above David Haynes pulls Michael Collins whiskey off the shelf at Grand Cru.Peter Crandall Polk described the amber spirit as having “the flavor that is missing from American and Canadian whiskeys. It makes the back of your throat warm, like a fire on a cold morning. A hint of smoke, almost a burnt vanilla. It does not have that harsh burnt peat that Scotch whiskys provide.”
Yet thousands still turn to Scotch whisky, leaving the original whiskey of the Irish lounging on the shelves.
Irish whiskey has had a checkered following in the U.S., but one brand hopes to bring back the popularity of the underappreciated spirit, along with the reverence for Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins. With new packaging and an iconic image of Collins riding a bicycle, Michael Collins Irish Whiskey is being reintroduced to Oklahomans. It’s riding on an upswell of popularity for the back-burner whiskey.
“We are relaunching the brand because the category is up, and there aren’t a lot of players on the scene in Irish whiskey,” said Doug Garone, state manager for Oklahoma and Arkansas with Sidney Frank Importing Company, which is partnering with Cooley Distillery, the last independent, Irish-owned distillery in Ireland, to relaunch Michael Collins in the U.S. “Irish whiskey is getting to be a big player in America.”
Strangely, it could be the hokey green-beer-and-leprechaun-hat holiday of St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. that is helping Irish whiskey make a comeback. According to Wine & Spirits Daily, American sales grew by a rowdy 21.5 percent in 2010, while single-malt scotch bumped up by 11.7 percent overall.
It has been said that God created whiskey to keep the Irish from taking over the world. After all, according to the Irish, they were the first to introduce the amber gift to drinkers, perfecting its taste and potency through the alchemy of distilling monks and bitter revolutions.
At its heart, Irish whiskey is said to taste of the land, of the dew-kissed green hills of Ireland, of the rich smell of its dirt and of the grain that struggled to live amongst soil more suited to potatoes than delicate grain.
In America, however, it has had the same lulls and swells in popularity as the Irish immigrants. Prohibition nearly killed the whiskey business in Ireland when America shut down all imports, and the popularity of Scotch whisky, with its double-blended smokiness, and Kentucky bourbon, with its braying American pride, pushed the more complex Irish blend to the back.
“There are only three distilleries remaining in Ireland,” Garone said. “In the 1800s, there were over 1,300 distilleries producing Irish whiskey in Ireland. Now, only three remain.”
In the spirit of Ireland, Collins is as important to the brand as the whiskey itself.
“If it weren’t for Michael Collins, Ireland would probably still be under English rule,” Garone said. “There’s a legend that the English didn’t know what he looked like. He would ride through their ranks on his bicycle, and they had no idea the most hunted man in Ireland was right there.”
He said the remaining kin of the legendary revolutionary were approached about using the hero’s name on the whiskey.
“They agreed, and they didn’t ask for monetary compensation. They just wanted the first few cases coming off the line,” he said.
That’s in line with the love of the drink. The whiskey is distilled with local mountain water from the region and made with locally harvested barley. Some of that barley is dried over peat fires and then double-distilled in copper pot stills. Aged between four and 10 years in oak casks, the Michael Collins whiskey claims to have hints of ripe fruit, meadow flowers and peat, with a lingering smokiness.
David Haynes, assistant manager of Grand Cru Wine & Spirits, 9275 N. May, formerly Cellar Wine & Spirits, said sales for Irish whiskeys have been “pretty steady” for the last year. Yet Scotch whisky still claims the spotlight.
“The biggest difference is Scotch whisky’s use of peated barley, which Michael Collins actually uses,” Haynes said. “The Cooley Distillery doubledistills and uses that peated barley, which makes the brand fairly unique. You still have that honey that you expect in Irish whiskey.”
Haynes said that, although he was a fan of the original packaging for Michael Collins, he admitted a new look can boost sales.
“Packaging can make a huge difference. We saw a dramatic increase in sales when Drambuie did their relaunch,” he said.
For those looking to ease into drinking Irish whiskey, Haynes suggested looking for brands like Michael Collins that use peated barley, thus cutting down on the sweetness.
Whichever you choose, you’ll be smiling.