Q&A With Billy Leighton of Jameson

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New Midleton’s Master Blender Talks Jameson And “Catholic Whiskey”

By Richard Thomas

Billy Leighton

Master Blender Billy Leighton
(Credit: Irish Distillers)

The way New Midleton organizes the division of labor for its whiskeys makes explaining the various tasks that go into whiskey-making much simpler, especially compared to the omnibus job title “Master Distiller” as it is used in the United States. Brian Nation has that title down in Cork County, and his job could best be described as distillation manager. Kevin O’Gorman oversees the aging over at the warehouses and minds wood issues, while David Quinn takes care of things in the lab.

Yet the process that arguably has the single largest impact on what you taste from the bottle is blending, and at New Midleton that is the province of Master Blender Billy Leighton. Last autumn I asked Leighton some questions about his career and his work by e-mail, some three months before I had the privilege of meeting the man in person.

RT: As I understand it, you were in accounting for many years before making the jump over to the company’s production side of things. How did you make that transition and what was it like?

BL: I began working for Irish Distillers in 1976 and made the transition from finance to production in 1988. The transition happened very quickly, with my time in accounting giving me strong background knowledge about the functions of each production department. I excelled once I had the opportunity to get involved with the day-to-day operations as I was able to interact with, learn from and share my passion for the brands crafted at Midleton with the skilled production teams on the shop floor.

RT: You were also the Blender at Bushmills at one time. What do you think of that axiom that Jameson is Catholic whiskey and Bushmills is Protestant whiskey?

BL: Yes, this question comes around every now and then. I usually find that the people making the boldest remarks about this topic don’t really have a great knowledge of the whiskey business. I have been judging whiskeys in international spirits tasting competitions for more than 10 years, alongside other very experienced blenders from across the globe, and not once have I heard anyone describe any whiskey as Protestant, Catholic or any other persuasion.

RT: Blending demands a deep knowledge of stock, and if I’m not mistaken, Jameson has 43 jam-packed warehouses. How do you stay familiar with so much stock, and just how much whiskey is that anyway?

BL: It’s a lot of whiskey all right! As Master Blender at Midleton Distillery, it’s my responsibility to ensure I am familiar with the variety of different distillates aging throughout our warehouses. My close involvement with the crafting of our whiskeys day-to-day helps me keep a close eye on our stocks and what we require for our forecasted depletions, and in turn input into the planning of future production – this enables us to keep the profile of the stock in balance.

RT: Your stewardship includes four premium lines: Midleton Very Rare, the Spots, Redbreast and the premium expressions of Jameson. What qualities do you think makes each line distinct from the others?

BL: Midleton Very Rare has its own particular style; the annual vintage imparts a complex and elegant taste profile, which is achieved through the marrying of only the finest Single Pot Still Irish and grain whiskeys matured in lightly charred, ex-Bourbon American oak casks. The components of the limited blend are matured for many years, making it a real collectors’ item.

The Spot Range, which includes Green Spot and more recently Yellow Spot, uses a specific style of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey. This style combines a particular distillate and type of wood and could be described as relatively robust with a wide range of flavours, from herbal to deep spices, with the casks delivering more of a fruity character. In homage to the historic bonding practices of Mitchell and Sons in Dublin, we mature some of the whiskey in various fortified wine casks, which contributes to the sweet taste profile of the Spot Range.

Redbreast, the largest-selling and most definitive Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey brand in the world, has a full bodied character; crafted from a combination of Single Pot Still styles with a strong proportion of Sherry cask matured whiskeys.

The Jameson Reserves range consists of Jameson Black Barrel, Jameson Gold and Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve, all of which are blends of Single Pot Still Irish and grain whiskeys. The family shares the same Single Pot Still DNA that can be found in Jameson Original, while each offers a tweak on its balance, age and maturation technique.

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