In the lead up to independence, under an increasingly obstreperous Dublin Corporation, and in the early years thereafter – possibly because of lobbying by Big Atlas – there was much renaming of our streets. Out were the aristocratic names and titles, except in the more “respectable” parts of Dublin –and in their place our national heroes, except for the women. This process was somewhat scattershot and tended to be limited to the more significant thoroughfares. Sackville Street became O’Connell Street, but Sackville Place is there yet. And, while Great Britain Street was sensibly renamed for Charles Stuart Parnell, Little Britain Street remains. And here, where it meets Green Street, on a torrentially wet night on the run-up to the Christmas, we find ourselves in BAR 1661.
Now, I had been here before, on a balmy spring afternoon when it was opening for the first time, but such events aren’t suitable for gaining a proper acquaintance, and as the months passed I neglected giving a proper revisit, despite much excellent press. Then, a few weeks ago, the Craft Cocktail Awards garlanded it with almost every award it was eligible to win, and neutrality was no longer an option.
Wet and cold outside as it is, the room is cozy and convivial within, with a smallish but pleasantly buzzing crowd. It will get much busier and more festive later on. There are no fires or anything like that, but the refit of a former rough diamond of an early house has been thorough and to a high standard, so it is warm and comfortable.
The centre island is a gorgeous, huge lump of a tree, there are banquettes around, and an inviting bar where my colleague is waiting. He is having a pint of stout, which seems like a sensible enough idea to kick things off, so I join him in one as we peruse a neatly-printed cocktail menu. It is one of the better pours I’ve had lately, speaking to excellent cellarmanship and fine control of the beer gas dials. At a ridiculously fair €5 for a pint, we’re off to a good start.
The house spirit in BAR 1661 is poitín – the capital letters are house style; the year refers to the effective outlawing of poitín by swingeing taxes imposed under Charles II. The proprietor, Dave Mulligan, has been slinging poitín here and in the UK for years, and created the Bán brand, which is much in evidence on the menu here. The list is ecumenical, though, and includes more than 20 expressions from almost all of the producers.
Mulligan’s enthusiasm for the spirit, while laudable, is not one I can share – poitín, in its modern form, to me is something that needs a few years aged in oak to make it palatable. I am not about to order a shot of the stuff. I am interested, though, to see how the flavour is used as a cocktail ingredient.
A similarly ecumenical approach manifests in the list of drinks, each named for a local business – including some competitors. I opt for “The Generator”, a take on a whiskey sour named for a nearby traveller’s hostel. The egg is freshly cracked and separated and the white frothed by hand in the shaker, no corners cut here. The tartness of crab-apple works well. My colleague has a rush of blood to the head and orders the “Mr Fox”, after a restaurant on Parnell Street, which combines poitín, rum, pear brandy, butterscotch, and pimento. Both drinks are efficiently and neatly made, and look terrific, but have a few too many notes for my liking.
Obviously, this means the next port of call is a Manhattan. Parallel to the list of poitíns is an impressive selection of Irish whiskeys and smaller, but perfectly formed, libraries of Scotch, Bourbon, and rye. The prices are beyond reasonable – the most expensive of any spirit is €20, there are none of the absurd three-figure pours for braying idiots to show off by ordering. We call for George Dickel rye, and it is built masterfully with Carpano Antica Formula in the approved 2:1 ratio. It is as good a use of €12 as I can think of. We call for another.
A rather more impressionistic recollection of events begins to take over at about this point; reconstructions are later attempted using receipts and text messages – and, yes, a round of Red Spots was definitely a fine choice, probably – but the sense of well-being is what lingers. The service is both charming and efficient; the two barkeeps work balletically together and are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, happy to talk booze.
There are – as I never tire of pointing out – not enough true cocktail bars in Dublin. There are a lot of places that go through the motions and the faff and buy the glassware and the ingredients and print the menu, but have no idea how to execute. There are a few that are truly excellent annexes to a hotel (Sidecar at the Westbury) or a restaurant (The Sitting Room at Delahunt). But for the complete package of indulgent cocktail bar ambience, service, and creativity, you’ll not do better. If I were handing out the cocktail awards, I’d be flinging a good handful of them in the direction of Little Britain Street.
Words: Ben Walsh
Photo: Killian Broderick
1-5 Green Street