Updated February 16, 2015
By S.D. Peters
The basics are well-known to the drinking public: Irish whiskey is Scotch’s annoying first cousin or it’s hip paternal uncle, and Jameson is the patriarch of Irish whiskey. The rest, perhaps less-so: John Jameson was Scottish, not Irish, and since 1988 the Jameson brand has been owned by the French (Pernod Ricard). Somehow, that makes it seem more Irish. After all, that most Irish of writers, James Joyce, wrote his book of “Doublends Jined” in Paris:
“Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsomee on the aquaface.”
—Finnegans Wake [3.11-13], James Joyce
Was Joyce imbibing Jhem or Shen’s aquaface during the 17 years he spent writing 627 more pages like that? The debate’s been open since 1939. There’s no debate, however, that since 1780, Jameson Irish Whiskey is distinctly Irish. That’s when John Jameson established his distillery on Bow Street, Dublin, and the whiskey is still distilled in Ireland, at the Middelton Distilleries, County Cork, following Jameson’s original recipe. And like the perennial Irishman, the distillery continues to favor old ways: the Pure Pot Still tradition.
After the Irish War of Independence, Jameson suffered, like many a good Irishman, the oppressive reprisal of the British: denied the export markets of the Commonwealth, the whiskey had no Canadian ingress. With Prohibition underway in the U.S., that meant that Jameson wasn’t crossing the border, like Scotch, into the lucrative speakeasies on the other side. Jameson persevered its troubles (also like many a good Irishman), and now sells about 30 million bottles a year – making it the established Irish whiskey brand.
One might say that such stellar sales make it a little less Irish these days, however, as Ireland’s economy performs about as well as – well, as me one sweltering Washington, D.C., night in the Summer of ’94 (1994, that is), after a few rounds of Jameson.
I’d stepped into a bar on U St. at 14th that a colleague had recommended. A local band that was to perform there that night. Which band? The memory remains as hazy as the weather outside that night. I bided my time at the bar, waiting for the band to appear, and watched six (or was it seven?) Jameson doubles disappear in front of me. Forty minutes later, the band still hadn’t gone on. I placed a coaster on my glass, settled my bill, stood up and — somehow I lurched my way the five long blocks to Adams Morgan (thinking I’d get something to eat?), stumbled five blocks up 18th St., where I bought a hamburger, gave it to a homeless man who hadn’t asked for it (was he homeless?), and lumbered back home – home being the opposite of the direction I’d just come. I passed by the bar again, passed water in an abandoned doorway two blocks later, and eventually collapsed onto my bed.
If there’s any point to this story from my younger days, it’s this: take the time to enjoy what’s best about Jameson Irish whiskey, but don’t let what’s best about it get the better of you.
And what is best about Jameson Irish whiskey? The Jameson brand offers several varieties, some better than others, but its basic, triple-distilled, 80-proof (40% abv), blended Irish whiskey is a good place to discover the basics of what’s best about Irish whiskey.
Triple distillation and the absence of peat in the malting process are what set Irish whiskey apart from Scotch. Jameson’s heart is Pure Pot Still – that is, distilled only in a pot still from a mash bill of local, kiln-dried, malted and green (unmalted) Irish barley, following John Jameson’s original 1780 recipe. That is just the heart, though, and basic Jameson is a blended whiskey.
So, what’s the best Irish whiskey? The answer depends on whether or not you prefer a smooth, mellow whiskey. Jameson has the color of sun-dappled goldenrod in the glass, and a strong scent of petrol-suffused honey. In the mouth, its cool and airy. Flavor comes on slowly. Let it leisurely roll over the tongue, and it reveals a hint of berries, a mix of red and black foremost. Let it linger, and the ironic sweetness of sourballs begins to play around the edges. The finish is medium and sweet, without even a mild astringency. It’s not unlike enjoying a spring meadow at sunset, leaning back in Cape Cod, a light breeze at your back. Irish whiskey is the perfect compliment for lighter moods, and Jameson pays a perfectly fine compliment to Irish whiskey.
Addendum By Richard Thomas
The quintessential characteristic of Jameson is smooth, easy drinking. There is a reason why it is the introductory whiskey for so many Americans, and remains the go-to staple for a big chunk of them thereafter.
The nose is citrus floral and malty, honey sweet. The flavor has good body, especially for what still is a mass market blend, carrying that malty honey, citrus zest, and creamy vanilla. The finish is smooth, but has just that touch of spice for character.
A 750ml bottle of Jameson averages between $25-$30 in most U.S. stores that carry it (and almost every store that sells spirits sells Jameson). In Europe, the average cost is £16 or 20 euros.