“So smooth I would drink it even if my name were not on it.” Those are the words of John Jameson, who established his namesake Irish Whiskey company in Dublin, Ireland. While Bushmills claims to be the oldest Irish whiskey, there is no doubt that Jameson is the largest and most popular, selling more than 20 million bottles annually in 122 countries worldwide. (The United States is the largest market for Jameson.) Originally distilled at the famous Bow Street distillery in Dublin, since 1975 Jameson has been produced exclusively at Midleton, an enormous modern distillery in County Cork. It is in Midleton that we took a fascinating tour of the plant and learned about the process of producing Jameson Irish whiskey.
One of the first things you learn is that John Jameson was not Irish, but Scottish. Jameson’s wife, Margaret, was from a family of distillers, and upon their marriage, they came to Dublin in 1786 so that John could manage her family’s Bow Street distillery, which had started production in 1780 (hence the 1780 date on all Jameson labels.)
The Jameson label also displays the Jameson family coat of arms and includes the motto “Sine Metu,” which means “without fear.” The family was granted the coat of arms in honor of their pursuit of pirates along the Scottish coast in the 17th century.
I won’t confuse you with all the technicalities of the distilling process, but during the tour, you do get to see how it all takes place while walking through historical buildings and viewing some of the old equipment, including the copper pots where the main distilling takes place. You get educated on the difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey. Besides the obvious — Scotch is made in Scotland while Irish whiskey is made exclusively in Ireland and uses an “e” in the spelling — Scotch is distilled twice, while whiskey is distilled three times. Both spirits use the grain barley, but Irish whiskey uses both malted and unmalted barley, all procured from within a 50-mile radius of the plant.
The use of unmalted barley in Irish whiskey originally began centuries ago as a cheaper alternative to malted barley, which was taxed by the British. The barley is dried in a closed kiln fired by natural gas (formerly coal). This contrasts with the traditional method used in Scotch whisky distilleries, which fire the kiln with peat, adding a distinctive smoky peat flavor.
One factor that both countries agree on is that the final product must age in wooden casks a minimum of three years in order to be official. The production of the wooden casks was what I actually found the most fascinating part of the tour. The art of barrel making is performed by a “cooper.” These casks are not just slapped together, but are precisely constructed using only timber for the barrels and steel for the hoops: no glue, no silicone, only the occasional river reed to help seal the top of the barrel. Once barrels are filled, they swell to accommodate the whiskey and become watertight. The slightest flaw in the barrel making — an imprecisely angled wooden plank, a weakness in the timber — means that the barrel could leak its valuable contents.
It is an exacting process, and one performed at Jameson by a fifth-generation cooper who has been doing it for 40 years after taking over for his father. (It is a dying art, as while once over 10,000 coopers were working in Ireland, today there are only four!)
The barrels that Jameson uses aren’t made from scratch, thanks in part to an Irish timber shortage in the 19th and 18th centuries. Instead, the distillery imports two kinds of barrels: sherry casks from Spain and bourbon barrels from Kentucky. Every bottle of Jameson is a mixture of the whiskeys aged in those two kinds of casks, balanced to get the characteristic notes of vanilla and spice. Every cask that comes into the distillery is examined for damage or flaws in the wood grain that would affect the taste of the whiskey or the integrity of the barrel, and any flawed candidates are sent back into the cooperage to mend.
Of course, the tour concludes with a visit to the lively and exquisite tasting room, where one can taste the many different Jameson varieties. I highly recommend this tour, even for those who aren’t lovers of the spirit — the surroundings and education makes it worth the time.
Also of course, Ever Irish Gifts sells some beautiful Jameson products, from a pair of whiskey glasses emblazed with a Jameson pewter logo, as well as an actual Jameson bottle made into a clock. Sláinte!