9:34 am

[utube][/utube]
Don't let your meat loaf.

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Re: Poteen Making in 1930s Ireland - advice appreciated

Post by ezlle71 » Tue Jan 19, 2021 1:48 pm

[utube][/utube]
got put back up so resharing it
Don't let your meat loaf.

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