war on the rocks

An Ireland of Equals: Michael Collins and Irish Whiskey

April 19, 2016

There is no doubt that alcohol and warfare have each played rich roles in Irish history. These two historical trajectories intersect most clearly with the Irish fight for independence in the early part of the 20th century and Ireland’s charismatic leader, Michael Collins.

In 1916 a loosely coordinated effort by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Irish Citizen Army, and Irish Volunteers took up arms to overthrow English rule. The Easter Rising, as it came to be called, was a tactical defeat for the Irish. British forces put down the rebellion, executed many of the organizers and imprisoned others. One prisoner was a young postal clerk named Michael Collins. Despite being in his mid-twenties when he was arrested, his intellect and organizational skills garnered considerable respect among the surviving members of the Irish independence movement. Even within the confines of the prison, the young Michael Collins began to plan for the next rebellion.

By 1918, Collins and the other organizers were released from jail, and coopted Sinn Fein (founded in 1905) for their own purposes — promising to serve as an umbrella for all Irish independence movements. The young, charismatic Collins won a seat in the (British) Parliament as an MP for Sinn Fein. On January 21, 1919 Collins and other Sinn Fein members refused to take their seats in the House of Commons and instead created their own parliament, effectively declaring Ireland independent from Britain and sparking an insurrection. Collins grew in national prominence through 1919 after he orchestrated a prison break for an Irish MP (that MP being Éamon de Valera, a four-time PM and two-time President of Ireland), and served in a number of official roles for Dáil Éireann (Ireland’s shadow government) and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Collins even assembled his own groups of informants and assassins to target British agents, and worked diligently throughout the conflict to carve out a free Irish republic.

Michael Collins was regarded even by his contemporaries as a living legend. It should come as little surprise then, that his name also graces a mixed drink — the Michael Collins. The Michael Collins is in fact a variant of a Tom Collins, where the traditional base (gin) is substituted with Irish whiskey. Some even rumor that the Tom Collins is named after an earlier Irish revolutionary.

In 2016, Irish whiskey is a staple on every respectable liquor shelf, but the history of Irish whiskey is, like Ireland itself, one of survival and comeback. Whiskey distillation came to Ireland sometime in the Middle Ages, brought by the monks who travelled to the Emerald Isle. The practice of whiskey distillation spread throughout Ireland, and by the 1700s there were countless legal and illegal distilleries in the country. At that time, Irish whiskey had a reputation as some of the finest in the world, much to the chagrin of the British, who would have preferred to see Scotch regarded as the gold standard of whiskey. The Crown tried numerous tactics to kill off Irish distilling — they taxed malt, shut down unlicensed distilleries, and imposed tariffs. Despite all this, Irish whiskey grew in reputation. The tax on malt forced Irish distillers to use a “single pot still,” where both malted and unmalted barley were mixed together in the distilling process. Whiskey production proved resilient. It survived through famine and migration.

The greatest blow to Irish whiskey was not the English, but circumstance. By the war’s end, temperance movements in Ireland and Prohibition in the United States caused demand to plummet. The Great Depression damaged whiskey production further still. Soon, there were fewer than 30 distilleries still in operation. The Second World War saw thousands of U.S. troops stationed in England, but instead of drinking Ireland’s whiskey, U.S. service members instead developed a taste for scotch. By 1950, whiskey production in Ireland was hanging on by a thread — only four distilleries remained (one of which was Bushmills, in County Antrim, Northern Ireland).

In 1966, Powers, Jameson, and Cork Distilleries consolidated to form the Irish Distiller’s Group. The unified effort of the three distillers allowed the companies to focus on producing high quality product. Production moved to a state-of-the-art facility, but retained the traditional Irish “single pot still.” Irish Distillers also emphasized the aging process, becoming more deliberate in choosing the wood used to make the casks. The result was a single, consistent product that quickly gained a reputation as one of the best whiskeys in the world.

Throughout the ‘70s Irish whiskey grew in reputation. Soon, the small distilleries attracted major international investors, and the influx of resources enabled them to expand production and reach new markets. The Irish whiskey boom continued through the 1990s, and today, Irish whiskey sells around 6 million cases (54 million liters) a year.

It’s no surprise then, that the Irish have commemorated the man who brought Ireland back from the brink of disaster with Ireland’s other comeback story: whiskey. The Michael Collins contains Irish whiskey, lemon juice, sparkling water, and simple syrup. There was even for a time a cheap whiskey that bore the man’s name, though it has since been discontinued.

While Ireland did eventually gain its independence, Michael Collins never got to see his dream fully come to fruition. For two and a half years, Collins skillfully managed the fight against England. He exploited the British public’s weariness of war, and by 1921 brought the Brits to the negotiating table. They offered Ireland independence, though the island was required to remain part of the Dominion and the northern counties had the option to remain part of the UK. Collins took the deal, recognizing that the British might never offer a better one and the Irish likely couldn’t hold out much longer.

While many hailed the deal as a victory for Irish independence, more hardline Irish felt the deal was a betrayal of the ideal of independence. This sparked a civil war that pitted moderate Irish against the hardliners. On August 22, 1922 anti-treaty IRA forces ambushed Collins and his entourage. Collins was killed, though the circumstances of his death are vague. However, the pro-treaty forces would carry on without their leader, and ultimately defeat anti-Treaty forces in the civil war.  In 1923, the anti-treaty forces ceased hostilities and “dumped arms,” the pro-treaty forces consolidated control and authority in the Free State, and Ireland became a Dominion in the Commonwealth and an essentially independent nation.

To commemorate Ireland’s tireless freedom fighter, we have the Michael Collins:

Ingredients:

1½ Oz. Irish Whiskey
¾ Oz. Lemon Juice
¾ Oz. Simple Syrup
Soda Water
Lemon Slice

Build all ingredients except soda and lemon in a Collins glass. Add ice and soda, and stir to incorporate. Garnish with a lemon slice.

‘Sláinte!’ (slawn-cha)

 

Paul Lewandowski is a former Army officer, Afghanistan veteran, and current MA candidate at Johns Hopkins. His future plans include buying more ciders and brewing a mead.