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.
In the States we have ‘American whiskey’, which is maize blended with grains. So this sounds very similar. What then makes Irish whiskey stand out from American whiskey?
I think there is a couple of things. Number one for us, like when we talk about whiskey in general, we’re fairly unique in that we produce all of the distillate in the one distillery. Hence, we’re able to call it — even though it’s a blend — it’s a single distillery whiskey. The fact that it’s triple distilled actually sets us apart from American which is typically single or double distilled. The overall flavor profile, if we’re talking just about Jameson, you have some of that fragrance and floral aromas coming from the maize element of it but it’s combined with spiciness from pot still whiskey as well and a creaminess from the use of the unmalted barley, so it is quite different from an American whiskey.
It was mentioned that this distillery was built here because the spring here. Water’s always crucial.
Absolutely. Obviously when you’re looking to build a distillery, having a good source of good quality water is very important part of the process and also having access to the finest of raw materials and having an area within a certain radius that you can deliver the barley and the malted barley.
There’s a lot of debate over hard water and soft water being better for coaxing flavors from grains. Was there a change in the water quality when you moved down to Midleton?
It’s not so much a soft water, but it’s not hard either. There’s quite a good balance of calcium ions in it which makes for brewing water effectively. As regards to the impact of moving from Dublin to Midleton, the water source is very similar and has not impacted the flavor of the whiskey. Particularly when you go through a triple distillation process, it has less of an impact anyway.
You’re barreling a very small amount of whiskey here. But all the distillation has moved down south. Is there ever going to be distillation done in Dublin again or are you guys just focusing on barreling here?
Well, the production facility and the distillation process is carried out in Midleton and that’s where we see it for the foreseeable future.We were actually really excited about getting a maturation warehouse within the building for people to come and see actual Jameson whiskey being matured again in Dublin. Being able to bring barrels from the distillery up here to mature back in the home place of Jameson has been really great.
What are some interesting whiskeys for the next step in a whiskey lover’s journey through Ireland?
One of the, I suppose, uniqueness of the Jameson distillery in Midleton is that we also produce a number of different brands. When you’re talking about what’s next or moving on, obviously we’d say Jameson Original and there is a family of Jameson whiskeys like Jameson Black Barrel. There’s Jameson Crested. Now you’ve got the Maker’s series. But if you’re talking about something different to Jameson, for us, the single pot range is quite an important part of our portfolio.
So you’ve got the likes of Redbreast range. You’ve got the likes of Spot range. Then we’ve got the Powers range whiskey which again would be single pot stills and blends as well like Powers Original or Powers 12 year old.
We’re quite lucky in that we have a wide range for people to try different aspects of our whiskeys. Each of them brings their own little character, their own story, their own heritage which makes the whole delving in and out of different brands and even different releases of Jameson all the more exciting for people. It’s not just different flavors but there is also a reason behind each of the whiskeys.
So stepping back a little bit for clarification, if you have a single pot still for instance, then you’re not going to use the Coffey stills, or the column stills, with the maize blend?
No. Single pot still Irish whiskey is basically whiskey that has been produced using a mashable of malted barley and unmalted barley and it has been distilled three times in copper pots.
Let’s go back a tiny bit, you mentioned a couple different brands; Powers, Redbreast, Jameson. These are distilled under the Jameson umbrella in Midleton, but are still technically family brands?
They all fall under the umbrella of Jameson of Irish distillers basically. So you’ve got different families then associated. Obviously Jameson would have been a family and they would have started here. Powers would have been a family and they would have started in Dublin also. Single pot still is a number of different types of whiskeys that were produced over the years in different locations and we brought them all the Midleton. When we moved to Midleton, we got the Midleton range since it was already being produced in Midleton.
What’s your favorite whiskey?
That’s like telling you which child I prefer, right? I can’t really answer that because I wouldn’t tell you which three of my children I prefer because I love them all, right?
Here’s the question then. What’s your go to, everyday bar order?
My drink of choice when I’m out socializing with my friends, on a regular night, would be Jameson and soda water on ice with a wedge of lime. Because I find it a very refreshing drink and I find it’s a lovely, lovely drink to have. And I think that’s one of the reasons that Jameson is so successful as well is that versatility. The flavors in Jameson work very well in long drinks and also cocktails as well as the traditional neat or with few cubes of ice or a drop of water. So for me, that’s what I would drink on a social evening with my friends.
I’m also really proud of the Maker’s series. So that is something that if I’m at home in the evening, I would sit down and have a drink or two of.
What do you pull up from the cellar for Christmas?
Around Christmas, I actually do like a single pot still. I would like something like Redbreast. I really feel that the flavors of Redbreast always bring me to the fore on Christmas. Christmas flavors, fruitcake flavors, so I really do enjoy Redbreast 12 at that time.
What is special about the distillation process of Redbreast that gets it that sort of seasonal flavor?
Number one, it’s a single pot still. So you’re talking about 100% mashable of malted barley and unmalted barley distilled three times in copper pot stills. But then the combination of maturation where you’ve got quite a high percentage of first-filled sherry casks used in the maturation process to bring those dried fruits and those Christmas type flavors to the fore when Redbreast is bottled.
Right now there is a boom in the markets. Craft distilleries are opening. Distilleries are expanding. The Irish are finally getting back into the international market in a big way. Do you see maybe bringing in more craft distillers and more craft labels like Redbreast and sort of focusing on smaller local distillers or just going bigger and bigger?
We’re always looking to see what consumers are looking for. We do take a lot of interest in what our consumers taste profiles are, what they feel about our brands. So we’re always innovating. That’s one of the things that we’re constantly doing. It’s very strong in insuring our success.
I think Irish whiskey — being the fastest growing international spirit brand for the last number of years — there is a big opportunity for Irish whiskey. At the moment it still only accounts for about seven percent of the global whiskey sales. So there is a huge area for growth. As a result of that you’re seeing a lot of new distilleries opening up — some small, some bigger in size. But there is just quite a lot of them and I think that’s very exciting for the category as a whole.
The interest that a lot of these guys have is fantastic as well. We’re all part of the Irish Whiskey Association which comes together to insure that we are all working for the same goal, which is producing a very good quality Irish whiskey no matter what the brand is. That’s so important to maintain the success of Irish whiskey on the world market.
Talking about innovation, with whiskey it sort of feels like if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s a fantastic product in general already so where do you foresee, I guess in a more micro way, the future of Irish whiskey. Are you going to deeper into aging, deeper into casking, deeper into different grains?
I’ll just comment on what you said at the start about if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It reminds me of the day I took over as head distiller. My uncle who was an avid fan of Jameson rang me up and he said, “For god sake, don’t change it. It is perfect the way it is!” I just liked your comment there.
As regards, where is it going around innovation, I think it’s in everything that you’re speaking about. We are very lucky in that we have the opportunity to be able to develop new distillate styles and that’s both on the pot side and the grain side. We’ve just recently opened a micro distillery where we actually have smaller scale pot stills that have the capacity to produce about 50,000 liters of alcohol a year. It’s real area that we can experiment on developing new distill styles. What it does mean is you can do a lot more of that without impacting on the capacity on the main plant. So that’s one area that we’re looking at and we’re quite excited about that at the moment because we’re developing a number of different styles.
Wood management, different cask types, all of that is in the mix when it comes to new product development for us and we are just very fortunate that we have stocks laid down of different types of casks and different distill styles for a number of years.
Also we have people who are driven to keep on pushing the boundaries, keep on thinking outside of the box, keeping on trying something different. At the end of the day that is how we measure our success — innovation and being current and trying something new. But also staying true to the traditions of what we do.
When did it all hit you that you’d become part of such a long and storied history of Irish whiskey and Jameson?
When the previous head distiller, Barry Crockett, said to me, “Remember, Brian, I’m just passing a baton onto you that you need to keep in your hand and you need to pass it on in years to come, a little bit better than the way I passed it onto you. But always remember it’s just passing through and make sure you look after it like one of your children.” And it’s true.
It really is true because it is a very important part of the process. When you take over a role like that, you are not looking to change everything. Why would you? What you want to do is you want to carry on the tradition that has been passed on from Barry’s father to Barry, from previous head distiller to Barry’s father, all the way through. You’re really just holding it for a period of time and making sure you are passing it on in good condition and have tried something different along the way for future generations.