What is Poitin?

When it comes to alcohol, Ireland is most renowned for its whiskey and Guinness, the unmistakable and legendary stout. Naturally, there’s more than just these to discover at the pubs. There’s a thriving craft beer culture, Baileys Irish Cream, Buckfast, and, of course, poitin.

The latter is what we’re here discussing in this article. Here’s everything you need to know about what is effectively Irish craft vodka.

The background

Poitin is an ancient farm-based spirit manufactured in a single pot and dates back to at least the 6th century. It gets its name from the Irish word pota, which means “small pot.” Poitin was originally produced with farm-grown starchy crops. These are now restricted to potatoes, cereals, whey, grain, sugar beet and molasses.

It was 1556 when Parliament decided that such a lethal offering ought to be regulated. Poitin was later rendered fully illegal in 1661 because the government wanted to be able to tax all alcohol. Farm liquor was difficult to tax however and the illicit form was simply homebrewed in secret. It was something that was popular, accepted socially, and prevalent. It was finally legalized again in Ireland in 1997, though it never really disappeared. Word of mouth spread about who was making it and the results were sold under the counter for years.

Following legalization, more than a half-dozen modern liquor companies entered the poitin market. In fact, it’s now fairly easy to find in a high-end liquor store or even a supermarket. Connoisseurs will insist that the trade version is a kind of cheat though and shouldn’t be held in the same regard as farm-produced forms. Grab the latter at your own risk however; it is poorly regulated and has been known to cause major health problems in individuals who consume it.

Poitin in modern Ireland

Poitin has a mythological position in Ireland today, with many rural people able to identify their own source of the liquor; most likely outside of any type of official establishment. There have been multiple reports of poitin causing blindness or barns blowing up as a result of a faulty distillation procedure.

Though it is not unheard of, the legal form is not generally drunk in pubs. It is generally thought of as a rough drink, or as something to be savored in the same way you would a whiskey. Some bars have even begun to serve cocktails made with it. You can now take poitin home with you. There are various legalised stills, with alcohol content ranging from 40% to a borderline absurd 90%. Poitin has been granted EU-recognised geographical Indicative status, meaning it can only be produced and marketed in Ireland. Poitin is so provincial that you’re unlikely to come across it outside of Ireland, which makes it an excellent gift.

It’s worth noting that the various spellings of poitin are a mix of the original Irish and the anglicized version of the Irish. There is no consensus on the proper one.

To put it another way, the Irish have a name for a poitin hangover called poit. Pubs frequently never stock it. It’s a very strong drink that’s still something of an acquired taste and not a casual drink.

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