Irish whiskey is the grandaddy of all whiskeys worldwide. It’s arguably the oldest form of the spirit and was instrumental in the birth of American whiskeys and bourbon. Unfortunately, over the course of the 20th century, Irish whiskey took a couple hard hits thanks to spiteful British trade embargoes, American Prohibition, and the rise of Scotch whisky.
Today, Irish whiskey is making a monumental comeback and Jameson whiskey is at the forefront of that growth. They’ve been expanding their own brands by focusing what we, the consumers, want as our taste evolve. Jameson is also bringing local distillers like Redbreast, Powers, and Spot into the fold like one big happy Irish whiskey family.
I was in Dublin recently and got the chance to tour the new facilities at the Jameson Distillery at Bow Street. It’s a deep dive into all things Ireland and Irish whiskey, plus it’s got a great bar. I was lucky enough to sit down with Brian Nation, Head Distiller of Jameson, and gush about how much I love Irish whiskey. We also delved into the spirit’s history and some of the best Irish whiskeys you can drink right now.
How did you get into distilling?
By complete accident. My background is chemical and process engineering. So when I was finishing up in college, I would have expected to end up in either an oil refinery or a pharmaceutical plant. I worked in both, didn’t quite enjoy either of them and an opportunity came up to work as an environmental engineer for a year within the distillery. So I went for the job, I got it and when I got into the distillery I became friendly with the now production director, Tommy Keane.
I did that for about three years then I moved across into production. I really got a good grounding in the previous years in projects around the plant and around the technology. I really got to understand the whole process side of it, the whole intricacies of the distillation process, intricacies of the brewing process, and basically all of the secrets and craft of what we do.
Taking over as head distiller meant the absolute world to me. It wasn’t something that I set out to do. If you’d asked me 15 years ago where did I want to go, I wouldn’t have said I wanted to be head distiller of Jameson. It wouldn’t have been something that I even thought about. But when I started working in the distillery and started moving through the process and getting to understand it a bit more, I became very, very excited about it.
As I say, it’s the best accident that ever happened to me.
So let’s first jump in and talk a little bit about the birth of Irish whiskey. Why is it special and where did it come from?
Jameson has been around since 1780 and it’s actually in this distillery here that Jameson Irish whiskey started. What really made Irish whiskey unique and what really made Jameson unique is the use of malted barley and unmalted barley in a mashpit. And that’s really what sets us apart — the use of the unmalted barley. It’s the quintessential way Irish whiskey was made.
That in itself imparted a completely different flavor than, say, a single malt in that the use of unmalted barley imparts a creamy malt feel on the whisky. Also, the malted barley that we used is unpeeted so there’s no smokey taste to any of our whiskeys.
And then taking that mash build, putting it through the brewing process, the fermentation process, and then the distillation process where it’s triple distilled. So that third distillation actually gives Irish whiskey its exceptional smoothness that you get today.
I notice that they also use maize. What does that add?
We have two types of whiskey in Jameson, all coming from the same distillery, hence we call it a single distillery whiskey. We’ve got one element which uses the malted barley and the unmalted barley and the flavors that you’re getting from the pot stills inside would be spice, creaminess, bit of fruit. Then we’ve got the grain side which would be using maize and malt, and that side is triple distilled in column stills. Then you’re getting a more fragrant, floral perfume type flavor of whiskey that adds those type of flavors to the overall Jameson blend.