Sunday, 24 July 2016

Jameson - The Whiskey Makers Series (etc.)

I remember a theory advanced some years ago that Jameson had exhausted the pool of potential Irish whiskey drinkers in the United States. To pursue further growth, it would have to pitch lifestyle rather than product. Think cosmopolitan party lubricant rather than heritage craft spirit.

If that was ever true (and it does fit with some Jameson marketing in recent years), it no longer is.

Craft focus 

The re-emphasis on craft began, I think, with Jameson Select Reserve, launched in 2010. It soon acquired a "Black Barrel" strapline calling attention to the heavily charred oak casks used for its maturation. Black Barrel promotional events featured the distillery's master cooper, Ger Buckley, knocking down and rebuilding casks around Ireland and beyond.

The Black Barrel Craft Series showcased collaborations with weavers, leatherworkers and so on, further humanising the 5 million case a year brand juggernaut that is Jameson.

Another small-scale collaboration with the local Franciscan Well brewery became an unexpected hit. Jameson whiskey finished in casks that had previously held stout was released as Jameson Caskmates, and it has since been getting the same marketing love that Black Barrel got.

Jameson Caskmates, another 'craft' collaboration
Note that word 'craft' in the advertisement again. Caskmates may have been a happy accident but it plugged neatly into a project started four years ago to completely rethink the Jameson range.

Project Clean Sweep

The result of that project has been the ruthless culling of the Jameson "Reserve" range. Gone are the Special Reserve (12yo), Gold Reserve and Rarest Vintage Reserve. The Limited Reserve (18yo) has been spared for now, but it is absent in the new family photos. The name "Select Reserve" has also been dropped from bottles of Jameson Black Barrel.

Jameson Black Barrel

Signature Reserve survives, as Jameson Signature. It has always been exclusive to Travel Retail and the press release indicates that's still the case. I've heard that may change now that there are three new Travel Retail exclusives (the Deconstructed Series below).

Jameson Signature

Crested Ten has become Jameson Crested. (There is an 'X' in the label background, an echo of the 'Ten'.) This was mostly a domestic brand that has now been launched in other markets. The opportunity was taken to tweak the recipe a bit but it remains a sherry-forward version of Jameson.

Jameson Crested

Out of fashion, along with the word "Reserve", is Jameson's signature green glass. The updated range, aside from standard Jameson and Caskmates (because it's also standard Jameson, beneath the stout finish), now comes in clear bottles. Looks very well it does. It would suit standard Jameson too, I'm sure, but at the risk of confusing the consumers of 5m cases a year. I wouldn't take that risk either. Perhaps a limited St Patrick's Day clear bottle edition could test the waters?

In with the new

Pulling so many expressions at once, I might have expected some grumbling in the whiskey drinking community. I've always held up Jameson Gold as an exceptional Irish blend, for example, and I'm sorry to see it go. But there has been general understanding of the worthy motivations behind all of this. Besides, there are some shiny new whiskeys to dive into, which draws some of the sting. Let's take a squint at those...

Deconstructed Series

Known as Bold, Lively and Round, these are the new Travel Retail exclusives, taking Signature Reserve's place in that regard. The idea is that each plays up one contribution to the overall experience of drinking Jameson. So Bold is the pot still whiskey contribution, Lively is the grain whiskey contribution, and Round is the wood influence.

The Deconstructed range

I haven't tried any of these yet but the RRP is only €36 so they are worth a punt.

Makers Series

On the face of it, the Makers series is quite similar to Deconstructed in that it separately highlights different aspects of Jameson whiskey. The twist here is that three of the distillery "masters" have each been asked to create a blend that illustrates their own speciality. The bottlings are named after key tools they use to do their job.

Distiller's Safe

This is master distiller Brian Nation's creation. It keeps cask type constant (ex-bourbon, obviously) and the age fairly young to limit the wood influence while blending various distillates to produce a characterful whiskey.
Jameson Distiller's Safe

In the mix there is some heavy pot, regular grain whiskey, and a portion of another small batch grain that hasn't appeared in any other whiskey from Midleton (it's a variation on the Black Barrel small batch grain that is made from a pot still mash, distilled once in a pot still, then finished in the final columns of a column still).

Note that the Makers series doesn't stick strictly to the components present in ordinary Jameson.

The name refers to the spirit safe through which the output of distillation flows. The distiller uses it to monitor the alcohol content and to select only the most desirable portion of the output for further distillation and eventual casking.

Cooper's Croze

This is master cooper Ger Buckley's whiskey. It keeps age and distillate variation to a minimum and goes to town on cask type with first-fill bourbon casks, first-fill sherry casks, and virgin oak casks employed.
Jameson Cooper's Croze

There was virgin oak in the Jameson Gold too but the wood influence is clearer here.

A croze is a tool for carving a groove around the inside of a barrel for securing the barrel end.

Blender's Dog

Master blender Billy Leighton had a free hand to vary distillate, cask type and age for this one. Well, not an entirely free hand, because part of the skill of the blender is to ensure that the whiskey is reproducible year after year, with enough stock always available to bottle fresh batches. Billy oversaw the development of the other two whiskeys as well to ensure this would be the case.

Jameson Blender's Dog
Billy wanted to demonstrate how age influences a whiskey, where the lighter floral fruity notes come from in Jameson and how these are balanced out with wood and time. Thus the Blender's Dog includes standard grain whiskey, some aged in younger refill bourbon casks, some in older virgin American oak which contribute floral and heavier charred oak notes respectively.

There is also some spirit aged in sherry casks and first-fill bourbon casks, but with a different profile and a wider age range to the Cooper's Croze.

A blender's dog is a cup on a chain that is lowered through a cask bunghole to extract a sample.

Personal touch

Each bottle bears the fingerprint of the maker behind it, to push home the message that Jameson is made by real people. (There's also a fingerprint on the new Black Barrel label, but I don't know to whom it belongs.)

The whiskeys are all bottled at 43% and are not chill-filtered. Nor is there added colouring. Side-by-side in their clear bottles, there is obvious colour variation between the expressions which is exactly what you would expect given the different woods and ages involved.

They are all priced at a suggested €70. With a traditional whiskey family of escalating ages, you position yourself on the ladder according to what you can afford. With this new concept of a horizontal family, you can buy the whiskey you like the best.

Assuming you can stump up €70, that is. The revamped Jameson range is a response to the younger drinkers who have reacted enthusiastically to Black Barrel and Caskmates. It gives them another waypoint in their continuing exploration and enjoyment of Jameson whiskey. It's quite a step up from Black Barrel's €47 price tag though. A set of three 200ml bottles would be more affordable (and luggable), and would be attractive as a self-administered whiskey masterclass.

At the launch, a quick poll of favourites at our table counted 6 votes for Cooper's Croze, and one vote for each of the other two. I hear the Cooper's Croze is outselling the others handily at Dublin Airport too. But I suggest watching out for a tasting of the three side-by-side and making up your own mind. (There's a tasting on August 18th in Dublin, as it happens.)

Without Fear

That was the new Jameson line-up, as announced. Brian Nation, however, dropped a mention of one more Jameson expression in a recent interview: Jameson Gan Eagla. (The Irish phrase means 'without fear'; it's on the Jameson crest in Latin.)

It has not been mentioned anywhere else, to my knowledge. According to Brian, it represents "the future of Jameson" but I know nothing more about it.

Bonus Content: Eat like a Master

If you want to know how to tempt three Midleton masters out of Cork, the secret is to allow them to choose a course each for a meal hosted by L. Mulligan Grocer in Dublin. For the Makers Series Dublin launch, they revealed their culinary preferences to Mulligan's co-owner and food genius, Seaneen O'Sullivan, who came up with the menu below. The text was written by Mulligan's.

Brian Nation, Ger Buckley and Billy Leighton

Seared scallops, black pudding bon bon, red wine poached pear purée, pea shoots.

This course is an homage to Brian Nation, Head Distiller. We have used black pudding made by ‘Sir’ Jack McCarthy, Cork’s finest butcher, and paired it with East Cork scallops which is Brian’s (an aspiring Masterchef contestant!) favourite starter. The dish is served on a russet coloured plate, mimicking the copper of the still.

Main course

Slow roast fillet of Ballinwillin House beef, carrot purée, rainbow carrot & potato gratin, wild mushroom duxelles, pickled mushroom, spiced beef jus.

Cork’s best fillet from Ballinwillin Farm is served as an homage to Head Cooper, Ger Buckley. A proud Corkman, he graciously decided against inflicting spiced beef upon us all, so we have spiced the jus with star anise & nutmeg as a nod to the Cork staple dish. The mushrooms have been toasted over oak and then slightly charred, echoing the wood of the casks and the barrel charring process.


Chocolate mousse, lemon curd, apricot purée, blackcurrant purée, raspberries, strawberries, cape gooseberry, sea salt chocolate oranges, meringues, apple sticks.

Billy, the Head Blender, requested fruit salad for dessert. We have taken seasonal fruit and poached it in Northern Irish honey. Billy is from North Antrim, where a famous sweet called Yellowman is made. We have served this alongside, as well as blends tiny meringues and lemon curd.