IT might still be premature to say that poitín is becoming respectable, but I see Cooley Distillery has just added a version of the once-forbidden drink to its expanding repertoire. According to a whiskey reviewer whose word I’ll have to take for it, the taste includes hints of “black pepper”, “candy-floss”, and “half-baked bread”. Which the reviewer at least seems to think is a good thing. Even so, it also sounds like a niche product: unlikely to rival the sales of, say, Baileys Irish Cream.
On which note, however, I have a suggestion for any ambitious distillers out there, Cooley included, who may be looking for the next big thing. It would be a technical challenge. It might even be impossible. But I know that, to wine and spirit manufacturers, historical provenance counts for a lot. Thus my belief that great rewards await anyone who could produce a marketable version of the once-famous Irish tipple, scalteen.
Chances are you've never heard of it. Indeed the term is included in Diarmaid Ó Muirithe's recent book, Words We Don't Use (Much Anymore). Wherein, some of the potential obstacles to reproducing scalteen (variously spelt as scailtín, scaoltín, scaillín, and several other forms) are also identified.
For one thing, as the name somehow hints, Scalteen must he served hot. That itself is not insurmountable. As anyone who has visited Japan will know, sake – although bottled cold – is generally served at human body temperature. But a bigger complication is that Scalteen, in some accounts, appears to have been as much food as drink, albeit food with a large quotient of alcohol.
Thus the recipe for it given to Ó Muirithe by a man from Tipperary: “Add half a bottle of whiskey, two whisked eggs and a lump of butter to a pint and a half of strained beef broth to which salt and black pepper has been added. Heat the mixture well but do not boil.” It may have been in just such a consommé form that the Prussian prince Hermann Ludwig
Heinrich von Puckler-Muskaü first encountered scalteen after a hunt near Cashel in 1822. The mixture was served between courses, and it seems that he mistook it as an amuse-boucheor something to sober him up. Instead of which, he later slid under the table and, as Ó Muirithe puts it, "was licked awake in the morning by some foxhounds".
The mixture's paradoxical powers are also suggested in the 1945 memoir, Malachi Horan Remembers, the recollections of an old farmer who by then had lived for almost a century in the hills near Tallaght, when that was still deep countryside. Horan recalled that scalteen had once been a staple on the drinks menu of the Jobstown Inn, where it was popular with farmers like him, out in all weathers from morning to night and coming home with the "mark of the mountain" on them.
“Scalteen would make a corpse walk,” he said. “It would put the life back in them but make them drunk too. It was taken red hot. They made it from half a pint of whiskey, half a pound of butter, and six eggs. You should try it some time, but when you have it down, go to bed while you’re still able.” As readers will note, eggs and butter were key ingredients along with whiskey, meaning that a successfully mass-produced version of scalteen could be an even bigger boost to Irish agri-business than Baileys. On top of those basic ingredients, spices were added, to taste. But even when prepared fresh, scalteen was difficult to get right.
If the whiskey and butter were heated too much or too little, the compound had a harsh or burnt flavour, not the creaminess required. Consequently, as the Victorian almanac Chambers' Book of Days(already referring to the drink as a thing from Ireland's past) noted, "a good scaltheen-maker was a man of considerable repute and request in the district he inhabited." The almanac mentions one such expert whose story not only backs up scalteen's provenance, but imputes to it a former notoriety that – also to the potential benefit of any marketing campaign – outdoes anything in poitín's past.
According to Chambers, the scalteen maker in question had in turn learned his trade from a master whose skills, many years earlier, had earned regular employment at the infamous Hellfire Club in Dublin. And as well as handing down the recipe, the older man had related stories of the diabolical excesses in which the rakes and dandies who gathered there indulged.
“How, for instance, they drank burning scaltheen, standing in impious bravado before blazing fires, till, the marrow melting in their wicked bones, they fell down dead upon the floor. How there was an unaccountable, but unmistakeable smell of brim-stone at their wakes; and how the very horses evinced a reluctance to draw the hearses containing their wretched bodies to the grave.”
With some editing, obviously, that’s the making of a marketing campaign right there. But the first and biggest challenge to a modern scalteen maker would be to find a workable formula for the stuff. Maybe it would have to sold in flat-pack form, with separate whiskey mix, butter, half a dozen eggs, and a how-to-assemble booklet.
After that, it would be over to the marketeers to devise the right name, label, and promotional strategy. It hardly needs adding that they would all at times urge customers – unlike members of the Hellfire Club – to enjoy alcohol sensibly.