The real Irish spirit

Ireland’s heritage spirit has a history stretching back to the sixth century and is part of the island’s culture – but it isn’t whiskey. Ella Buchan meets the people passionate about putting poitín back in its rightful place.


Delve into the history of pretty much any alcoholic beverage and it’s likely you’ll find a tangled history involving some degree of illegal activity and probably some industrious monks too. Poitín is no exception. In fact the clear spirit, traditionally distilled from malted grains, has a more convoluted and chequered past than most.

Pronounced ‘poteen’ or sometimes ‘potcheen’, its name comes from the ‘pota’ or small brass pot favoured by distillers – partly because they tended to operate on a small scale, and partly because these stills were easier to hide.

For more than 300 years, until 1997, sales of poitín were effectively banned in Ireland, forced underground by British taxation and licensing laws. Distilling it at all was illegal until 1987, when a partial relaxation of the law meant that this most Irish of spirits could be produced, but not consumed, on the island.

The story of poitín is interwoven with that of whiskey. They share the same origins, though poitín is closer to the original clear, non-aged spirit believed to have been distilled by monks as far back as the sixth century and known as ‘uisce beatha’ in Ireland or, more widely, aqua vitae: the ‘water of life’.

This is where it gets a little more complicated. While the word ‘uisce’ is believed to have become ‘whiskey’ through anglicisation, many – including Pádraic Ó Griallais at Galway’s Micil Distillery – still refer to poitín as ‘fuisce’, another evolution of the word. The etymology, like the twin spirits, can be traced back to those early days of distillation.

Pádraic, Poitín distiller

“The tradition of fuisce goes back to at least 1324,” says Pádraic, referring to the date of The Red Book of Ossory, which was produced in Kilkenny, Ireland and contains the earliest known written evidence of the production of aqua vitae. “We can track the origins of poitín back to that. It became whiskey due to anglicisation but they’re basically the same thing. People differentiated by referring to ‘fuisce’ or ‘parliament’ [meaning tax had been paid].”

Whiskey has become a different product due to the ageing requirements – Irish whiskies must be aged for at least three years. Poitín, conversely, cannot be aged for more than 90 days – one of the criteria laid out now it has Geographical Indicative Status (since 2008, real poitín can only be made on the island of Ireland). “Poitín was rarely aged and, if at all, it was just in casks for a short time when being transported,” adds Pádraic.

Pádraic opened Micil in 2016, formalising a family tradition of distilling poitín stretching back more than 170 years. Back to the great, great, great-grandfather he named the brand after, in fact. Micil Mac Cheara operated a distillery in Connemara, County Galway from 1848 and was apparently “quite the character”.

By this time, poitín production had been completely pushed underground. The spirit had been distilled mostly domestically, using agricultural grains and botanicals from the land, for centuries when the British government introduced a tax on Irish spirits in 1661. This was levied mostly on the larger whiskey distilleries in Dublin, while people continued to consume and sell their own poitín locally. By the 1780s, licensing laws and a ban on stills with a capacity of under 200 gallons effectively made poitín production illegal. 

There’s a misconception that poitín was banned because it’s dangerously strong. This isn’t, argues Pádraic, a story of “moonshine and potatoes”. Poitín makers simply couldn’t compete with the scale of whiskey production and were unable – and unwilling – to meet licensing requirements or pay tax. Distilling, though, never ceased and recipes continued to be passed down through generations. 

Pádraic and his brother were taught by their grandfather Jimmy, whose likeness features on Micil’s logo. “It was accepted that people just did it anyway. It’s something people felt was their right,” he says.

Micil makes a standard and a heritage poitín, each based on Micil’s original recipes using malted grains and infused with a local botanical, bogbean. The latter adds texture and “a subtle sweetness” to the spirit.

According to a map produced by Drinks Ireland, there were six distilleries making poitín in 2021, all of them in Eire. A further three are marked as intending to produce the spirit.

Teeling Whiskey, in Dublin, is among the best-known distilleries producing poitín. Like Micil, the brand has a long family tradition of distilling, stretching back to to 1782. Its poitín is brewed with a blend of malted and un-malted barley and triple-distilled in copper pot stills for a relatively sweet spirit, which pairs well with tonic.

Glendalough, just south of Dublin near the Wicklow Mountains, makes its 60% Mountain Strength poitín with sugar beet and malted barley for notes of buttery vanilla and forest fruits. Their bottle features St Kevin, founder of a sixth-century monastery in the area where, of course, more than a little uisce beatha was distilled.

“Poitín as a category is developing slowly but surely,” says Pádraic. “There’s growing awareness of what it is and how to drink it, and that’s down to a few people pushing the poitín story out there.”

Dave Mulligan is one of those people. Having run Shebeen, a London bar specialising in the spirit, he opened his own “temple to poitín” in Dublin in spring 2019. Bar 1661 serves 36 different poitíns (including Dave’s own brand, Bán Poitín) and around 60% of the menu is dedicated to “the national spirit”.

“Making poitín is part of the Irish culture,” he says. “Ain’t no one getting rich making moonshine. It’s been passed on through generations.”

Poitín distillers made decent stuff, he says, to “warm you up and dry you out”. The general sentiment was: why should we pay the British money for something that’s been made for thousands of years?

Even 50-strong troops of “poitín hunters”, who in the 18th century would arrive in rural villages to root out illegal operations, couldn’t suppress the spirit. “That’s when it really went underground,” says Dave. “It was kept alive. This is our culture.”

Dave “fell in love” with poitín a decade ago. “I didn’t understand why no one was doing anything with this spirit. It was illegal for more than 300 years but two-thirds of its life before that was legal and cultural. I thought, if I don’t do this, no one else will.”

PHOTO: Bar 1661

He did a pop-up in the basement of a friend’s bar in Dublin, selling only poitín cocktails and the neat spirit. It proved hugely successful, as has Bar 1661 – winning awards and crucially sparking consumers’ curiosity. The bar’s signature cocktail is the Belfast Coffee, made with poitín, cold-brew coffee, cream and nutmeg. Dave calls it a “margarita moment”, with the potential to do for poitín what that cocktail did for tequila. It’s already served in many bars across Ireland and even in the US.

The other favoured serve is with fiery ginger beer – one of the varieties of Dave’s ready-to-drink brand, Little & Green, planned for release by summer 2022. He hopes the pre-mixed drinks will help to “normalise” poitín for the next generation. “When they start going to cocktail bars they will already know it. It won’t be weird to them.”

Poitín is no easy sell. Dave reckons it’ll be another dozen years for it to achieve meaningful success. “The category is just waiting for one brand to break away. As soon as one brand makes any sort of noise, it will take off.”

Pádraic agrees. “It’s still very small in sales compared to whiskey and gin. It doesn’t compete,” he says. “It’s not going to be the next whiskey in my lifetime, but there will be people aware of it around the world.”

Sales have actually dropped in the past few years, from 5,800 cases (of six bottles) in 2017 to an estimated 2,486 in 2020. Vincent McGovern at industry body Drinks Ireland reckons that’s partly due to the spirit’s few “brand ambassadors” focusing on building their businesses (Dave’s Bar 1661 and Pádraic’s distillery). “Covid and the shutdown of global travel retail also didn’t help, as much of the small amount sold was sold in duty-free,” Vincent adds. A sharp drop of more than 1,250 cases between 2019 and 2020 seems to support that.

The numbers are so small compared to other spirits and especially Irish whiskey – which sold 11.4 million cases (nine litres) in 2020 and is expected to continue on an upward trajectory – that a few lone, passionate voices really can have a huge impact.

“The biggest challenge for poitín is that no large spirits producer makes or has poitín as part of their portfolio and as a result they don’t advertise and market it. Therefore, there’s no public profile,” says Vincent. “It’s small distilleries and producers [driving the revival], because they believe it’s important to have poitín given its shared history with Irish whiskey or there is a family connection.”

For Pádraic, who also makes whiskey at Micil “because of the inextricable link between the two”, poitín remains the priority. “We went with authenticity above everything else,” he says. “It was challenging. It would have been much easier to launch a gin. But it wouldn’t have been the right thing.”

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