Tim Atkin follows Jameson's from Dublin to the palm trees of County Cork and finds a whiskey that lightened up on the way
A visit to the Old Jameson Distillery in Bow Street, Dublin, with its heritage tour, audio-visual presentation and Irish coffee toffees, is bound to promote feelings of nostalgia and even sadness. At the peak of its output, John Jameson’s was the largest distillery in the British Isles and the driving force of the Irish whiskey industry. Today, like its historic competitors in John’s Lane, Jones Road and Thomas Street, its stills are as silent as a convention of Trappist monks. A few years ago, things were grimmer still. In his book The Lost Distilleries of Ireland, Brian Townsend predicted that ‘by the end of the 20th century, Bow Street Distillery will have vanished forever’. The abandoned distillery was exposed to the elements (rarely enjoyable in Ireland) and was awaiting demolition prior to redevelopment. Alarmed at such a prospect, Irish Distillers bought back part of the site it has sold to the Office of Public Works in 1972 and created a heritage centre for tourists, using the building’s original structure. ‘Jameson had built this place pretty soundly,’ says the bow-tie-sporting Irish whiskey ‘ambassador’, John Ryan. ‘The physical massiveness of the site and its intrinsic strength were still intact.’ It’s tempting to draw parallels with the durability of Jameson whiskey here: John Jameson’s brand has proved as indestructible as his original distillery. After difficult times in the 1970s and early to mid-1980s, Jameson has re-emerged as a spirit with an international following, selling more than one million cases around the globe and accounting for three out of every four bottles of Irish whiskey produced. That it has done so with the help of a French parent company, Pernod-Ricard, is one of several ironies inherent in the Jameson story. Another, less well-known fact is that Ireland’s most famous whiskey was created by a Scots Presbyterian from Alloa. The exact origins of the Bow Street Distillery are unclear. No one is sure whether John Jameson built the Dublin distillery or took it over from its original owners - ‘an honourable, a baronet and a general’ according to the 19th century whisky scribe, Alfred Barnard. Jameson, a former Sheriff Clerk of Clackmannanshire no less, who had done the smart thing and married a woman from the Haig distilling family, took his family to Ireland in the late 1770s. Over the next 40 years, his energy turned Bow Street into a highly successful operation. By the time Alfred Barnard visited Dublin in 1884, it had become the largest distillery in Ireland, producing one million gallons of spirit each year. Jameson whiskey has not been made in Bow Street since 1971, although warehouses of maturing whiskey existed in Dublin until the early 1980s. It was partly produced on the other side of the River Liffey at Power’s (a partner in Irish Distillers since 1966) until Dublin’s other great distillery closed its doors in 1976. But by then, Irish Distillers had moved its distilling base in the Republic to Midleton in bucolic County Cork. The Midleton distillery is an enormous complex producing more than 14.5 million litres of spirit each year, including the overwhelming majority of Irish whiskey and a bit of gin and vodka. In addition to the Jameson range, Paddy, Powers, Tullamore Dew, Old Dublin, Hewitts, Dungourney, Green Spot, Redbreast, Old Midleton and Midleton Very Rare are all produced here. Bushmills in County Antrim (also part of Irish Distillers since 1972) and Cooley in County Louth are the only other distilleries in Ireland. Like Jameson in Dublin, Midleton has an old distillery too, founded in 1824 on the site of a woollen factory and former British army barracks. Bought by the Murphy family, this became the distillery that produced Paddy, one of Ireland’s best-loved whiskeys. It’s a lovely old place, with a cast-iron water wheel for grinding the grist and the world’s biggest 31,648 gallon copper pot still half-concealed like an iceberg below the floor. There are plenty of memories here. In a scene worthy of a Flann O’Brien novel, one of the distillery’s smaller pot stills blew up in 1947. The operator, Sandy Ross, was unharmed but left standing in only his shoes, collar and tie. Today tourists wander harmlessly through this part of the complex to the disembodied sounds of old distillery voices. The real action takes place a few hundred yards away in the computer-operated distillery, known as Midleton Distilleries, which was completed in 1975. This supremely functional building looks like a cross between a British 1960s polytechnic and Cape Canaveral. Picturesque it is not. But, according to master distiller Barry Crockett, who was born at the old Midleton distillery and who took over from his father in 1974, the new distillery is a lot easier to operate. ‘It was designed by people who knew what they were doing and were very far-seeing.’ What about aesthetics? ‘The old distillery looks splendid and it is splendid,’ adds Crockett in his quiet but knowledgeable way, ‘but you have to appreciate that those old buildings were on their last legs.’ Any chance of a reprieve? ‘It wouldn’t make commercial sense unless you made something very special and in very small volumes. It’s theoretically possible, but only if the Sultan of Brunei leaves me his entire estate.’ So out went the wooden washbacks to be replaced by more efficient stainless steel. Still, in its own modern way, the new distillery is an impressive place. One highly original feature is an enormous stillhouse where pot and grain stills eye each other across the room, like nervous teenagers at a school dance. ‘It’s two distilleries in one,’ says Crockett. ‘I’m not aware of the same system existing anywhere in the world. Having four pot and five column stills enables us to produce a range of up to ten different types of new distillates from the same stillhouse, taking in everything from neutral spirit to heavily flavoured pot still whiskey. The flexibility we have is unique.’ There is even an experimental fifth pot still for on-going tests with four and fifth distillations. The size and shape of the pot stills, with their squat bulbs and thick necks, is also important: larger than most Scotch whisky stills, but smaller (at 750 hectolitres) than traditional Irish stills. Significantly, the Midleton pot stills were imported from Scotland in 1975. Jim Murray in his A Taste of Irish Whiskey describes them, rather poetically, as ‘grazing brontosauruses rather than graceful swans’. Irish Distillers’ bespectacled, impressively academic chief blender, Dr Barry Walsh, says that ‘we tend to distil building blocks rather than specific styles, whether it be malt, barley-malt, maize, column, pot or a combination of things. For instance, sometimes we run a wash through a continuous still then two pot stills to get a lighter pot still distillate. It all depends on the style of spirit we want. Pot still whiskies are distilled to a lower strength, say 65-75% alcohol, so generally you tend to get more flavour than you do with a column still whiskey up at 94.5%.’ If it’s true that blending is less important in Ireland than it is in Scotland, the art of distilling is taken every bit as seriously. Barry Walsh has been compared to the conductor of an orchestra, melding these different styles into a mellifluous whole. (Down in the pit, the first violin is Michael Mulcahy, whose job is ‘to keep everything running in a straight line – temperatures, alcoholic strengths and steam flows’.) Walsh identifies two main ‘building blocks’ (strings? woodwind?) for the whiskeys which go into Jameson – triple distilled pot still barley malt (with the proportion of malt varying from blend to blend) and triple distilled column still grain. There are no commercially available malt whiskeys produced at Midleton, although Bushmills produces a 16-year-old Single Malt. Mind you, early 19th century Jameson bottlings would probably have been malt whiskeys – and Barry Walsh says that malted barley was used at Midleton for pure malt whiskey until the early 1970s. Two things are crucial to Irish whiskey – at least as it’s defined by Irish Distillers. These are triple distillation and the absence of peat during the kilning of the malt. Barry Crockett says that triple distillation takes out ‘the higher esters and aldehydes and leaves you with a very fine spirit to fill your casks with’. Also important for the quality of the whiskey are raw materials – soft water from the nearby Dungourney River and spring and winter barley from County Cork. ‘We have control of our whiskies from beginning to end,’ says Barry Crockett, ‘we don’t buy in – like the Scots do.’ Give or take the maturation casks, Jameson is now a Cork, not a Dublin whiskey. The barrels used for Jameson are a mixture of mainly bourbon casks and a little sherry wood. The fastidious operations manager, Brendan Monks, is in charge of buying both. He sources seasoned bourbon casks from Wild Turkey (also owned by Pernod-Ricard) and a number of other Kentucky distilleries. ‘With the exception of some of the casks we use in Jameson Gold, all of our bourbon barrels are at least four years old when we buy them,’ says Monks. ‘Sherry wood is almost impossible to buy on the open market these days. Our sherry casks are made for us by Antonio Paez Labato and seasoned with oloroso sherry by González Byass, Croft and Harvey’s. We’re very particular about it. You can’t just lift up the telephone and call Jerez; I go over there at least twice a year.’ These casks are stored in 24 on-site warehouses with a capacity of 22,000 to 32,500 barrels each. At around 2.3 per cent per annum, the evaporation rate is faster in County Cork, where palm trees grow quite happily, than in County Antrim. ‘The general rule of thumb is that whiskeys matured in the north will need four to six months extra. It’s cooler up there and the malt takes longer to mature,’ says Barry Walsh. How do all these factors influence the character of Jameson? Nowadays, this is usually a blend of 50 per cent barley malt and 50 per cent column still whiskeys, with a mash bill of 40 per cent malted and 60 per cent unmalted barley. (The term barley malt covers both malted and unmalted barley, the two being fermented together for Irish whiskey.) means It is a light, pleasantly mellow whiskey, with a core of four- to seven-year-old whiskeys and a delicate vanillin sweetness. On the palate it is difficult to dislike but in my view lacks the bite and pungency of Power’s. The extended Jameson family, as they like to call it in Midleton, includes a number of specialist whiskeys, too. These are generally a lot more interesting than the basic Jameson blend and include Jameson 1780, Jameson Gold and Redbreast. All three are superbly complex whiskeys. The 1780 is the smoothest and longest of the trio, with pronounced sherry wood sweetness and rich barley malt characters. The Gold is a more honeyed, toasty whiskey with notes of malt and smoky bourbon and a powerful grip as it slides past the tonsils. And Redbreast 12-year-old is a densely flavoured, pure pot still whiskey with the assertiveness of a night club bouncer. This is definitely not a whiskey to tangle with on a dark Dublin night. Specialities apart, the modern Jameson style is a deliberate move away from the past. According to Barry Walsh: ‘Power’s is very close to what it was 30 to 40 years ago, whereas Jameson has changed radically. It’s been designed for a public that wants a lighter whiskey. In pre-Midleton days, the distilleries took a much wider cut from the spirit still and sometimes overlapped into the tails and fusel alcohols. Now the central cut is much narrower.’ This may be for the better, mind you. Not so long ago, Irish whiskey was said to ‘come out of the bottle fighting’. But since the French got hold of it ten years ago, it’s come over all charming and sophisticated. Now what would John Jameson make of that?
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