Created and consumed by the Irish for over 600 years, banned for 336 and now legal again since 1997, the story of Poitín is a fascinating one. It’s backstory has captivated Dave Mulligan since he had his first sip aged 12 (accidentally!). Dave is enthusiastic and outspoken about our oldest and most controversial spirit, and as a Poitín maker himself with his own brand Bán Poitín, he knows a lot about the legends and lore surrounding it.
With the craft gin and whiskey bubble refusing to burst anytime soon, Dave feels its time that Poitín had its day. His passion for it has driven him to create an Irish-first, an entire bar dedicated to ‘the rare auld mountain dew’, as its been dubbed in Irish folk music. Bar 1661 recently opened in the premises of a former early house at 1 -5 Green Street, just off Capel Street.
Dave first encountered Poitín in his mother’s cake shop, where one day he picked up a seemingly innocent-looking bottle of Tipperary Spring Water;
‘Before you ice a fruit cake you run alcohol over it to lock in the flavour’, he explains, ‘The higher the alcohol content the better. My Ma used this Poitín she used to get off a Guard she knew from the Midlands, and as it was illegal she had to disguise it in water bottles. Once, as a young lad, parched coming in from basketball, I grabbed a bottle of water in the shop and took a big swig out of it. All the women in the shop watched me drink it and thought it was hilarious. Needless to say it came straight back up’.
He tried Poitín again aged 19 when it was being passed around by friends at a festival, but forgot all about it after that, moving to London soon afterwards and opening a bar in Kentish Town in 2012 called Shebeen;
‘It was an Irish whiskey and classic cocktail concept bar. Irish whiskey wasn’t cool back then like it is now. There was no Teelings. No reserve releases coming out of Middleton. Even Jameson didn’t have a strong foothold in London at the time. It just wasn’t a thing then.’
A visit home to Ireland and a session with his Dad made him realise how unique and special this drink was;
‘I went home one time and my Da was delighted to see me because I’d been away such a long time. To celebrate he got a bottle of Poitín off his brother in Sligo. We were drinking it all night and he started telling me all the stories about it – the history, the culture, what it was like when he was a young lad.’
A distilled history of Poitín
‘Basically as a nation we drank whiskey and Poitín back in the day. The big whiskey distilleries at the time were in the cities and English-owned. Poitín was rural. It was generally made by the women of the household while the men were out working the fields. It was made in the kitchen, so Poitín means ‘little pot’ as Gaeilge.
Life was hard then, and Poitín was a way to stay warm and keep the spirits up. Then the British started to tax it and made distilling illegal, but the Poitín makers aggressively resisted it. This was a tradition going back hundreds of years that they were now saying was against the law. The makers fought back, kicking off a 30 year period called the Poitín wars. People were killed or ran out of town trying to collect revenue from them. When I found out about all this it was like alarm bells went off in my head. I wanted other people to know about it too.’
Dave took the remnants of the bottle back to London, picking up a couple of other Poitín brands in the airport that had just been released at the time. He knew he was onto something from the reaction of the bar staff in Shebeen;
‘The English lads behind the bar absolutely loved it! It was something cool and new for them I suppose. From there, I went down this crazy rabbit hole into the world of Poitín.’
Down a rabbit hole
Dave started to develop his own brand Bán Poitín on the side, but found it difficult to split his time with the bar, choosing eventually to focus on Bán exclusively;
‘Just as I was ramping up the Bán business the building where Shebeen was got sold out from under us. I couldn’t give my bar and my brand 60 hours a week each so I decided to let the bar go’
‘After that I just threw myself into Poitín. I found some incredible partners in Echlinville Distillery, Co Down to work on Bán with me. They grow and malt their own barley which was what attracted me to them. One batch minus barley growing can take around 6 days, but we take about a month and let it sit for a while too.’
After developing a product he was happy with and establishing it in the bars of London, Dave made it his mission to spark new interest in Poitín back in its homeland. He used a basement space in Dublin bar Berlin for a Poitín pop-up, which soon had queues out the door on a nightly basis. The success of the pop-up showed that there was appetite for Poitín in the city;
‘In a classic Irish government decision Poitín was made legal in 1987, but only for export. So an Irish product, with Irish ingredients, made on the island of Ireland could be sold everywhere else in world except for here – if you can get your head around that! It took them years to drop the law altogether. The pop up was to commemorate 20 years of Poitín being legalised.’
‘We managed to generate more press in 6 weeks as a pop-up Poitín bar than I had in 6 years as a Poitín brand and it was all completely organic. We didn’t have a big PR company promoting it and had no big budget to work with, but people were clearly interested. Getting that interest was the biggest hurdle I faced trying to get Bán into bars here initially. Bar managers were telling me that no one wanted to drink Poitín, so I decided to make something happen myself. It was clear very early on that it could become a permanent bar.’
Back in the bar business
Dave started looking for a site for his bar 15 months ago and spent 5 weeks in June walking the streets of Dublin searching for the perfect premises;
‘I’ve always loved the Northside of Dublin. I lived in Williamsburg 15 years ago and I get a similar vibe around here. It’s got an edge to it, and it’s not overrun. What we do is quite specialist so if you put us on South William Street, Gillian (Bar 1661’s Manager and an old friend from London) would be stuck making Cosmo’s all night. We’re a destination, so that’s what I wanted in a venue, somewhere that people have to travel to. I found this place amongst the fruit markets and the second I saw it I knew it was the spot.’
With Bar 1661 (named after the year Poitín was banned in Ireland), Dave has the same intentions as with his pop-up, getting people enthusiastic about Poitín both as a great drink and an important part of our heritage that should be better appreciated;
‘It’s not all about pushing my own brand. I’m passionate about promoting the category in general. I’m sure people will think I’m full of shite when I say that, but hopefully the other Poitín makers will vouch for me! All of us are in Poitín out of pure passion, not to make money. We put a lot of time and effort into it. I have a mate Padraic who is a sixth generation illegal distiller. He was taught by his Grandfather, and is the first one in his family to go legit.’
‘At the pop-up I purposely didn’t say what Poitín brand was in each drink because like any spirit there’s a lot of different styles to it. I wanted it to be an education piece and not a brand stunt. In Bar 1661 we have 21 drinks on the menu, only 3 of those are Bán drinks. You wouldn’t open a rum bar and only put Bacardi into every drink, that’s not how it works.’
A rebellious spirit
Dave still believes that Poitín is being massively overlooked by the government and much more could be done to promote it;
‘There’s literally hundreds of whiskies being churned out right now but very little support being given to us. Poitín has a rebellious spirit and an incredible history that everyone should know about. People literally gave their lives for it. We owe it to them and ourselves to keep it going’.