While whiskey may make the headlines there is another contender for Ireland’s national drink: poitín. The strong white spirit has been the stuff of myths and stories for centuries.
These days, however, the former outlaw has gone straight and have even been given protective Geographical Indication from the EU. It's also seeing a surge in popularity in Ireland and beyond. Dubliner Dave Mulligan, a passionate fan of the spirit, has played a pivotal role in this new era. Mulligan is the founder of Bar 1661 in Dublin (which specialises in poitín), CraftCocktail.com and the award-winning Bán Poitín.
Who better to chat to, then, about the past and future of this spirit that is so intrinsically connected to Ireland.
Why do you think poitín is so popular now?
Poitín has been getting more attention than it ever has, and you can put that down to the work of a handful of people who’ve been making it happen. Through Bán Poitín, we introduced London’s cocktail scene to the poitín category between 2013 and 2018, though it wasn’t until we launched BAR 1661 in Dublin in April 2019 that poitín got the spotlight it so thoroughly deserves. This, along with the work of brands like Mad March Hare in the USA; Micil Poitín with its extensive family history in illegal distilling going legit; and the newly founded Mulroy Bay out of Donegal (a hotspot for illegal distilling), has paved the way for a sustainable future for our near-forgotten national spirit.
What are its key components and how is it made?
Poitín is essentially a white whiskey and, in fact, is the precursor to the whole global whiskey market. A key ingredient has always been barley, as it is native to Ireland. Multiple grains can be also be used as well as sugar beets, molasses and of course the famed potato. While most Irish people would argue that Irish poitín must be made from potatoes its history predates the arrival on our shores of nearly 1,000 years.
What do you like about it?
I love poitín! The history, the culture, the notorious reputation. Everyone in Ireland over the age of 30 has a poitín story to tell, whether that be a rogue uncle distiller, or making the mistake of sampling the unlabelled bottle in the press at too young an age. However, as we move away from ‘the illicit’ we are in great danger of losing the category, as the younger generations are hearing less and less about it. It is the survival of this culturally important piece of Irish history that drives me and I see the legal channels as the only way to ensure its survival for the future. It's great for cocktails, great for mixing and great for sharing with friends. Poitín deserves its chance to shine a light for contemporary Ireland.
What sort of flavours should newbie drinkers expect?
Well, it’s not gin that’s for sure and it’s complete unashamed in its approach. Big flavours of grain, barley and the earth lead - a true statement of its origin. To compare it to another category you would need to look to Mexico and their Agave spirits. If you can’t drink straight tequila, mezcal or smokey whiskey I wouldn’t expect people to love poitín first time around.
What’s the best way to drink it?
Without doubt, it’s the Belfast Coffee [see the recipe below], the house drink for both Bán Poitín and BAR 1661. It's a cold-brewed version of an Irish coffee, with layered fresh double cream and grated fresh nutmeg. Earthy, luxurious and sweet, it is the perfect introduction to our once illicit spirit and is ideal for any espresso martini or Irish coffee lover.
We can also recommend a ginger mule, perfect with Mad March Hare Poitín. For the purists, the best is the Bán and Black which is an old school boilermaker with a pint of stout in one hand a small glass of poitín in the other.
What are your own favourite poitíns?
My own brand Bán Poitín obviously comes first. A heady mix of potato, malted barley and molasses, it’s made at the Echlinville Distillery in Northern Ireland. Aside from growing their own barley, they work to a level of excellence unrivalled in the Irish whiskey world. Other brands of note would be Mad March Hare, distilled in West Cork and bottled at 40% - it’s a great place to dip your toe into the category. Micil Poitín with its 150-year-old family recipe is as authentic as it gets. Mulroy Bay is another classic with true Donegal style, and finally, Killowen from Ireland’s smallest whiskey distillery made to an age-old pot still whiskey recipe.
Want to give it a try? Check out this recipe for Belfast Coffee which teams cold brew coffee with Bán Poitín
For more go to https://bar1661.ie