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Man drinking alcohol. Credit: Rainer Fuhrmann / Adobe Stock

Infamous Ancient Irish Spirit Is Now Legal and Sales Are Booming!


An Irish spirit that was until recently illegal is making a big comeback. Poteen which is pronounced as potcheen is a potent alcoholic drink and was notorious because it was so strong. Distillers in Northern Ireland hope to benefit from the new-found interest in legal poteen and hope to export it to Japan and other international markets.

Irish poteen or poitín in Gaelic has been made on the island of Ireland for at least a thousand years. Irish poteen is a very strong, clear alcoholic beverage. It is probably derived from the Irish word for pot and was regularly drank at special occasions and was celebrated in songs and poetry. It was made in small stills, rather like moonshine in the United States.

A selection of legal Irish and Celtic poitin or poteen bottles. Source: Ethanbentley / CC SA-BY 3.0

A selection of legal Irish and Celtic poitin or poteen bottles. Source: Ethanbentley / CC SA-BY 3.0

Illegal Irish Moonshine Made In Remote Stills In Ireland

Archaeological evidence shows that domestic spirit distilling goes back to the 6 th century AD in Ireland. It was outlawed in the 17 th century by the British colonial authorities because they could not collect taxes on its production, and as a result of this its history is rather mysterious.

For centuries people would set up illegal stills in bogs and remote areas and the tradition of making poteen continued. It remained popular among drinkers because of its strength, despite claims that it could cause blindness. Those caught making the liquor were often fined and jailed, but a black market in the drink flourished all over Ireland right up until the 1990s, despite its notoriety.

A man with a red scarf in a cottage pours poteen into a flask. (Erskine Nicol / Public domain)

A man with a red scarf in a cottage pours poteen into a flask. (Erskine Nicol / Public domain)

The BBC reports “Legalized in 1997, poteen was awarded an EU geographical indication (GI) in 2008, meaning it can only be produced on the island of Ireland.” This meant that the old tradition of making poteen in illicit stills ended and commercial enterprises began producing the clear liquor. However, the modern version of the drink is less potent than the one that was made secretly. The BBC reports that in Northern Ireland many distillers have a license to “make something called Irish poteen but it would probably be rather less lethal than the old legendary Irish moonshine.”

Poteen Was First Made With Barley And, Later, Potatoes

David Mulligan, from County Down, Northern Ireland, is an expert in poteen and he believes that there are many myths about the alcoholic beverage. “The most annoying myth for me is that real poteen has to be made from potatoes,” he told the BBC.  He observes that the beverage was being made before potatoes were introduced into Ireland and that it was originally made from barley. Potatoes and other ingredients only came to be used after it was outlawed. Mr Mulligan told the BBC that “When production was illegal you couldn't be malting barley, sending up plumes of smoke for three days at a time. You'd be spotted 50 miles away!"

Jameson is a famous whiskey distilled in Dublin, Ireland, and poteen, illegal or legal, would have been made in wooden barrels like these. (Hans-Peter Eckhardt / CC BY-SA 2.0 DE)

Jameson is a famous whiskey distilled in Dublin, Ireland, and poteen, illegal or legal, would have been made in wooden barrels like these. (Hans-Peter Eckhardt / CC BY-SA 2.0 DE)

The expert also called poteen a white whiskey and stated that it “is the daddy of all whiskey” to the BBC. He firmly believes that this drink was crucial in the development of modern whiskey. Mr Mulligan believes that whiskey was discovered when poteen was placed in wooden barrels. Later whiskey was commercialized, and the drink from which it is derived from was outlawed for centuries.

Poteen Cocktails Now In Vogue In The UK And Internationally

This drink that was once illegal and seen as a cause of many social ills is now fashionable.  Indeed, it is now becoming popular with cocktail lovers. Mr Mulligan who runs a specialist poteen bar in Dublin makes “a ‘Belfast Coffee - it comprises poteen, cold-brew coffee and whipped cream,” reports the BBC. At present many cocktails enthusiasts around the world are using the once illegal drink in their concoctions.  

As the United Kingdom leaves the European Union it is agreeing to new trade deals with a variety of countries. Recently the British government signed a new deal with Japan, and this is expected to benefit the makers of the traditional drink. The British International Trade secretary stated that for Irish poteen makers “this deal will create new opportunities,” reports the Newsletter. At present, there are at least three poteen distillers in Northern Ireland and more in the Irish Republic. 

What was once a drink of the poor is now a premium product. While not everyone would appreciate this strong liquor many connoisseurs of whiskey and spirits around the world are enthusiastic about poteen. It is believed that the cultural heritage of the drink can help it to become even more popular.

Top image: Man drinking alcohol. Credit: Rainer Fuhrmann / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan



Surprised it took this long. People's vices always sell big.

T1bbst3r's picture

Not sure about Japan, but in China, you can buy 60% rice wine for £1 per 300ml which is flavoured with star anise, if like you say it is just a crude whisky then it won't taste very nice so you can deduce that it won't be worth the premium price. My opinion is that Johny walker black and better whisky's will continue to do well as the uk tax premium won't apply over there but there will be better, cheaper equivalents of things like poteen.

Drew458's picture

Made from fermented sprouted barley, toasted over peat, then stored in oak barrels. This is whiskey, period. Make a batch and hide it from the authorities for a few years and it becomes scotch. The only reason it's considered so potent is that it probably isn't watered down so much like standard grain alcohols are. Cask strength for most of them is around 160 proof - 80% alcohol. In the USA most hard alcohol is cut to 80 proof. In the past 100 proof was the bare minimum; the whole idea of proof is that the stuff is easily flammable which requires at 50% or higher alcohol content. That's the "proof" you aren't buying watered down booze.

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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