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.

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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.

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