Poitín, anglicised as Poteen or Potcheen, is a traditional Irish distilled, highly alcoholic beverage (60%-95% ABV). Poitín was traditionally distilled in a small pot still and the term is a diminutive of the Irish word pota, meaning "pot". Traditionally distilled from malted barley grain or potatoes, it is one of the strongest alcoholic beverages in the world, and for centuries was classified as illegal in Ireland.
Irish moonshine, along with all other private distillation not specifically licensed by the state, was outlawed in 1661. On 7 March 1997, the Irish Revenue Commissioners withdrew their opposition to poitín being sold under license in Ireland. Production for export has been allowed since 1989. In 2008, Irish Poitín was accorded (GI) Geographical Indicative Status by the EU Council and Parliament.
Today, two Irish distilleries are officially licensed to produce poitín: Bunratty Mead and Liqueuer and Knockeen Hills Poteen. Their products are, however, far removed from the coarse illegal poitin produced in the past. Indeed Bunratty is single distilled and only 40% or 45% ABV, far weaker than illegally distilled poitin. Knockeen Hills however, comes in at various strengths from 60% to 90% ABV, varying from triple-distilled to quadruple-distilled.
Poitín was generally produced in remote rural areas, away from the interference of the law. A wash had to be created and fermented before the distillation began. A wash for 100 gallons of fresh water was said to contain six stone (84 lb) of potatoes, six stone of sugar and some yeast. Stills were often set up on land boundaries so the issue of ownership could be disputed. Prior to the introduction of bottled gas the fire to heat the wash was provided by turf. Smoke was a giveaway for the Gardaí so windy, broken weather was chosen to disperse the smoke. The still had to be heated and attended to for several days to allow the runs to go through. In later years the heat was provided by gas and this reduced the chances of being discovered while distilling.
The quality of poitín was highly variable, depending on the skill of the distiller and the quality of his equipment. If poorly produced it can contain dangerous amounts of methanol and can blind or kill. In 2007, samples were found to contain chicken droppings.
Poitín is currently made in Wales by the Celtic Spirit Company, which claims that it was produced throughout the Celtic lands.
Producing poitín was a source of income for some, while for some it was produced in order to have a cheap alcoholic drink. Poitín was popular at weddings and wakes and a large supply was at hand. Farmers often used it (and still do) as a cure for sick calves and other farm animals as well as a method of curing muscle cramp/problems. While not used as widely as it used to be, poitín is still available. It was not uncommon for communities to leave the distilling of poitín to widows, in order to grant them a source of income. Poitín is also used in the midlands of Ireland as an alternative for deep heat, it is commonly rubbed onto muscles to warm them.
Poitín is a literary trope in Irish poetry and prose of the nineteenth century. The Irish critic Sinéad Sturgeon has demonstrated how the contested legality of the substance became a crucial theme running through the works of Maria Edgeworth and William Carlton. Many characters in the work of contemporary Irish playwright Martin McDonagh consume or refer to poitín, most notably the brothers in "The Lonesome West". In the Saga of Darren Shan book "The Lake Of Souls" the character Spits Abrams brews his own poteen, he references Connemara saying that his grandfather comes from there. In Frank McCourt's book "'Tis", he recalls his mother Angela McCourt telling him that when his brother Malachy visited her in Limerick, Malachy went to the countryside and obtained poitín that he brought back to her house and which they then drank. She said that they were lucky that the Gardaí did not arrest them all.
Music and film
Many traditional Irish folk songs, such as "The Hills of Connemara" and "The Rare Old Mountain Dew," deal with the subject of poitín. Poitín is mentioned in the song "Snake With Eyes Of Garnet" by Shane MacGowan & The Popes on their album The Snake. The song "McIlhatton" written by Bobby Sands and performed by Christy Moore is about a famous distiller of illegally made poitín. Gaelic Storm's song, "Darcey's Donkey" on the album "What's the Rumpus?" deals in a humorous way with the consequences of being caught out by the Garda for distilling poitín.
In 1959, the Disney film starring Sean Connery, 'Darby O'Gill and the Little People', features a drinking and limerick contest between 2 main characters (Darby and King Brian of the Leprechauns). They drink a huge amount of Poitin.
The first feature film to be made entirely in Irish was called Poitín (1979). The story involves an illegal distiller acted by Cyril Cusack, his two agents, and his daughter in Connemara, in the remote west of Ireland.
In the Irish television show, Ballykissangel, Paul Dooley is sentenced to 50 hours of community service for serving poitin made by Uncle Minto, Donal, and Liam.
Déantús an Phoitín (Poteen Making), by Mac Dara Ó Curraidhín, is a one-hour documentary film on the subject.
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Poitin - Irish Whiskey, www.bbc.co.uk
On St. Patrick’s day, drink Poitín, the world’s strongest alcohol, www.cafebabel.co.uk