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Poitín has a very special place in Irish popular culture. For much of its history this potent brew and the making thereof have been strictly illegal.

Its name – aka “potcheen”, “poteen” or even “potheen” in some anglicised versions – comes from the Irish “pota” for pot. Hence “poitín”, literally a small pot.

For a potted history of the libation and its ingredients, check out Wikipedia. The same entry has a subsection on “Literature and traditional music”, because poitín has been a running theme in Irish poetry, prose and song since at least the nineteenth century.

‘The Hackler from Grouse Hall’

Talking of poitín songs, check out Planxty’s rattling version of “The Hackler from Grouse Hall”. This rendition from RTÉ from way back when has a typical Christy Moore intro:

And as youse all know, a hackler is not a disruptive influence from the cheap seats of, er, one’s misspelt (sic) youth. A hackler is/was a type of flax worker. For more background to the song, it too has its own entry in Wikipedia.

I begin to detect a running theme here. The drink and the Wikipedia…

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But there is a sort of postmodern twist to said hackler. By the early 1990s, poitín-making had become sort of semi-decriminalised: the authorities in Dublin allowed production for export, then in 1997 they ruled that the drink could be sold for consumption within the state too (is it still illegal in the north of Ireland?).

That same year, John Teeling’s Cooley Distillery launched “Hackler Poitín”.

As the Wikipedia entry about the hackler ballad puts it,

The promotional literature originally referred incorrectly to a hackler as a maker of Poitín. This error was subsequently corrected.

As it happens, they dropped the Hackler drink a mere 17 months after its launch, when IDV and UDV merged to form Diageo. Any remaining bottles of it are much sought after on the likes of the Irish Whiskey Auctions website.

Mr Teeling sold his distillery a few years back, but his sons now operate the Teeling Distillery in the Liberties in Dublin. As the tagline on their website’s home page puts it, they are “Unconventionally Irish”.

The same page stresses this tension between convention and the unconventional, between the old and the new: how they are “doing things differently and with deep roots in distilling”, and are “dedicated to bringing new and innovative flavours to Irish Whiskey”.

Among their products is a “Spirit of Dublin Poitín”, which joins an increasingly bustling market of “craft distillers” and “artisans” producing these 21st-century legal and licensed variants on poitín. These spirits now have a Geographical Indicative Status approved by Brussels (under Regulation (EC) No 110/2008 and so on), and often come in fancy designer bottles that wouldn’t look out of place on Arnotts’ perfume counter.

Yet all this seems a gazillion miles (metaphorically speaking) from any small pot. The new breed of “poitín” is the stuff of international business magazines…


And of (YouTube) tastings too…

Mind you, the same Wikipedia entry for “Poitín” has a great riposte from one whiskey (and whisky) expert’s book:

If you see a product labelled ‘poteen’ in an airport or a bar, it’s simply a white duty-paid Irish schnapps. By definition, poteen is illegal and can’t be sold.

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Poster for Bob Quinn's film "Poitín" - shows Mick Lally playing a local uniformed gardaFor a glimpse into the brew in its raw state in its pre-legal days, check out the brilliant maverick director Bob Quinn’s Poitín (1978), the first feature film to be made entirely in Irish.

Poitín, in this very traditional sense, would have had humble origins and ingredients: the isolated rural cottage, the rough terrain, the turf fire, the mountain of spuds, the bags of white granulated from Cómhlucht Siúicre Éireann…

This very marginality would have been one of poitín’s key ingredients. Historically, it was literally produced on the margins of society, often in hard-to-find places, and most definitely outside the tax net. It was a mainly pre-industrial process too, outside the factory system.

Maybe all this goes to make poitín one of those strange, transubstantial, “raw-and-the-cooked” kind of social constructs, as the structuralists might say.

All those very raw ingredients, and its very illegality at the margins of both a colony and a fledgling Irish State, somehow all coming together to create a sacred spirit and a symbol of national resistance or defiance or autonomy. Or whatever.

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More importantly, what about its smell? As John Feeley (@J_F_belleek) tweeted the other week: