What is Poitín?
Irish whisky has made it’s mark on the world and history, and yeah they’re not too bad at making beer either, but did you really think that was all there was in Ireland? Turns out they’ve been hiding the good stuff right under our noses this whole time! Meet the father of Irish whiskey- a spirit called Poitín. This is a versatile liquor that can be enjoyed in many ways and has somewhat of a mythical status in Ireland, even today.
Poitín has long been considered Irish Moonshine because of the main ingredients used in the distillation process.
When you think about it… What else is Ireland known for? Whiskey, beer, and… Potatoes! So it makes sense that they’d have a spirit similar to vodka or mezcal made from grains. It’s been given many names throughout the years like poteen or potcheen, for this articles sake we will stick with Poitín. The name is pretty simple, in Irish ‘pota’ means pot, and since Poitín is made in a small pot- there you have it.
Because the Irish know they got a good thing Poitín comes with an AOC, meaning it can only be made in Ireland or Northern Ireland and has to be made from cereals, grain, whey, sugar beet, molasses or potatoes with the minimum ABV being 40%. However, some range all the way to 90% ABV.
It is a non-aged, clear, and depending on the main ingredient it can contains hints of floral, gooseberries, and forest berries. Some even have black pepper spice and apple skins, making it ideal for a cocktail, which isn’t really the norm but since it has been around for so long the spirit’s potential uses have evolved.
From rural kitchens to full blown distilleries, the traditional method had to be made in secret and away from the eyes of the law. Making legal and illegal Poitín changes the process, so no two have really been made the same.
Traditionally, the ingredients are fermented in wooden barrels for three weeks to produce a wash or a “beer” liquid which is then the “beer” is distilled, usually in a homemade sill, to yield the clear colored spirit. Before science got fancy and introduced the world to bottled gas, people needed fire to heat up the wash, so they used turf but the smoke caught the attention of the police. So, early Irish distillers had to pick certain days of the year where it was more windy than usual to disperse the smoke.
It was marked illegal for well over 200 years, nowadays, plenty of distillers and whiskey brands produce their own Poitín, and it’s slowly creeping up on the U.S. drinking scene with bars from New York to Houston buying cases by the masses. Some of the top 5 bottles we found include- Bán Poitín, Glendalough Irish Whiskey, Glendalough Poitín, and Teeling Distillery.
A Brief History-
You know a spirit has been around a long time when you can’t find any reference as to when it was invented or who invented it, and Poitín is that case. In fact, it’s been around so long it’s part of some Irish folklore stories that have been rooted in their culture.
One such tale involves the one and only Saint Patrick. Per this ancient legend, Patrick introduced Poitín to the Irish in the fifth century A.D. Having run out of mass wine he brewed up the first batch of Poitín using the distillation method learned by Christian Monks.
Even still, the history of Poitín hasn’t been shared outside Ireland, and what little we do know starts in 1661 with King Charles II. Trying his best to fund his civil war the king imposed a tax on the sale and production of alcohol, for most major cities and towns this was a nightmare, but it was difficult to impose it on rural Ireland.
The few distillers around at the time maintained their rebel status by making Poitín for friends, family, medicinal reasons, and parties. Fast forward to 1779, a law was passed that called for spirit distillers to obtain a license to operate, this effectively ended home and private distillers. The only thing they could think to do was- leave Ireland.
Of course they didn’t just pack up and leave overnight, a few patriots tried other methods. The decades before 1823 have been called the Golden Age for Poitín. People stood posts night and day on the look for police in the area, roads were planked with iron to hear horses galloping miles away, but nothing worked quite like moving all operations to the isolated island of Inishmurray.
It was the perfect hideout with the perfect weather conditions for Poitíin makers. There was no embarkation point for ships to access it, no easy landings, and because of its distance and remote location not even the police visited. Eventually a police station was placed on the island, and things had to slow down.
It was tough times for everyone in Ireland during the potato famine of 1845, and despite being able to make Poitín from other ingredients- the Irish distillers who ended up in New York or Boston brought the method with them though never put it to use.
Potiín wouldn’t be made legal in Ireland until 1987 but it wouldn’t be available (not even in Ireland) until 1997. The ‘87 instance was a once in a life time deal struck by Oliver Dillon and the Irish Revenue Commissioners. The deal said Oliver could make, distill, and bottle the spirit as long as he exported it and did not sell it in Ireland. 10 years later, they took it back and decided to lift the ban on the forgotten spirit.
The word for “hangover” in Irish is “póit”
This makes more sense than naming it after the “pot” it is distilled in, don’t ya think? Ah, the Irish art of simplicity.
Whatever you decide about Poitín know this- because it CAN be made illegally it is as dangerous as moonshine. Only buy the real stuff guys, we don’t want to send you to the hospital for drinking methanol.
Head over to your local Irish Pub and see if they have the stuff and try it in a cocktail first. Unless you’re Irish, in which case, make your ancestors proud!
Thanks for reading, and as always…