By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — With the annual pre-Christmas Garda blitz against poitin makers under way, an expert has warned that can be a lethal brew and the best thing to do with it is use it to strip paint.
The head of the Garda Forensic Bureau, Dr. Jim O’Donovan, said he believed that poitin has been a secret killer that has claimed move lives than many realize.
"We have had samples from seizures that has been way up over 90 percent proof, compared to about 40 percent for gin or vodka," O’Donovan said. "Alcohol is a poison and if you don’t know what you are drinking, it can kill you at this sort of strength."
O’Donovan said that more people die every year from poitin than is ever reported. Old people may use it to keep the cold at bay, but it does this by opening the outer blood vessels and this allows the body to lose heat and they can die of hypothermia.
"There is no doubt that people should avoid it," O’Donovan said. "They haven’t the foggiest idea of what is in it and just don’t appreciate how dangerous a substance it can be."
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O’Donovan said many impurities from the materials used to make it can remain in the poitin after the distilling.
"There could be anything in it and there generally is," he said. "We used to evaporate some of it and you would either get a green oil or a thick brown sludge. Alcohol is very good at dissolving things and the best use for a lot of poitin is to strip varnish with it.
"We had one consignment seized from a man who was making it in a piggery in the Midlands and he used his stick for beating the pigs to also stir the mash.
"The quality was unbelievably bad. When you opened a bottle there was a ferocious smell of pig manure that you could get despite the alcohol."
It appears the Celtic Tiger economy is taking its toll on the trade. The mystique of the moonshine is being hit by greater sophistication and more money available to buy commercial spirits. The going price this year is about £6-£7 a bottle.
"We are getting less and less as the years go on. The amount being seized and the number of samples brought in to us has gone down quite a bit in this decade. I think it is fading away and I expect it will become very difficult to get in a few years’ time," O’Donovan said.
The nostalgia for the drop of the "cratur" continues among older people but not the young and this has hit the trade. However, some traditions never die out. Garda still get the traditional excuses that it is being kept as an alcohol rub for treating muscular pain or as a tonic for sick livestock.
The biggest seizure this year has been 200 gallons of poitin and five plastic containers of 240 gallons of wash discovered in a remote area near Cullaville, close to the Monaghan-Armagh border last month.
Inspector Noel Cunningham of Carrickmacross said conditions in the outhouse being used for the distilling were "atrocious" and belied the romantic idea of poitin making.
"The conditions were dreadful with no attempt at hygiene whatsoever," he said. "The containers of wash were covered in filthy old carpets to keep the heat in as it fermented and the ceiling was maggoty. You wouldn’t know what could get in the finished product."
Sgt. Michael Murray in Buncrana, Co. Donegal, who seized more than 70 gallons of poitin and up to 500 gallons of wash earlier this year, said he once raided a still and found dead rats floating in the wash.