Poitín (Irish pronunciation: [ˈpˠotʲiːnʲ]), anglicized as potcheen, poteen or potheen (/ˈpʊn/ PUUT-cheen), is a traditional Irish distilled beverage (40–90% ABV).[1] Poitín was traditionally distilled in a small pot still and the term is a diminutive of the Irish word pota, meaning "pot". The Irish word for a hangover is póit.[2] In accordance with the Irish Poteen/Irish Poitín technical file, it can only be made from cereals, grain, whey, sugar beet, molasses and potatoes.[3]

Bottles of legally produced poitín
TypeDistilled beverage
Country of originIreland
Alcohol by volume40%–90%

To authorise the distillation of spirits a requirement was introduced at the parliament at Drogheda in 1556 which necessitated a licence under the great seal.[4]

Today in Ireland there are a number of commercially produced spirits labelled as poitín, poteen or potcheen. In 2008, Irish poitín was accorded (GI) Geographical Indicative Status by the EU Council and Parliament.[5]

In 2015, in consultation with producers and stakeholders, the Irish Government adopted the Geographical Indication technical file for poitín, outlining the production methods that must be used in order for a spirit to be called Irish Poitín. Topics covered included allowable base materials, distillation method, use of flavourings/infusions and limited storage in casks.[3]

Poitín was also produced in the growing Irish diaspora in the 19th century, particularly in any of the New York City neighborhoods dubbed "Irishtown".[6]


Poitín was generally produced in remote rural areas, away from the interference of the law. A wash was created and fermented before the distillation began. 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 was heated and attended to for several days to allow the runs to go through.

The old style of poitín distilling was from a malted barley base for the mash, the same as single malt whiskey or pure pot still whiskey distilled in Ireland. The word poitín stems from the Irish Gaelic word "pota" for pot; this refers to the small copper pot still used by poitín distillers.[7]

In more recent times, some distillers deviated from using malted barley as a base of the mash bill due to the cost and availability instead switching to using treacle, corn and potatoes. It is believed this switch led to the deteriorating quality and character of poitín in the late 20th century.[8]

The quality of poitín was highly variable, depending on the skill of the distiller and the quality of their equipment. Reputations were built on the quality of the distiller's poitín, and many families became known for their distilling expertise, where a bad batch could put a distiller out of business overnight.[8][9] It has been claimed that the drink can cause blindness[10] but this is possibly due to adulteration rather than lack of quality.[11]


Poitín is a trope in Irish poetry and prose of the nineteenth century. The Irish critic Sinéad Sturgeon has demonstrated how the illegality of the substance became a crucial theme running through the works of Maria Edgeworth and William Carlton.[12] 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 poitín. In Frank McCourt's book 'Tis, he recalls his mother Angela telling him that when his brother Malachy visited her in Limerick, he obtained poitín in the countryside and drank it with her.

Déantús an Phoitín/Poteen Making, by Mac Dara Ó Curraidhín, is a 1998 one-hour documentary film on the subject.

The first feature film to be made entirely in Irish was called Poitín (1979). The story involves an illegal distiller played by Cyril Cusack, his two agents, and his daughter in Connemara, in the remote west of Ireland.

Some traditional Irish folk songs, such as The Hills of Connemara and The Rare Old Mountain Dew, deal with the subject of poitín. The persecution of the poitín-maker by the R.I.C. in 1880s Cavan is treated in The Hackler from Grouse Hall and its reply The Sergent's Lamentation. In the first song, an overzealous sergeant pursued an ageing hackler with a fondness for poitín.[13] Poitín is mentioned in the song Snake With Eyes of Garnet by Shane MacGowan and 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.

Christy Moore, Planxty and Damien Dempsey have each performed variations of this song available on YouTube. In the 1990s, a product known as The Hackler, an Irish poitín, was developed by Cooley Distillery. So popular was this song that the promotional literature originally referred incorrectly to a hackler as a maker of poitín. This error was subsequently corrected.

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 distilling poitín by the Garda.

In the BBC television show, Ballykissangel, Paul Dooley is sentenced to 50 hours of community service for serving poitín made by Uncle Minto, Donal, and Liam.

In the Irish sitcom, Bridget & Eamon, When Eamon, and by association Bridget, are barred from the pub, Eamon decides to cook up his own home brew poitín based on an old family recipe.

In the movie Darby_O'Gill_and_the_Little_People, Darby O'Gill tricks King Brian into getting drunk on a jug of poitín.

It was also referenced in the HBO TV series Boardwalk Empire season 4 episode 6 when Sally pours Nucky a few glasses of the bottle she had at her bar in Florida.

See also


  1. McGuffin, John (1978). In Praise of Poteen. Belfast: Appletree Press. ISBN 0-904651-36-3.
  2. Ó Dónaill, Niall (1977). Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla. Dublin: Oifig na tSoláthair. p.707
  3. "FILE SETTING OUT THE SPECIFICATIONS WITH WHICH IRISH POTEEN/IRISH POITÍN MUST COMPLY" (PDF). Food Industry Development Division. Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. February 2015. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  5. "REGULATION (EC) No 110/2008 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL" (PDF). Eur-lex.europa.eu. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  6. "Kings of the Moonshiners; Illicit Distillers Who Ruled in "Irishtown"". The New York Times. 18 March 1894. p. 16.
  7. In Praise of Poitín by John McGuffin
  8. TG4 Documentary on Poitín Distilling
  9. Irish Independent Saturday, 24 November 1984 Page: 6 "Two deaths from poitín - inquest told"
  10. "Poitín may occupy 'a special place' but it is not safe". The Irish Times   via HighBeam Research (subscription required) . 17 June 2004. Archived from the original on 11 June 2014. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  11. "FYI: Can Drinking Moonshine Really Make Me Go Blind?". Australian Popular Science.
  12. Sinead Sturgeon. "The Politics of Poitín: Maria Edgeworth, William Carleton, and the Battle for the Spirit of Ireland". Irish Studies Review. 15 (1).
  13. Frank Brennan at Laragh Gathering, July 2013

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