When it comes to drinks, Ireland‘s known primarily for its whiskey, and for its unmissable and iconic beer, Guinness. There’s more to explore in the pubs, of course, from a highly competitive and vibrant craft beer scene to Baileys Irish Cream, Buckfast, and of course, poitin (pronounced puh-cheen).
The latter is what we’re here to discuss, and as the locals might say, it’s a fierce tipple altogether. Here’s what you need to know about the toxic but captivating world of what’s essentially an Irish farm vodka.
Poitin dates back to at least the 6th century, an ancient farm-based spirit that’s made in a single pot still, and takes its name for the Irish word for ‘little pot’, pota. It’s traditionally made with starchy crops grown on the farm, which have since been limited by statuatory definition to potatoes, cereals, grain, whey, sugar beet and molasses.
It’s been necessary to have a license to produce the stuff since way back in 1556, when Parliament decided regulation of such a toxic offering was necessary (it’s worth noting there are pubs still active in Ireland that date back to the 11th century, so there was quite a bit of drinking going on before that!).
Poitin was later made completely illegal in 1661, as the government wanted the ability to tax all alcohol, and couldn’t easily tax farm liquor. It was only legalised again in Ireland in 1997, though it never completely went away; the illegal form was simply homebrewed under the radar, something that was popular, accepted socially and common. News of production spread by word of mouth and the results sold under the table for years.
Following legalisation, over half a dozen modern liquor companies have entered the poitin market, and it’s now fairly easy to pick up in a high-end liquor store (locally: off license), or even in the supermarket, though connoisseurs insist that the trade version is a kind of cheat, and shouldn’t be held in the same regard as the farm-produced forms. Track down the latter at your own risk – it is not carefully regulated and has been known to cause serious health issues for those who consume it.
The present day
Poitin still has something of a mythical status in Ireland, with plenty of rural people able to point to their own source of the stuff, probably outside of any kind of official production. There are numerous stories doing the rounds about poitin making people blind, or exploding barns as a result of a failed distillation process.
The legal version is not widely consumed in pubs, though it’s not unheard of. It can be seen as a kind of hardened, ‘big night’ drink, or as something to be savoured in the way you might enjoy a whiskey (though we’re not sure the flavour palette contains quite the same sophistication). Some bars have started doing cocktails with the stuff, too.
That said, you can now bring poitin home (well, at least the legal version). At anywhere between 40% and a borderline ridiculous 90% alcohol, there are numerous legalised stills, and poitin has risen to an EU-recognised Geographical Indicative status, meaning it can only be produced and sold under the name when made in Ireland. It’s regional enough that you’re fairly unlikely to stumble across poitin outside of Ireland, which makes it a great gift.
It’s worth noting the different spellings of poitin, which are a mix of the original Irish (used here), and the anglicised version of the Irish, which can translate a number of different ways. A variety of the possible spellings are used in the labels in the image above – there’s no commercial consensus on the correct one.
Will you like it? Well, put it this way, the Irish also have a name specific to a poitin hangover, poit, and we’d hazard a guess that locals who’ve never tried it are probably still just about in a majority. Pubs often don’t even stock it. It’s a heavy, heavy drink, and something of a speciality, and a million miles from a casual tipple. While we’d take it easy, it’s definitely something we’d give a go once in your life. You’ll get a real sense below…