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A toast to something different

Dave Mulligan owns Bar 1661 in Dublin, Ireland, the world's first poitin-focused cocktail bar.
Dave Mulligan owns Bar 1661 in Dublin, Ireland, the world's first poitin-focused cocktail bar.

Credit: Courtesy Bar 1661

Credit: Courtesy Bar 1661

Poitin is history worth sipping

Its nickname is “mountain dew,” but it may be better known as Irish moonshine. Poitin, the ancient ancestor of distilled drinks, is uniquely Irish and woven into the very fabric of Ireland’s folklore. Much like moonshine, poitin has become fashionable.

Before there was whiskey, there was poitin, pronounced pu-cheen (and sometimes spelled poteen). Not to be confused with poutin, the Canadian gravy-ladled dish of fries and cheese curds, it takes its name from how it is made. The Irish word “pota” literally means “little pot.” This is in line with the farm-based, small-scale production of the beverage. It’s no coincidence that the Irish word for hangover is “poit.”

A clear, high-proof, unaged spirit, Poitin customarily is drunk straight from the still. Often coming in at 95% alcohol by volume, it usually hovers around 90 proof. By regulation, it must be at least 40% alcohol. Traditionally, it took several days and distillation processes to make poitin, the fire to heat it fueled by turf or peat from bogs. A once illicit spirit, poitin’s legend says it was best made on windy or rainy days, when weather could hide the smoke.

Poitin tastes like what is made from. Traditionally, it was brewed, fermented and distilled from starchy crops, like barley, sugar beets or potatoes, but varying combinations of these ingredients led to a vast array of flavor profiles. That is part of why it was treasured.

Dave Mulligan, who opened the world's first poitin-centric bar in Dublin, and has his own brand of the spirit, is the poitin expert. He's studied it, knows the folklore, drinks it, and loves it. He teaches master classes at symposiums like the recent San Antonio Cocktail Conference.

Bar 1661 is a cocktail bar dedicated to poitin, and a platform for craft, small and independent drinks producers throughout Ireland, Mulligan said, adding that it “is writing its own chapter in the colorful story of this notorious Irish spirit.”

The bar takes its name from the year poitin was banned by King Charles II, while Ireland was under British rule, because England had trouble trying to collect taxes on bottles. Being illegal pushed it underground, and only made it more a part of Irish tradition and pride.

The ban on poitin lasted more than 300 years. On March 7, 1997, the law prohibiting poitin production was dropped, and legitimate brands became available.

Why the sudden resurgence now? Mulligan believes the answer is twofold: partly because of the whiskey boom happening all over the world, and partly because of the inspiration provided by the traditions and folklore behind poitin. “There’s nothing more authentic than poitin in Ireland,” Mulligan said.

If you’re a fan of whiskey, Mulligan thinks you should be drinking poitin. “It actually predates the production of whiskey, so, for those who really value authenticity, this is the true original,” he said. Its Irish tradition closely resembles American moonshine history, only going back much farther, to the 6th century, when monks distilled it in monasteries. Mulligan likes to say that poitin is to whiskey as mezcal is to tequila.

Mad March Hare Irish poitin is commercially available in the U.S., and is sold in a burlap sack, though there’s no longer any need for smuggling.
Mad March Hare Irish poitin is commercially available in the U.S., and is sold in a burlap sack, though there’s no longer any need for smuggling.

Credit: Angela Hansberger

Credit: Angela Hansberger

“Every poitin has a different flavor profile, and that’s what makes it such an intriguing spirit,” he said. “My brand, Bán Poitin (not yet available in the U.S.), has notes of aloe vera, yeasty bread, agave and white pepper, while my friends over at Mad March Hare make a spirit that has flavors of dried fruits, vanilla and French toast.”

It really depends on how poitin is made, and with what. Mad March Hare, available now in the U.S., is made with locally sourced malted barley, and Bán is a heady mix of homegrown and malted barley, Irish potato and molasses. “We’ve seen the ingredients evolve and techniques differ due to poitin’s underground culture in Ireland,” Mulligan said.

When the ban was lifted, poitin also was safeguarded as a GI, or geographic indicator. GIs protect the integrity of European products, and, in the case of poitin, specify that it must be made in accordance with certain production standards. The spirit is gaining traction in the U.S., and American versions of poitin are popping up. In Atlanta, the Dinger Poitin distillery is gearing up to serve Georgia poitin.

While a straight taste of poitin usually provokes a strong reaction, it’s interesting and multifaceted enough to appeal to those who like strong, complex drinks. A good introduction to the spirit is provided by balancing the flavor and kick in a cocktail. It’s great for mixing, can handle citrus, and the high alcohol content lends a hefty presence to a glass.

Mulligan’s signature serve at Bar 1661 is the Belfast Coffee. “It outsells that popular black beer in our bar, which is pretty much unheard of in Ireland!” he said. It’s a cold-brewed version of the classic Irish coffee. “Replace your whiskey with Irish poitin and swap out the hot coffee for cold brew, add some brown sugar syrup, and stir down like a martini,” Mulligan said. “Pour it all into an Irish coffee glass, top with a finger of par whipped double cream and some grated nutmeg. It’s delicious! It drinks more like an espresso martini, and would put the humble Irish coffee to shame.”

The bar has a menu with more than 12 cocktails using poitin — something to look forward to as the spirit gains popularity in the U.S. Most Irish poitin devotees say the best poitins are home-brewed, but Mad March Hare (MSR $29.99), one of the first to be made commonly available after legalization, is a tasty representation, triple distilled in copper pots, using historic recipes. It’s sold in its own burlap sack, perfect for smuggling.

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