Intelligent people skip dessert altogether and serve a glass of Irish coffee

Eoghan Conway and Cathal Eustace go in search of the best Irish coffee in Dublin and find themselves in Bar 1661

An extract from a Trinity News article from February 1970 reads as follows: “Intelligent people skip dessert altogether and serve a glass of Irish coffee. To make Irish coffee you needn’t fuss with dessert plates… saving on time, money and dishwashing. Because it’s rich, one is enough. Your guests leave feeling pleasantly full and sleepy, leaving you to finish the remaining whiskey.” 

In the name of research to test this hypothesis (and in order to avoid hosting a dinner party), Cathal and I decided to skip straight to dessert. Both literally and metaphorically. Dessert, however, was to be defined by Mary Punch as per her 1970 article: an Irish coffee. With no dessert plates to clean up and with the taste of whiskey on our minds, we headed to Bar 1661. Fancying ourselves pseudo-intelligent people (as per the aforementioned quotation) we had to have an Irish coffee, and maybe a few more drinks along the way. If we couldn’t get a good Irish coffee here, then there was to be no hope for us. Bar 1661 was the winner of Ireland’s Bar of the Year in 2022. According to whom, exactly? We would be the ultimate judges of that. 

Any observant Trinity student familiar with Kennedy’s Pub will know that it claims to be the home of the Irish coffee. Yet who wants to go to the home of the Irish coffee? We wanted to head to the boujee, upmarket investment property that Irish coffee bought in 2006 under sound investment advice. That’s why we headed to Smithfield and that’s why we headed to Bar 1661. 

To preface this rambling review, it only feels apt to give a short history of Irish coffee. You see, we feel that an Irish coffee sits in this strange vacuum between a St Stephen’s Day hangover cure and your granny’s favourite treat after a carvery lunch on Sunday. 

The Irish coffee originated in Foynes, Limerick. Bartender Joe Sheridan was the mastermind behind this concoction. One night, having sympathy for weary Americans passengers whose flight was sent back to Foynes mid-journey, he fixed them up something special – dare we say scintillating. Alcohol, caffeine, sugar and cream: the golden quadfecta. Joe’s original recipe is prefaced with the following note: “cream – rich as an Irish Brogue, coffee – strong as a friendly hand, sugar – sweet as the tongue of a rogue and whiskey – smooth as the wit of the land.” 

History lesson over and a tall order of a recipe to follow. Into Bar 1661 we headed. 

We had been transported to a new reality, a Dublin where cocktail culture and nationality were intrinsically linked”

Cathal: Once in the door we were immediately brought to our table and presented with menus. Their dark covers read “Staunchly Irish & Fiercely Independent” in bold. This mission statement was also emblazoned across every coaster on our table. The room possessed the deep murk of an Irish pub: leather stools, dark walls with vintage frames and posters. We had been transported to a new reality, a Dublin where cocktail culture and nationality were intrinsically linked. In this imagined world of Celtic cocktail-making, Poitín was something in which to take pride, something that was as staunchly Irish and fiercely independent as we want to be. Bar 1661 imagines an Irish drinking culture where, rather than being banned in the year 1661, our native, pot still moonshine formed the foundations upon which a highly developed canon of cocktails was wrought. This might be a good time to talk about our first drinks?

Eoghan: The time had arrived. I order a Belfast coffee. Well, both Cathal and I did. The house specialty times two. It was what we had come here for. A hearty combination of Bán Poitín, cold brew, cream and demerara, capped off with a dusting of nutmeg. It was as if the Irish coffee had gone on a J1 and discovered cold brew. During the course of this discovery, in an attempt to seem current, it seemed to ditch the traditional ball of malt in exchange for a progressive pour of poitín: a contemporary take on the classic Irish coffee as described in the menu. I’m a certain believer in the term “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The Irish coffee certainly was never broke, but this was its 21st-century facelift of sorts. In reference to Joe Sheridan’s recipe, it ticked all the boxes: smooth, sweet, rich. The Two Fifty Square coffee offers a strong and friendly hand, and maybe even a knuckle punch, to show off this recipe’s mid-Atlantic tendencies. Miss Punch was right: “Because it’s rich, one is enough”. Time to explore the rest of this menu. 

Cathal: I liked it too, a novelty but not a gimmick. After this I ordered the Vinegar Hill. My cocktail had nothing to do with vinegar, hills, nor an important battle fought during the Rebellion of 1798. Instead its theme centred around a cheese board, and the accompanying text discussed prohibition in the USA during the early 20th century. However, I feel like I’m getting hung up on minutiae. This was a delicious and weird cocktail. Made with vermouth, ice wine, oloroso (sherry for Spaniards) and garnished with a stain of black butter. Other ingredients such as fig, walnut and blue cheese were present, the first of which was strongly, deliciously present on the nose. I ordered the handsome, long and serious cocktail for connoisseurs of mixology. Eoghan ordered dessert.

Eoghan: If Cathal was the connoisseur of the evening then I was the clown. When a cocktail has popping candy in it as well as champagne, it’s hard to resist not ordering it. The Golden Moment was a sorbet scoop swimming in a lazy river of champagne. This sorbet was one topped with popping candy. The inner four-year-old in me was satisfied. The sorbet was a melody of Killahora Pom’O apple brandy, poitín, soda bread and grapefruit. The author Roman Payne said that “wine gives one ideas, whereas champagne gives one strategies”. I’m still unsure what this cocktail gave me. Notions, perhaps. Tart apple notes, pop rock crackle, champagne fizz and a punch of poitín. If the Belfast coffee was a novelty and not a gimmick, the Golden Moment may be creeping into that second category.  

Cathal: And finally, caught up in the pure romance of all the poitín swimming about the place, we ordered a glass each. Mine was the Mad March Hair, which the staff assured me was the “entry level” spirit… and here we discovered that Bar 1661 is controlled by a cabal of liars and tricksters. The fire and fury of a thousand suns ravaged my oesophagus with every sip. I tasted the very heat death of the known universe. When all things end and the world is dark and cold, all that will remain is that sturdy, undying, revenant spirit. It was also very delicious.

The rare old mountain dew slowly soothes and scorches the throat simultaneously. I will concur with Cathal… also very delicious”

Eoghan:  I had opted for the Bán Poitín, distilled from potato, barley and sugar beet. Not as much fire and fury as the Mad March Hair, yet both Cathal and I preferred this one. A slight bitterness cut through the sweetness of the spuds. At a firm 48 percent alcohol, it certainly packs a punch. The rare old mountain dew slowly soothes and scorches the throat simultaneously. I will concur with Cathal… also very delicious. 

So what started off as a research trip into the origins of the drink and a hunt for the best Irish coffee in Dublin slowly transformed into a review of Bar 1661. In all reviews, however, there must be judgement. So what is the verdict from these two barstool prophets? Bar 1661 might symbolically be staunchly Irish, and even more so in practice, but their desire to tell us this over and over again becomes a little bit tiring for the native. With our gripes out of the way, it should be noted that the staff’s attention to detail and high regard for Irish produce is evident. 

Bar 1661 offers serious value as well. If you are looking for considered, well-crafted cocktails and an opportunity to venture away from rudimentary pornstar martinis, this place is for you. We certainly will be back with an eagerness for more, and even an acquired fondness for poitín.  We might even have another Irish coffee as well.