It’s not every day you get up at five am to drink whiskey (probably)… but that was the situation we found ourselves in the other day. We were lucky enough to join Jameson in Ireland for a not-so-St-Patrick’s-Day weekend. With a packed itinerary of seeing, doing and drinking, but only a few days, we wanted as much time away as possible – hence the early start.
A few hours later – that’s the great thing about Ireland (and other countries where the flight time is faster than a trip across London) – we were touching down as the sun was coming up. We’d landed in Cork (south cost) and were soon steered to our new base camp – The Castle Martyr Resort hotel. From there we were to discover everything that goes into a bottle of Jameson, both physically and spiritually, just down the road in a place called Middleton (the home of Jameson distilling since 1975).
We spent our first day getting acquainted the scenic surroundings and abundant fresh air. Hearing that there was to be lots of great food and drink coming our way, we decided to work up an appetite by borrowing the last two bikes (provided free by the hotel). We soon realised they were the last two for a reason as we flat-tiredly peddled around the gorse-strew golf course with great effort but happy in the knowledge that not a single Routemaster could flatten us.
The five star hotel is vast, serves good food and has generous spa and sporting facilities (for more info see castlemartyrresort.ie).
Someone kind had left us one of the brand new limited edition Jameson bottles – a snipped of things to come – both in the artwork on the cover (by artist Steve Simpson – a nice guy who we later met in Dublin) and the contents – which I sampled, neat, in the bath – a method I cannot recommend highly enough. Irish whiskey is a bit easier on the palate than Scotch and Jameson is easier still. In Ireland, the ‘wort’ (basically beer) is triple distilled (once more than scotch) to create a purer spirit and the grains are also not smoked so you lose that smoky taste (but gain an ‘e’). Personally, the ashtray aroma isn’t something I miss, and I sipped happily.
Restored, we made our way to the bar to try the suggested (non-neat) serve: Jameson Ginger & Lime…
In a highball glass, pour a measure of Jameson over ice.
Add high quality ginger ale.
Squeeze and add in a generous lime wedge.
This makes for a very refreshing and easy to drink, drink. Indeed Jameson is blended in such a way that it’s well known for being pretty versatile and that’s probably why it is so popular around the world.
Outside a barbecue was in full swing and we met out fellow travellers – a lovely bunch of international journalists from all over and various Jameson representatives (also lovely). The barbecue was fantastic and pleasingly Irish – we didn’t need umbrellas but it was freezing and I hope the foreigners appreciated this taste of traditional Irish culture (I’ve spent a lot of summers in Ireland… under lots of umbrellas). The bar staff did a great job not dying of exposure and made us up a couple of drinks with the new Jameson ‘Black Barrel’ (Select Reserve) so known because – we learned later – the barrels are charred twice which brings out a new range of flavours (a bit richer, sweeter and fruitier seemed to be the general consensus). My barrel knowledge is now right up there – being left in the barrel for a decade or two gives the whiskey its flavour so the barrel is very important and rightly so. In Middleton, they get their barrels second-hand from bourbon and sherry producers as having a previous owner actually makes the wood taste less overpowering rather than adding flavour as you might imagine.
The next day we happily waited for our hungover compatriots (this becomes a theme on a alcoholic drink junket) then set off for the factory feeling very school trip (minus the hangovers). Any whiskey fans who haven’t already, should give this trip a try (jamesonwhiskey.com/us/tours/jamesonexperience).
First you drive from your fancy hotel to the Jameson (and other whiskey) distillery, notable for the vast copper pot still outside and typically Irish, big grey buildings. Then you get suited up (health and safety gear) to go through the ‘Barley Gates’ which feels very Willy Wonka – if he made booze – and follow the same journey as the barley I guess: we didn’t see the malting process but learned that that means they let the grains germinate which softens them up. Incidentally, Irish whiskey must contain some unmalted barley in it, unlike scotch.
This is fermented into a beer (wort) and then thrown into the stills, almost ineffable in their grandeur and each one a masterpiece of craftsmanship (I’d quite like one in my house but I don’t have the room). It takes two guys two years to hammer them into the right shape which has to be precise – the angle of the neck affects the condensation of the boozy steam and therefore the flavour of the final product so it’s all been carefully planned through years of distilling. Aside from the three we saw (pictured below) they’ve left space for three more as they plan to expand again soon. We learned from the Master Distiller that the effects of this won’t be seen for some time (as the contents spend at least 12 years in a barrel). He spends the interim time on spreadsheets, wondering how our grandchildren will like their whiskey.
Next we went to the labyrinth of warehouses – all drab and dark – covered with some sort of dipsomaniac algae that feasts on the fumes. Inside is a different story and you’re met with a fantastic smell and more barrels than you can shake a stick at (if you ever want to hide a barrel Raiders of the Lost Ark style, go no further). Here we learned about how the barrels are filled and left to mature. Two percent of the whisky evaporates every year which is known as the angels’ share. With 1.2 million barrels in there they lose tens of thousdans of bottles worth a year so the angels (and algae) are partying hard!
Thankfully we got our share too, as we cracked open a barrel and tried the contents fresh – well actually quite mature – and strong too at sixty five percent or so (this is then diluted for bottling). Powerful stuff and pretty delicious too.
After a good lunch on site (they serve decent food there too) we met the notorious fifth generation cooper (barrel man) who impressed us with anecdotes and the sheer ease with which he swung an axe like it was made of balsa. Nowadays the barrels come pre-assembled but he’s still on hand to fix the ones that spring a leak – after waiting a decade for your drink, you really don’t want to find the barrel is empty, so coopers are still a valuable part of the team. Indeed, back in the day they were so highly respected they had to ware suits in the workshop. The Master Distiller and Cooper also joined us for dinner later at the award winning Sage restaurant, for a bit of delicious haute cuisine, almost all of which is sourced from within twelve miles of the place itself. And I’d happily recommend combining the two activities (distillery → restaurant) as we did sagerestaurant.ie.
Not feeling we had quite fitted enough in, we headed back to to Pat Shortt’s pub (the Irish comedian best known here (Britain) for is role as the mono-browed maniac if Father Ted) for some more Jameson Ginger & Lime in a new setting and all had a good time – patshortt.com/bar.php.
The next day we dashed off to Dublin (a few hours off – east cost) – to find the original and spiritual home of Jameson. We joined the LeCool Dublin crew for a whistle-stop tour of the surrounding area, taking in a few more contemporary craftspeople (setting up shops there etc) all scattered with musical interludes – first an intimate four song gig with Richie Egan (of the band Jape) from Dublin, then at a most informative supper club destination (in a little flat) where we were treated to poems and songs, and finally finished off with some of Ireland’s top new bands at the Jameson St Patrick’s Live gig at the famous Vicar Street venue.
We also stopped in a the Jameson training ground, lovingly done up as a speakeasy, hidden under the set of a butchers shop which set itself up to be another fun part of the day. Oisin, the very charismatic ambassador, filled us in on the most interesting parts of Irish cocktail history with a tastealong talk. We tried a brilliantly refreshing punch which you wouldn’t expect with whiskey and the more medicinal Tipperary cocktail that we’d just learned about (created in the US to cash in on the popularity of the song “It’s a long way to Tipperary”).
From what we can remember after all that, we had another great meal with a view over Dublin at Sophie’s Bar and Restaurant (deanhoteldublin.ie/eat-drink/sophies) before making our way to Vicar Street for St Patrick’s Live with Little Green Cars, Delorentos and We Cut Corners. This was of course the day before but served to show the a truer vision of Ireland rather than infamous green hatted mayhem that goes on around the world – we actually snuck off at the crack of dawn and managed to avoid it all!
As a St Patrick’s plan, not visiting on the actual day comes highly recommended – preferable with a glass of Irish whisky in hand as well – Sláinte!