What the potcheen is poitin? A guide to the Irish spirit

Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken

17 March 2020

We spoke to the UK and Ireland’s proudest poitín pushers to learn more about the enigmatic Irish spirit

Potcheen, poitín, potheen: whatever which way, the distilled Irish spirit remains a relatively niche category among (non-Irish) customers. And despite its emerging presence on some of the UK’s best bars’ menus, it seems that there is still some way to go when it comes to encouraging UK bartenders to incorporate the ‘Irish Moonshine’ on their lists.

So, let’s start at the beginning: what is poitín? Derived from the Irish word pota (meaning ‘small pot’), poitín is a traditional Irish distilled spirit made from barley, corn or potatoes and is said to have been made as far back as the 6th century. Poitín makers used small potas in which to distill their liquids over fires fuelled by peat or turf, and the liquid came off the stills (and still does) at anywhere between 40% and 90% abv. 

Bar 1661
Bar 1661

Despite being rooted in Irish rural culture, its history has been a complicated one. When King Charles II introduced a tax on Irish spirits in the mid-17th century, the production of poitín became illegal, and it wasn’t until 1987 that it became legalised. It wasn’t until even later - 2008 - that Ireland was given the accorded GI status in Ireland by the EU Council and Parliament.

Past and present

Since then, poitín hasn’t had an easy ride. This is partly due to there still being common misconceptions about the spirit and its production. For Charlie McCarthy, founder of All About the Cocktail and poitín expert, there are three reasons. The first is that it’s still illegal, the second is that they’re all made using potatoes (something mentioned by a number of experts interviewed for this piece) and the third is that it’s poorly distilled. Of the latter, McCarthy cites the story of mezcal as a helpful parallel.

‘They are both strong white spirits with unique characters that share deep cultural and regional roots in their home countries. If you think back 10 years… tequila was enjoying… [a] renaissance… and back then mezcal was seen as an unregulated tequila. Fast-forward to now and mezcal is very much the spirit of the moment… If poitín has even half that success, it will be a very good result.’

There’s also the issue of support from the industry. It’s something McCarthy believes and a fact that is seconded by drinks consultant Julian de Féral: ‘Unlike many other spirits (even some niche ones) there is practically no investment, nor currently cause to invest, from larger brand portfolios to educate bartenders on a large scale.’

Irish times

It’s only recently that poitín has resurfaced. ‘Poitín only really came back into the mainstream in the UK over the past five years, thanks largely to the efforts of Dave Mulligan,’ McCarthy told Imbibe.

Dave Mulligan
Dave Mulligan

When Mulligan opened his bar Shebeen, London in 2012, he wanted to introduce poitín to the London cocktail scene. However, ‘it was clear very early that we were alone in this journey with not a single [brand] interested in pushing the category or educating bartenders. We took this mission upon ourselves to define and lead the revival,’ he said. 

Eight years on and Mulligan (who also owns the brand Ban Poitín) uses his Dublin venue, Bar 1661, for poitín education: ‘It’s been a mission of mine to bring poitín out of the shadows and to back bars around the world… after the success of a very impactful pop-up in late 2017, I was convinced we needed a permanent home in Ireland to promote the category and be the global flagship for Irish poitín.’

Its house drink, Belfast Coffee (main picture), is testament to Mulligan’s ingenuity, outselling Guinness at the bar.

‘Take the classic Irish Coffee and swap out your whiskey for Bán Poitín, and hot coffee for cold brew. Stir that down with brown sugar and layer with double cream and nutmeg and you’ll have one of the best versions of the National Irish cocktail you’ve ever tried… it’s this success that we see as the future of poitín.’ 

Poitín pioneers

He isn’t the only one paving the way for poitín. Part of The Umbrella Group, The Sun Tavern in Bethnal Green stocks 22 on its list. ‘We love an underdog and poitín is the original underdog spirit,’ said bar manager Tommy Cummins. ‘Poitín has lived on in lore and heritage throughout the island of Ireland and we want to share it with a new generation.’ 

Tommy Cummins
Tommy Cummins

The team run regular masterclasses which they tailor to their different and varied audiences. ‘Usually we’ll have someone in the group who’ll add a nice story passed down from their grandparents or a worried mammy, so we tailor the masterclasses to the audience, and their level of prior knowledge.’

From Galway, Cummins is one of poitín’s biggest pioneers and drinks it mixed with the Umbrella Brewery’s Ginger Beer. The team also serve it in cocktails, such as The Tara Cocktails – a take on a Daiquiri – and Put Ya Dukes Up John (Woodford Reserve Whiskey, Bán Poitin, Banane Du Brésil, citrus, Fourpure Juicebox ), inspired by the Irish travelling to exotic parts of the world.

Michal Maziarz, bars director at the new Great Scotland Yard Hotel, serves poitín in the hotel’s ‘secret’ bar, Sibin (meaning ‘illicit drink’ in Gaelic). ‘We always wanted to present the evolution of the liquid and to do what is best is from the starting point,’ he told Imbibe.

‘At the same time some of the poitíns and new make spirits are wonderfully complex and balanced even before ageing - which proves that age is not everything. [Poitín] is a piece of whisky history, an interesting thing to try, and it bottles memories for some of our Irish guests.’

Green future?

So what does the future hold for Ireland's original spirit? 'We have a long way to go that’s for sure,' thinks Ban Poitín's Mulligan. 'While we see many other brands coming behind us especially of the "white whiskey" variety we feel it will take one company to make some serious impact before the new distilleries get on board. While we of course want to be the brand we will continue to support our fellow poitín producers and their continued success.'

Mad March Hare's Hare The Rocked Mule
Mad March Hare's Hare The Rocked Mule

John Ralph, CEO of Intrepid Spirits, which owns and distributes Mad March Hare poitín, is more optimistic. 'We are at a turning point in the Irish poitín story. Poitín has always been a part of the Irish community, but until recently it has been hidden away and many viewed it with a mixture of suspicion and fear. Now we are seeing it become an integral part of the booming cocktail and mixology scene in Ireland and further afield. The stigma has been lifted and poitín is taking its rightful place among other premium spirits.'

Killowen Distillery also told Imbibe that it has recently agreed to work with a distributor in London after seeing demand in the capital grow of late. McCarthy agrees the spirit is growing in popularity but that it's presence will mainly be seen in higher-end bars. 

In his 2018 piece for Imbibe, bartender-turned-consultant Nate Brown signed off with an impassioned statement about poitín's place in the drinks world: 'Poitin exudes the communal, the non-corporate. Forget the pretence, forget the dehydrated tomato skin. Poitín is a drinkers’ drink. Poitín is about sharing a glass together, community and raucous good craic. Poitín is drunk amongst old friends and new, standing, leaning lopsided at the bar and laughing away life’s troubles. And that for me is something worth celebrating, at least for a day.'

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