Irish spirit Poitín (pronounced po-cheen) is one of the strongest drinks in the world with an alcoholic volume of 40-90%. It is also known as Poteen.
It comes from the Irish word ‘pota’ which means ‘pot’. It is so called because it was traditionally distilled in a pot still from malted barley, grain, treacle, sugar beet, potatoes or whey.
It was illegal in Ireland for centuries and was only legalised in 1997. Since Poitín has been legalised it has been granted Geographical Indicative Status by the EU. This means that from 2008, real poitín can only come from Ireland – making it similar to Champagne.
However, it is still illegal in Northern Ireland. Poitín is thought to have been brewed in the 6th century and there is a common folklore that St Patrick made the first ever batch after he ran out of wine. In 1661, the government made it illegal to produce home distilled drinks as they wanted to make sure they received tax on drinks purchased. So many poitín makers refused to adhere to the new law that the drink became illegal.
It was illegal for centuries and so, like moonshine, it was homemade, usually in remote rural areas. People would make it out of whatever they had to spare which was usually potatoes or apples. The quality of the drink varied hugely from one maker to the next.
It was extremely strong and could cause people to become seriously ill, with many rumours that a bad batch could made people go blind. On the other hand, quality distillers enjoyed a good reputation and would have been in high demand.
Interest in Poitín has grown since it became legal. It is now served in pubs and off licenses and produced by several companies. It has even made its way into supermarkets with retail giant Tesco selling a Poitín made by Coomara Irish Spirits.
The legal version of the drink has become popular in Ireland with many drinkers proud that it is part of Irish culture; many others are curious to find out what it tastes like.
There are now several flavours as manufacturers look to make the drink as accessible as possible and it is sometimes used in cocktails in trendy bars. Many legal Poitíns are now around 40% proof although some are still up to 90%.
While you can now legally buy Poitín, there are still people who produce it illegally. In 2013, officials discovered a large illegal distillery in Co Cavan.