When it comes to Irish drinks, you probably know Ireland is the home of Guinness, Irish Cream and Irish Whiskey, but there’s another long standing drink of the Emerald Isle that is much less prominent: Poitin.
Poitin dates as far back as the 6th century, and is essentially an ancient farm-based spirit that’s made in a single pot still, which is where the name comes from, the Irish word for ‘little pot’ or pota. Typically, Poitin was homemade and consisted of any starchy crops grown; as production increased, Poitin became more commonly associated with potatoes, cereals, grain, whey, sugar beet and molasses. Regardless of the base ingredient, Poitin is essentially moonshine.
Funny enough, the Irish word for hangover is póit, so you get a sense of just how strong of an alcohol this truly is.
Poitin has a storied history in Ireland. Back in 1556 parliament decreed that it was necessary to have a permit to produce Poitin, and then in 1661 it was made illegal as the government wanted the ability to tax all alcohol, and taxing farm alcohol was significantly difficult. And so Poitin remained illegal in Ireland for the next 336 years, finally being legalized in 1997. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t Poitin being produced though, as resourceful farmers always found a way.
Whether it’s due to the illegality of Poitin, the scarcity or just the overall taste, you won’t find much of it in bars or restaurants. As it’s practically moonshine the spirit can range anywhere from 40-90% alcohol and there are stories about illegal Poitin making people blind, or exploding barns as a result of a failed distillation process.
Legal Poitin can be found under a number of different names. There’s the traditional Irish spelling and then anglicized as potcheen, poteen or potheen. It is starting to see a small resurgence, thanks to creative bartenders finding ways to incorporate the strong flavours into cocktails like negronis. But as it’s still fairly limited in supply, you’re likely to only find bottles of Poitin in Ireland, and maybe some speciality importers.