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Dublin: 8 °C Tuesday 19 November, 2019
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'At the end of the day I just love it': How one man's passion for poitín led to one of Dublin's most talked-about new bars

New bar 1661 aims to bring back an overlooked spirit, according to its founder.

Image: Bar 1661

IF THERE’S ONE thing that quickly becomes apparent when talking to 1661 owner Dave Mulligan, it’s that the man loves poitín.

Over the space of a half hour, our conversation pivots from the cultural significance of the spirit, to the correct methods to produce it, to the Catholic church’s efforts to make it a sin to consume in the late 17th century. He claims that no man in the country drinks poitín more than him, and I’m tempted to believe him.

Bar 1661 is the latest in a line of poitín-centered endeavors by Mulligan. A bar vet of over 20 years, he first opened Shebeen, a London based bar that specialised in the spirit. After the three year lease ended, he focused his energies on starting up his own brand called Bán Poitín. Why is he such an evangelist for the drink? 

“It shaped our culture,” he says. “It’s so overlooked as to how important poitín actually was to the Irish community and how it shaped us, especially out of the watchful eye of British rule. Outside of city limits, outside the pale, it was our drink of choice.”

Mulligan contends that poitín fell victim to a smear campaign by whiskey distillers and British parliament around the time of 1661, the year the bar gets its name from. It’s a reputation that the drink carries to this day, and Mulligan wants to change that.

“For me there’s a misconception that I encounter every day in this bar. People say ‘oh it’s awful!’ and the first question I ask is ‘how old were you?’” Because Irish people try poitín when they take it out of their parent’s cabinet. They’re sixteen or seventeen and their palate can’t handle neat spirits.

“So what I’m trying to do with this bar and with Bán is to go ‘ok that’s cool, but you didn’t like mushrooms until you were 28!’ You’re an adult now, maybe it’s time to revisit the spirit and get rid of those misconceptions. I mean, you were a child, an actual child, so you shouldn’t have been drinking it in the first place!”

At the end of 2017, Mulligan was working on Bán Poitín in London. The catalyst for 1661 came when his friend Stephen McClusker offered him the chance to do a pop-up poitín bar in the basement of Berlin on Dame Street. For six weeks, Mulligan commuted between London and Dublin to run the pop-up bar four nights a week. The response was immediate and huge.

“It was all over social media – Instagram, Facebook, it was just awash,” he says. “It was so busy. We had to close the door nearly every weekend in there. I was kind of trying to prove a point to myself, that Irish people do want to try it, they are interested in it, but there was no bar facilitating how they get at it.”

Mulligan immediately began drafting plans for 1661. He wanted something that remained staunchly Irish without falling into the trap of the “twee Irish bar”. The dark green and gold colour scheme subtly carries an Irish flavor, while the tables are etched out of sycamore and Irish oak from South Dublin.

More importantly he drafted in his friend Gillian Boyle to run the bar, and design the poitín cocktails. There’s 50 years of bartending experience between the staff, which was used to create accessible cocktails. The jewel in their crown is their Belfast coffee, a cold-brewed coffee drink, topped with cream, nutmeg and of course, poitín. It’s a light, sweet brew that perishes all memories of choking on your grandad’s poitín stash back in the day.

Though Mulligan wants to ease people into things with expertly crafted cocktails, 1661 also offers a selection of 20 different poitíns to drink neat. One option is the “poitín flight” where people try four different poitíns for 20 euro. Even he’s surprised by how many are trying it.

So far 1661 has only been open for two months, but the reception has been promising. Mulligan has had to close the doors on busy nights in order to keep the relaxed vibe, and when I come in to visit at 5pm on a Monday afternoon, the place already seems to be taking off for the evening. In some sense, Mulligan feels vindicated.

“I originally drank poitín with my father, and he was telling me his personal connection to it. I think anybody who’s proud of Ireland, when they read the history of poitín, they will feel inspired by it. And I took it upon myself to say, I’m going to do something with this, I’m going to bring this category of spirit back.

“Look it’s fun, I get a lot of free booze, I get a lot of poitín and it’s amazing what you can write off as a meeting when you work in this industry. But at the end of the day, I just love it.”

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