The rain hung in the bright air as if sprayed from an atomizer over the green meadows of County Cork – more a falling mist than a rain, putting a slick on old stone walls. The scent of wet earth and wet vegetation rose from the fields, spiked by a faint saltiness from the sea. A local man would have termed it “a fine soft day” – a morning for turning up your collar. No need for umbrellas.
This was ten years ago – 15 maybe – on a whiskey-tasting week in Ireland that took me from Midleton, County Cork, to Dublin and then north to Bushmills in County Antrim – a different country but just as Irish, in its very different way. I tasted so many Irish whiskeys that week – all triple-distilled and therefore as smooth as the satin lining of my grandmother’s old fur coat – all based on sweet, grainy barley that had been malted in closed, gas-fired kilns and therefore innocent of the peat-smoky reek of Scotch – and all made in the one distillery in Midleton – except for the Bushmills, of course. In a grumbly old pub in a fishing village on the coast near Cork, I learned to recognize Paddy (County Cork’s favourite whiskey) and Power’s (the beloved tot of rural Ireland and number one seller in the domestic market). In Dublin it was all about Jameson, the classic Dublin whiskey since John Jameson started to distil it there in 1780 – though it too has been produced in Midleton since 1916, when the original distillery on Bow Street burned down during the troubles and the firm moved operations to the south. Jameson 1780, a 12-year-old, was the whiskey that left the most lasting impression on me from that trip. It was the choice of our hosts at the end of the evening when the marketing had been done and my notebook put away and the words all spoken or sung. Jameson 1780 – a spirit that has been known to both fool and delight connoisseurs of fine Cognac, its fruitiness seeming more of the grape than the grain, for which we must thank the Oloroso sherry casks in which most of the spirit ages.
And Jameson was the magic word that pricked up my ears this week when an invitation appeared to taste a selection of their reserve whiskies in a one-on-one lunch at the Spoke Club with brand ambassador Amy O’Sullivan. These days, they have quietly changed the name of 1780 to “12-year-old”, one of those shifts of emphasis that marketing philosophers enjoy. It’s the same lovely treat. Imagine a sweet young child of the barley, a simple but wholesome beauty – that’s the standard Jameson, coming in at 5- to 7-years-old, and at around $29.95 of your Canadian dollars. Now give this charming child an education, shifting the ratio of used bourbon casks and used sherry hogsheads from 50/50 to something more like 20/80. The sherry influence adds all manner of earthy, woodsy, spicy, nutty nuances, and an impressive length – a real finishing school. A bottle of 12-year-old comes in at $44.95.
Next in line up the sipping order is the Gold Reserve. This is an Irish whiskey unlike anything I have tasted before. Until about a month ago it was only available in duty-free stores; now you can find it at the LCBO for $90.35. (Where those 35 cents come from is anyone’s guess.) The youngest whiskey in this blend is 15 years old; the oldest around 20. The spirits are aged in sherry casks, bourbon casks and also in new barrels made from virgin oak, unused and untoasted. I would suggest that that detail of the cooperage is so well integrated as to be undetectable. The nose is honey and butterscotch over the floral, fruity barley. The mouth feel is incredibly smooth and silky – almost troublingly so – like the soothing lies whispered by a beautiful double agent with whom you’re already in love.
And then there’s the 18-year-old Limited Reserve. This is much more like the 12-year-old – complex, with a toffee and caramel nose and a surprise taste of pepper and spice about three-quarters of the way through the experience. That pepper remains in the endless aftertaste. Yes, it’s a work of art – as it should be at $99.95. The spirits spend at least 18 years in either sherry or bourbon casks, are blended and then plunged back into newly arrived, pungently bourbonic bourbon casks for another six months of Kentucky boot camp that brings everything into line. Lovely stuff.
And yet… At the Spoke Club lunch, I scanned the menu for something that might enhance and dance and prance with these Irish beauties. I settled for smoked salmon. Much to my surprise it wasn’t the 12 or the 18 (those proudly strutting colleens) that took the floor. It was that demure and inscrutable Gold Reserve. The Spoke kitchen cures its smoked salmon in beet juice, which adds drama to the colour and an earthy sweetness to the flavour of the fish. Perhaps it was that sweetness and the natural smoky, salty oiliness of the fish that made the Gold rise from her chair and step out onto the floor. I saw qualities in her I had not seen when I interviewed her on her own – a spicy hauteur, a smoky, gingery flash of the eyes, a toss of the head that shook loose that tight blonde coiffe from its bun.
I’ve gone on about all this far too long. The good news is that the LCBO is selling a special gift pack containing 200-mL bottles of the 12-year-old (formerly known as 1780), the Gold Reserve and the 18-year-old, sumptuously packaged in a sleek green box. It costs $99.95. If you care about whiskey, this is a dazzling opportunity to taste and compare the senior iterations of one of Ireland’s most renowned producers. I understand that the Irish are loyal to their brands in a way that puts the rest of us to shame. You may be a rabid Redbreast aficionado, a Green Spot freak (God bless you, you crazy fool), a Paddy’s partisan, Tullamore totaller, a Bushmills bully or a Power’s proselyte… But the Jamesons are worth a step away from life’s careful, narrow path. Taste them with an open palate and an open mind.