The mystery at the heart of Irish whiskey. Jameson Twasting #irlsps

What is it about Irish whiskey?  In all my 16 years of judging in the whisky competition at the Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival (SBWF), Irish whiskeys have won shovelfuls of medals. There’s no doubt there’s some fine whisky, from the Emerald Isle, but I don’t often buy it. Why?

At this year’s SBWF I met Fintan Collier, Jameson brand ambassador for Scandinavia, and mentioned this “phenomenon” and suggested I wasn’t alone in my divided attitude. I also suggested he hold a whisky tasting on Twitter (Twasting, in the parlance). Apart from giving a chance to taste a range of whiskies in the range, a Twasting is a live discussion across the Internet – it gets the word out.


The mystery “dram” at the heart of the Jameson Twasting

With samples sent out to a disparate collection of enthusiasts from Sweden, Netherlands and Germany, as well as at least one in the UK, we gathered together around our separate computers to see what the deal was. So, five Jameson whiskies, right? Well, not exactly: certainly three different Jamesons, but what’s this Mystery Dram? And what’s this Midleton whiskey doing here?

More of the Mystery Dram soon, but a Midleton whiskey in a Jameson tasting, that’s a bit odd, isn’t it? Well actually, no; they are from the same distillery. Jameson whiskies are made at the Midleton distillery in Cork, and for me, herein lies some of my problem: Irish whiskies often don’t fit neatly into the distillery-equals-brand, unlike single malt whisky in Scotland. I find it harder to get involved in a brand than a distillery.

But once you taste the whiskey, it’s very easy to get involved. We start with the “ordinary” Jameson. I say “start”, but Fintan makes us wait with some pertinent information about Jamesons and Irish whiskey in general. Rather like I’ve made you wait to find out what I thought about his whiskies.

This “ordinary” Jameson is the world’s biggest selling Irish whiskey. It goes under the slogan “Triple distilled, Twice as smooth, One great taste.” People like “smooth” apparently. Even Royal Mile Whiskies say the Jameson is very smooth. I think “smooth” sounds like a back-handed compliment. Boring, even. But the Jameson is not boring.

It is a blend, though. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with blends among the cognoscenti, these days. Last year, the received wisdom about whisky, that single malt = quality, and blend = inferior was blown out of the water when Jim Murray named a blended whisky (not Jameson) as the best whisky of 2010. The Jameson is a blend of grain whiskies with some single pot still whiskey, as Fintann puts it – pure pot still, if you like. This is a traditional Irish, but more expensive way of making whiskey. 

Enough talk: on with the Twasting!
The “Jameson” has no age statement but a very pleasant aroma and taste of apple crumble, with some restrained floral notes that typify many Irish whiskeis. But there’s pepper – not known for its “smoothness”. Somebody mentions egg nog and baking spices.

The Jameson 12 year-old Special Reserve has a thicker, deeper, darker character. Like a light Christmas cake to the Dundee cake of the unaged. We are told this character comes from a higher proportion of pot still whisky, and also more whisky from sherry casks (as opposed to bourbon casks, which provide the vanilla, egg noggy flavours). Extra oiliness comes from pot still too, says our man. More pepperiness and more assertive, it is mouth filling and silky, I think, rather than oily. Sweet and becomes even more so with a drop of water. Golden syrup, light treacle, finishing on a peppery heat, so it doesn’t cloy.

The 18 year-old Limited Reserve is up next. Its subtle, seductive nose reminds me of a Demarera sugar crust. I detect dried pears too. This also has a quite peppery intensity on the palate, which goes over to an intense bag of dried fruits as though a bag of health food shop snacks is rehydrating in your mouth: cranberries, pears, apples. At the time, I said there was heather, but did I mean lavender? Others report oranges or orange zest, as there was in the 12 year-old. Seductive is right: a very special whisky.

And so to the Midleton in the mix. Not Kate or Pippa, but Barry; although it’s Barry Crockett, Midleton’s master distiller that the whiskey is named for, and this is his Legacy, a straight, pure pot still whisky – the style with which Barry Crockett is synonymous, apparently. Well, I admit to ignorance, but I will say, that many of the Irish whiskies I do end up buying for myself are pure pot still. Oh OK, single pot still, then.

The Middleton Barry Crockett Legacy is “full of pineapple chunks”, I say. And then we are off into a Joycean tweeting of tasting and nosing impressions. But with better spelling: sweet, intense, concentrated, syrupy fruit. Light vanilla tones (from high proportion of bourbon casks). Toffee, vanilla fudge, fresh, warming. Someone mentions coconut oil and exotic fruits instead of the pears. Herbal (eucalyptus?), body lotion? I begin to doubt myself. Creamy mouthfeel. Sweet with balancing woody dryness. Some ginger, perhaps pepper nearly like the Jamesons. Spices like a Swedish forest says one @AngelasShare: Juniper pine… The complexity is exciting and it goes on developing.

Finally, the Mystery Dram – or whatever “dram” is in Irish. We are asked to guess its identity, and are given one clue: it’s single pot still (gee, thanks!). It is not nearly as fruity on the nose as the Jamesons, with more Japanese whisky-like aromas. I tweet: earthy with hints of leather and polish. Someone chips in with cigar box, and tobacco.

On the palate it is honeyed malty spicy. A tweet comes across: layers of charred wood, dark chocolate and treacle toffee. I think it is herbal and deep, or rather, more rounded. None of us has any real clue to its identity, so Fintan lets on that it is the Power’s John Lane, which is a pure pot still version of the Powers Gold label. Released in Sweden in 2012.

See what I mean? Praise all round for these Irish gems – even the “ordinary”. Two of the whiskies here: the 18 yo and the Barry Crockett, I love. They are a bit pricier, coming in at around £75/895SEK and €160/1300SEK (when released), but I wonder if there is still a way to go to overcome the “blend” image for malt whisky regulars. The Jameson motto is Sine Metu “without fear”. Perhaps it’s time for some of us to show a bit of boldness. And for Jameson to drop this “smooth” thing…

Thanks to Fintan Collier @Jameson_Grad_SE and also to Colin Campbell @TheScotsdreamer for organisation and inviting me.

Jameson online shop

Jamie Oliver’s lamb shank and beer recipe – tweaked

The story so far

Jamie Oliver discovers beer and food go great together in the kitchen. and tells the French to do something anatomically regrettable with their wine. It’s all part of the Yorkshire episode of his trip around Britain. And having insulted an entire nation, wisely comes up with a proof of his own devising that there is an affinity between food and beer: a Persian-inspired recipe for lamb shanks with Guinness.

The Middle East not being the hotbed of beer recipes it once was, you can guess the Persian part of the influence comes from the non-beer ingredients. In the televised sequence, I think he uses an ale from the Leeds Brewery, but by the time the recipe is posted on the C4 website, the recipe’s name has magically transmuted into “Guinness lamb shanks”.  I’ve had a go myself, and tweaked it a bit. Here’s what I did…

The recipe suggests as an alternative to Guinness “a good dark ale”, which is about as helpful as saying “add some nice red meat here”, but it does give me some room for my own suggestion. Given the inspiration for the dish, I have what I think are some even better suggestions that combine dark fruit flavours and dark-ish ale, and have a couple of ideas for beers to pair with it.

Here is the original Jaimie recipe.


The Persian slant in the recipe is in the dark fruit in the cooking sauce, which includes raisins and thick-cut marmalade, and a finishing mint oil and spring onion garnish. The marmalade immediately suggested to me Fullers – more specifically Fuller’s 1845, a big, copper-coloured bottle-conditioned ale bursting with Fullers house style old English marmalade tang and rich, cakey flavours.

At the end of cooking, to finish the sauce, I added a good slug of Fuller’s London Porter; Guinness will do fine, especially if you can find a bottle of Export Stout. I picked up this trick from a Keith Floyd recipe for chicken in beer – and it does add an extra depth to the sauce.

Jamie’s recipe forbids any substitution for the mint oil and spring onion garnish, which is intended to give a refreshing lift to the final dish. However, Waitrose seemed only willing to sell me half a hundredweight of mint, so I made a fresh oregano oil instead. It adds a sharp lightness to the finished dish, and I think, goes better with the beer. Everybody’s tried mint and lamb, anyway.

To accompany? More Fuller’s 1845 would do nicely, but an extra Jamie-type tweak would be Fuller’s Vintage (8.5.%) Also available from Waitrose, if they haven’t replaced it to make room for more fresh mint. As a contrast, Fullers Discovery (4.2%), which is made with a proportion of wheat, would give a refreshingly zesty and slightly floral contrast.

My post on Jaimie’s Channel 4 programme, in which Jamie discovers the joys of cooking with beer and sticks it to the French.

Jamie’s Great Britain Episode 2

Jamie Oliver’s Persian-inspired Guinness and lamb shank recipe.

Fuller’s beers

Lambshank Redemption blog (got to my headline before me…)

Jamie Oliver’s Great Britain highlights beer and food together

“The French can stick their wine up their arse”, says Jamie Oliver. Wow! what could have caused this outburst in Episode 2 of the Channel 4 series Jamie’s Great Britain? Would you believe because he tasted a recipe for mussels in which beer was used instead of wine? Of course you would, but let’s see what led to Jamie’s road to Damascus experience. 

After I had a bit of a moan about Observer readers voting for bars with bergamot vodka cocktails, I was delighted to hear from @newviv that beer features in an episode from Jamie Oliver’s latest Chanel 4 series. If, in the Observer’s UK they would rather have Hanky Panky (cocktails) in a Soho bar, it’s great to know that there’s a place for beer in Jamie’s Great Britain.

“Jaime travels to Yorkshire to sample Yorkshire pudding and ale”, runs the blurb on the Channel 4 website. And if that conjures up an image of the dreaded cliché of flat caps and whippets, then you haven’t reckoned with the trademark Oliver twists. 15 minutes into the show, there’s a short bit in a pub involving said delicacy, and then he is off to the up-and-coming Leeds Brewery, a city micro not five years old.


Jamie Oliver at Leeds Brewery’s flagship pub The Midnight Bell

Mention of Yorkshire brewing legend Timothy Taylor and cricket “guru” Geoff Boycott get us rolling and then Jamie and his crew take us on a short tour of Leeds Brewery and on to one of their pubs. The cooks there are “re-inventing pub grub using different beers in whatever they can make”. We are told: “At least half of the dishes on the menu are cooked with some style of beer. “Everywhere where wine would go, we try and put beer instead.” For example, bacon and black pudding in a salad with a dressing made from an ale reduction.

Jamie says, “As with wine, beer can offer a totally different flavour to food depending on how it’s used and where the hops come from”. The cooks here use hops from America, Eastern Europe and “Good-old Blighty”. Jamie learns that English hops are “more mellow”, American are “more in-your-face and light” (I think he said), and the Eastern European hops are “perfumed”.

There is a mussel dish in which Leeds Pale ale, with its Eastern European hops, is used where white wine would traditionally be, in a version of moules mariniere. It is at this point that Jamie informs the French about vino-rectal insertion. Even I wouldn’t go that far – and certainly not on camera, but Jamie does, and in one sentence brings a credibility to the beer-with-food cause that a thousand emails to Saturday Kitchen never could.

Cut to the pub table to show some finished dishes: sausages with beer, the salad with beer dressing, and beer and onion soup – all served (and I hope, paired) with beer. That might not appear radical at first, but in any normal pub, the dishes would be made with red onion gravy, wine vinegar dressing, and perhaps cider for the soup. By not being too wacky, this pub wins people over by demonstrating beer’s easy affinity with food in recognisable combinations.

Jamie concludes the piece by demonstrating a Persian-inspired dish of lamb shanks that includes beer. I’ve made it myself, so come back and hear how I got on.

Jamie Oliver makes a point of his being brought up in a pub, and it’s good to know cavolo nero and porcini haven’t caused him to forsake the hop and the malt. And if the popping sounds you hear in kitchens across the land take on a slightly different character, you know cooks are taking to heart (if not rectum) Jamie’s instruction.

Thanks to Sam Moss at Leeds Brewery for use of the photo.

Jamie’s Great Britain Episode 2, About 15 minutes in.

Leeds Brewery’s flagship pub The Midnigt Bell

Leeds Brewery

Black Friday: A cause for celebration at The Euston Tap! @EustonTap

Friday November 4th was Black Friday – at least according to the craft beer bar The Euston Tap. They were playing black songs: Black Hole Sun, Back to Black, Back in Black, Paint it Black… The blackboard was full of black beers: Hardknott Code Black, Kernel Double Black, Matuska Black Rocket… That’s a blacklist to celebrate.

What could be the cause for celebration? Goth Night? Impending meltdown of the Euro? No! it was in fact, the eve Euston Tap’s first birthday. Crikey, a year already! Or perhaps: How can it be only a year? It seems like so much has happened.


“Can I have that poured with the sparkler?”

A year ago, in my post on the opening of the Euston Tap, I said I wanted it to be more than a beer geeks’ bar:
“I’m hoping The Euston Tap has the clout and capacity to light the blue touchpaper [for the craft beer movement in London]. It does look like the great use of a landmark building, but is it the landmark for craft beer in the UK I’m hoping for? “

In the twelve months since then, as well as putting on beer fan events such as the BrewDog IPA is Dead launch, it has shown itself to be a pub with its aim on a wider audience. Its situation right next to Euston station means it is ideal for a drop-in; a great waiting room, whether you’re Neil Morrissey, or a group of Arsenal fans bored on a Saturday afternoon when snow postpones the match.

Of course, its offering is led by the great range of exciting beers of all styles from all over the craft beer world, on cask, in keg, and in bottle. But there’s no disdain in pouring a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, or serving three office lads Jack and Coke (although Johnnie Walker Black Label would have been apt tonight). And if anyone is looking for their usual national brand, knowledgeable staff point them towards suitable alternatives. And I don’t mean another bar.

For me, the success is measured in how well it draws in a wider drinking audience. As Adrian Tierney-Jones puts it in his excellent new book Great British Pubs, “[At the Euston Tap] beer continues to find new and exciting ways to engage with the drinking public.” Tonight, that part of the public is exposed to almost an entire bar of beer drinkers with glasses of deeply black beer that isn’t Guinness – and some of which is lager. Maybe some will be curious.

Many Happy Returns!

Euston Tap website

Euston Taps beer list” for 5/5/11

Buy Great British Pubs by Adrian Tierney-Jones