Irish Poitín: What it is and where to find it

If you know anything about Irish whiskey, or have gone on any distillery tour in Ireland, you have probably learned about Irish poitín (pronounced like puh-cheen). Often referred to as Irish moonshine, poitín is a strong beverage that was once lethal enough to kill you. Now the kinks have been worked out to give a much safer drinking experience. But what is it? How is it made? Where can you find it?

The history of Irish poitín:

Poitín is one of the strongest alcohols in the world, something that most Irish people are quite proud of! Traditionally, poitín has an alcohol content between 60 and 90%, which is enough to knock anyone off of their feet!

Poitín dates back to around the 6th century. It gets its name from pota (little pot) as it was made in a single pot still. It is traditionally made from starchy farm crops like potatoes, grain, sugar beets, and others.

Often, the very top of a bottle of poitín would contain lethal amounts of methanol. This would either make the drinker go blind, put them into a coma for several days, or kill them. This led to the unfortunate practice of accidentally burying people alive since it was impossible to tell if someone was dead or in a deep sleep.

In 1556, people became required to have a license to produce poitín. The government decided that regulation was necessary due to the drink’s strength. It was then made completely illegal in 1661, following the rise of alcohol taxes. Since poitín is a farm liquor, it was difficult to regulate and tax, so it was banned altogether. However, this is the year that Ireland saw a rise in poitín distilling. If someone tells you not to do something, the more you want to do it!

The Irish also got clever about concealing their poitín so that the tax collectors wouldn’t find them out. After 18 years, London tightened their regulations by basing taxes on pot still capacity. So, they would always get their taxes.

Some of these hidden cases of poitín remained out of sight for years before they were reopened. Sometimes they were even forgotten about. The long storage time started to change the liquid, going from a clear liquor to something dark brown in colour. This led to the (accidental) discovery of whiskey.

Poitín remained illegal in Ireland for 336 and was legalised once again on 7 March 1997. However, it remains illegal in Northern Ireland to this day. Nowadays, poitín isn’t as strong as it used to be. Most mass-produced poitíns are between 40-45% alcohol. However, the really hard stuff shouldn’t be too hard to find, since many Irish people produce poitín on the down low, the way it used to be.

Irish poitín today:

Poitín isn’t as popular a drink as whiskey or beer, so it has a mysterious reputation. It isn’t widely consumed in many pubs, although many have a bottle around somewhere. As mentioned before, there are many people who make their own poitín, outside of regulated production. This is why it’s often referred to as “Irish moonshine”, since most American moonshine is produced in homes instead of actual distilleries.

There are many legal poitín distilleries throughout Ireland. Poitín also has an EU-recognised Geographical Indicative `Status. This means that it can only be produced and sold with the name “poitín” when made in Ireland. It is highly unlikely that you will find poitín in other parts of the world, since it is very much Irish.

Another fun fact about this strong drink is that there are a few different spellings. Most bottles use the traditional Irish spelling of “poitín”. Yet some other brands used a more Anglicised spelling such as “potcheen”, and “pocheen”.

Where can I find Irish poitín?

Since becoming legalised in 1997, poitín can often be found in most off-license liquor stores and even some grocery stores like Tesco and Lidl. As mentioned earlier, it’s not a popular pub drink. There’s a pretty firm line between those who like to drink it as a big party drink that’ll quickly make you feel tipsy, and those who like to sip it like a whiskey (even though the taste is much less refined). Some bars have even started mixing poitín cocktails that suit most palates.

There aren’t many bars that specialise in poitín. However, Bar 1661 in Smithfield has become the best place in Dublin to try the stuff, whether it be straight from the glass, or mixed into one of their creative cocktails.

Bar 1661 opened in 2019 and is named for the year that poitín was banned in Ireland. Its main draw is the cocktails, that combine poitín with other liquors and mixers to suit any drink taste. They also offer a “Bán and black” which is a shot of Bán poitín served alongside a classic pint of Guinness. It also has other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages on offer for those who aren’t interested in the old Irish drink. It also offers a full lunch menu.

Have you ever tried poitín? What did you think of it? Let us know in the comments!

Eli Romary
Eli Romary

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