There are countless stories of shenanigans when it comes to poitín. Once banned in Ireland, the alcoholic beverage is a bit like Irish moonshine and has caused all kinds of mischief. Take for example the island of Innis Murray, off the coast of Sligo, where the inhabitants went rogue and declared themselves a kingdom so as to continue distilling the drink after it became illegal.
Or there’s the tale of Urris Hills, in the Inishowen peninsula of County Donegal, which was a hive of poitín making. When the Garda (the police) tried to shut down this illegal production, the townspeople sealed off the town by collapsing Mamore Gap and declaring themselves the independent nation of the Urris Republic of Poitín. Because the town was fairly self-sufficient thanks to their farmlands and fishing, The Urris Republic of Poitín lasted for three years before the English were able to break up this coup.
Clearly there has been fierce loyalty to the drink. But, overshadowed for centuries by Guinness and Irish whiskey, only recently has there been a resurgence of poitín in the public eye—and that’s largely thanks to a pub in Dublin called Bar 1661. Here’s what to know about poitíns come-back, and how to get your hands on some of that Irish moonshine.
Poitín—pronounced poo-cheen, from the Gaelic word for “little pot”—has been made in farmhouses, kitchens, and sheds all over Ireland for centuries. So popular was the alcohol that it’s also been referred to as the uisce beatha or “water of life.” It was traditionally distilled in pot stills from a malted barley base with variations in the mash bill, whether crab apples, wheat, sugar beets, or other ingredients, depending on the part of the country in which it was made.
The British were the ones who banned it in 1661, since they had a hard time collecting taxes on such a homemade product. That pretty much sealed the deal on the drink going underground. The independent streak of rural Ireland ran strong, and the drink became the symbol of the Irish rebellion during English colonization.
Poitín remained illegal in Ireland for over three hundred years until 1997, when the ban was finally lifted. But even then, though it was still an under-the-table kind of indulgence, you couldn’t find the drink in bars or being widely produced. That’s where Dave Mulligan stepped in.
Before testing the waters for a bar in his home country, Mulligan decided to see how poitín would be received by wider public audiences. So in 2017, he opened a pop-up bar called Shebeen in London. No one there was talking about this practically forgotten spirit, so he started to spread the poitín gospel.
“It was the pop-up’s six-week success—not just with people through the door, but the avalanche of press and attention for poitín—that really showed the interest was real,” says Mulligan. After that, he decided, “Dublin was ready for a poitín-focused cocktail bar.”
Mulligan opened Bar 1661—cheekily named after the year poitín was banned—in Dublin in 2019. And the idea took off. Mulligan and his team were awarded Ireland’s Bar of the Year in 2022. And in April 2023, they were named in the top 10 Regional Honoree for Best International Bar Team in Europe for this year’s Spirited Award for Tales of the Cocktail.
“Winning such a prestigious award last year, it sort of surprised me and many others,” says Pádraic Ó Griallais, founder and director at Micil Distillery. “Before, it was: Should we have poitín on the back bar? Should we have it on our menus? That’s no longer a question—it’s a must-have for any bar that is serious about showcasing Irish drinks or drink in general.”
Since then, there’s been something of a poitín resurgence. And you can now find the spirit at many bars around Dublin.
“We’ve seen a lot of what we do being mirrored across the country,” Mulligan adds. “Pretty much every cocktail bar in Ireland has it somewhere on their menu. Do you know what it was like before we opened? There were a few, for sure, but now it’s become a staple. And that’s the whole point of our bar.”
After being open for four years, Bar 1661 is now a destination venue for drinkers who want to learn about poitín and other Irish spirits. The menu offers a seasonal selection of cocktails featuring Irish ingredients, with mixers, bitters, salts, and botanicals sourced from foragers and local suppliers.
The signature cocktail is the Belfast Coffee, a riff on the Irish Coffee with a poitín twist. Made with Bán Poitín, local cold-brew coffee, cream, and nutmeg, this cocktail is one of the more popular drinks on the menu. Then there’s 1848 – Generation Six, made with Micil poitín, tequila, mango, bell pepper, sumac, lime, and chipotle. This drink pays homage to the Ó Griallais family, who come from six generations of illicit poitín distillers.
Mulligan also created his own brand, Bán Poitín, in partnership with Echlinville Distillery in County Down. But it’s important for him to showcase the many other poitín brands at his bar, such as Killowen, Mad March Hare, Glendalough, and Micil. Mulligan has been working exclusively in poitín for the past eleven years now, so educating about the spirit has become his specialty. Bar 1661 hosts regular bi-weekly tastings and training for locals, tourists, trade, and cocktail enthusiasts alike.
These days, more Irish distilleries are producing poitín for the mass market as a premium spirit. Brands like Glendalough and Teeling are even being imported stateside.
“We got a long road to travel, for sure. I feel like it could be another 10 years before poitín gets where it needs to go,” says Mulligan. “We really believe that this spirit has its place to shine.”
Story by Yolanda Evnas / Source: Thrillist.com
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