Poitin, Ireland’s Original Illegal Spirit, is Making a Comeback

Homemade still to make and bottle poitin

Known as the uisce beatha, or “water of life,” poitin (also called “potcheen” or “poteen”) is essentially Irish moonshine that’s deeply rooted in the island’s history and lore. The spirit’s humble beginnings can be traced to sixth-century Christian monks who reportedly brought the art of distillation from the Middle East and created the potent brew. It’s prevalent throughout Irish culture from songs like “The Rare Old Mountain Dew” and traditional oral stories passed through the generations.

Poitin is still served at important Irish occasions. From wakes to weddings, you’ll likely find a bottle or two.

Poitin on display at Micil Distillery / Photo courtesy Micil
Poitin on display at Micil Distillery / Photo courtesy Micil

“I come from six generations of illicit poitin distillers,” says Pádraic Ó Griallais, founder and director at Micil Distillery. “I [learned] all the craft from my grandfather, and I was lucky to have grown up around him, otherwise the brand Micil—named after my great-great-great-grandfather—would never have been created or continued.

I was lucky that my grandfather was a seanachaí (a storyteller/raconteur) as he made stories so engaging. It was hard not to love poitin, the craft, the heritage and the spirit in our family.”

“Poitin is symbolic of Irish liberation and oppression at the same time.” –Pádraic Ó Griallais, founder/director, Micil Distillery

During the 17th century, when Ireland was under British rule, the government tried to collect a tax on poitin. It was not an easy task: Distillers simply hid their bottles and denied its existence to tax collectors. So, in 1661, King Charles II banned the beloved spirit. Many believe the move was part of a bigger effort to repress Irish culture by the British.

“It’s inextricably linked to Irish culture and pride, as it’s hard to separate the two,” says Ó Griallais. “Poitin is symbolic of Irish liberation and oppression at the same time. It was a drink that small farmers made that could help them pay the British landlords’ rent… It was a way for the Irish people to express their irreverence towards the colonial British Empire.”

Its illegal status made poitin even more popular, and the spirit went underground.

How Haiti is Making Some of the Best Rum on Earth

Produced primarily in rural Ireland, poitin was crafted in homes, sheds and in the woods. Many times, it was distilled intentionally on land boundaries—if the illicit spirit was discovered by authorities, the issue of ownership could be disputed.

“Poitin may have disappeared from the mainstream, but was kept alive by a small group of artisans that plied their trade in the shadows,” says John Ralph, CEO of Intrepid Spirits, which produces Mad March Hare Poitín. “The people who continued to make it at home were in fact experienced, skilled craftsman, or it was done as a collective effort by all the townspeople.”

Mad March Hare, one member of a new class of poitin / Photo courtesy Mad March Hare
Mad March Hare, one member of a new class of poitin / Photo courtesy Mad March Hare

Historically, poitin is distilled in a small pot still and made from a malted barley base. Variations in the mash bill range from crabapples to wheat, sugar and beets. When introduced to Ireland in the 16th century, potatoes were used as well.

“Poitin may have disappeared from the mainstream, but was kept alive by a small group of artisans that plied their trade in the shadows.” –John Ralph, CEO, Intrepid Spirits

The finished product varied due to many factors, like the region and the distiller, so no two recipes were alike. Much skill and effort was needed to produce it, as malting, milling, fermentation and distillation was done essentially by hand. When the Irish emigrated, they brought this art form with them.

Copper alembic still on display at Micil Distillery / Photo courtesy Micil
Cross-section illustration of an alembic still / Getty
Top: Traditional copper alembic still on display at Micil Distillery (Photo courtesy Micil). Bottom: Cross section of alembic still showing internal workings (Getty)

“Poitin in ‘Gaelic’ means ‘little pot’ and was the first form of a new make whiskey that we know of,” says Stephan Teeling of Teeling Distillery in Dublin. “Until it was outlawed, nearly 100% of poitin would have been made from barley. But once it was outlawed, people used potatoes and sugar beet as a cheaper substitute.”

“Farmers all around the world always found a way to make alcohol from excess cereals, and in Ireland this was the birth of Poitin,” Teeling continues. “As emigrant Irish families moved to all four corners of the globe, they brought this distilling tradition with them—hence why Kentucky and Jarnac have deep Irish roots at the basis of the Bourbon and Cognac industry.”

Meet Pechuga, the Mezcal Made with Raw Chicken

In modern times, the people of Ireland started to embrace poitin’s illicit past and sought to remove what had become viewed as an unlawful ban. In 1987, regulations were loosened a bit, and a few companies were allowed to sell poitin for export only. It wasn’t until 1997 that the ban was lifted.

Teeling's "Spirit of Dublin" poitin being crafted in the distillery's three copper pot stills / Photo courtesy Teeling Whiskey
Teeling’s “Spirit of Dublin” poitin being crafted in the distillery’s three copper pot stills / Photo courtesy Teeling Whiskey

“The ban was removed through intense lobbying of some forward-thinking individuals and some powerful conglomerates that wanted to revive the category,” says Ó Griallais. “The owner of Bunratty Potcheen should be credited with a lot of that hard work. Diageo was also involved in pushing for legalization to launch a brand called Hackler, which was later discontinued.”

Though the ban has been lifted, it’s taken another 20 years for distilleries to truly embrace this forgotten spirit. Modern consumers, curious to taste something so intertwined in Irish history, have fueled a resurgence. Premium craft poitins like Mad March Hare, Teeling’s Spirit of Dublin, Bán Poitin, Glendalough and Micil seek to dispel the stigmas associated with lower-quality homemade poitin.

Baijiu, the World's Most Popular Spirit You May Never Have Heard Of

Steps have also been taken to preserve the spirit’s heritage. In 2008, poitin received Geographical Indication (GI) status by the European Union, which requires that the spirit be produced on the island. Later, in 2015, the Irish government defined production methods and created regulations to weed out inauthentic bottlings.

Though hidden in obscurity for centuries, poitin is a wholly Irish spirit with a story that needs to be told. Now that it’s finally stepped out of the shadows, the world is ready to listen.

Published on December 6, 2018
Topics: Spirits