History of Poteen

Poteen is an Irish drink which has hundreds of years of Irish tradition, customs and history behind it covering over 400 years. If you want to explore the extensive cultural and political history of Ireland with just one alcoholic drink you can do so easily through the history of Poteen.

The name ‘Poteen’ comes from the meaning ‘Little Pot’ which aptly represents the way that Poteen was distilled in little pots in an underground manner hundreds of years ago. The process of creating Poteen starts with a wash which consisted of water, potatoes, sugar and yeast which was heated up for several days.
Poteen was a relatively traditional drink which was most commonly produced in the remote and rural farming areas of Ireland. As potatoes were such an important part of the farming industry in Ireland during the early centuries it should therefore come as no surprise that one of the main products most often used to distil the drink was potatoes! Alongside the potatoes, malted barley grain was also often used.

In 1661 home distillation was made illegal by the government in order to force the popular to buy the alcoholic spirits and drinks which had taxes levied. As Poteen was generally only made through private distilleries in Ireland when this time came it did of course result in the subsequent banning of the drink.
The illegal status of Poteen did not hinder the production of it in some parts of Ireland with a general underground industry being created as a result. There were several techniques which were used in order to produce Poteen without getting caught by the police such as having the fires to heat up the wash in the wind to avoid raising attention due to smoke lingering and operating the washes on the edge of land boundaries so if they were discovered it was possible to deny ownership.

Historically Ireland had any uses for Poteen and these can be seen when looking back through the historic traditions. Examples of such would be pain relief, the drink of choice at social family events such as weddings. In contrast to the positive aspects of Irish history relating to Poteen there are reports throughout history of doctors disapproving of the illegal Poteen distillation trade claiming it led to significant levels of alcoholism and alcohol poisoning in the rural parts of Ireland.

Poteen can be considered an important part in the traditional Irish culture especially in the rural parts with many Irish folk songs, literature and art work all featuring the drink such as Mcllhatton by Bobby Sands and Darcey’s Donkey by Gaelic Storm.  There have even been films which cover the history and social significance of Poteen in rural Ireland. Examples of such include Poitin which is also in Irish focuses on the life of an underground distiller and Darby O Gill and the Little People features Poteen.

The last 20 or so years have seen significant events occur in the history of Poteen. In 1989 it was made legal for Poteen to be exported from Ireland followed by the change of legal status by the Republic of Ireland government in 1997. Poteen still remains illegal in Northern Ireland.

In 2008 the European Union Parliament and the EU Council gave Irish Poteen a Geographical Indication Status (GI) which means that is must be produced in Ireland to be given the title Irish Poteen.
Although now there are two licenced distilleries which produce Poteen there is still a significant underground industry producing what can be said to be more “traditional” Irish moonshine. It is almost always recommended that any underground productions of Poteen be avoided as there have been instances where a badly produced batch of Poteen has caused blindness, other health issues or even death due to the methanol levels.