Tag Archives: Jameson

The essentials of whisky

An often confusing navigation. PATRICK LECLEZIO cuts through the clutter

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2015 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

“We distill our whisky more slowly than any other distillery in Scotland”. This snippet is courtesy of Glengoyne. How about this one? (I bet you know it). “Triple distilled, twice as smooth, one great taste”. These are just two of innumerable promotional shots in an incessant barrage. The whisky industry monologue, as its brands clamour for your attention and, more importantly, for your hard earned lucre, is peppered with all sorts of often confounding claims. Buying whisky can be akin to taking an exam for which you haven’t studied, like trying to appreciate a tune that you like in a cacophony of noise. What matters and what doesn’t? A how-long-is –a-ball-of-string question for the ages really – one about which voluminous tracts can be written (I won’t, not here). It’s worth though taking the time to dip our feet.

So, why should you buy one whisky rather than another of the many available? There are a multitude of reasons, some of which are central to the product, and some not. The latter group, whilst ìt can be significant to enjoyment, featuring influences like branding, is not relevant for our purposes here, which is to focus on a few tangible and factual observations related to the liquid itself – the flavour, the texture, and even the colour – and thereby to objectively guide purchase. A whisky, in order to win you over, needs to resolve the question in its favour; and to do so it ideally needs to demonstrate meaningful differences from which the basis for preference might be inspired. You on the other hand need to interrupt the monologue – with a firm put up or shut up. Here’s how.

Let’s start at the beginning. In the beginning there was the grain, and the grain was with whisky, and the grain was whisky. The type of grain, usually barley, malted barley, wheat, corn, and rye, is significant, and will manifest differently, but it’s rarely a critical variable unless you’re deciding between styles of whisky, in which case many other factors encroach. There are exceptions though. Bourbon for instance must be comprised of minimum 51% corn, but can include either rye or wheat as a secondary grain (often called the flavour grain). Rye will typically give a spicy flavour, wheat a cereal biscuit flavour. More pertinently you’ll be entreated to believe that a variant of a particular grain sets a whisky apart. Optic barley, the original Golden Promise, organic, exclusively Scottish-grown barley, Islay-grown…whatever. In reality, whilst it impacts on issues like yield and raw material cost, too distant to be of any concern to us the apprehensive receptacles at the far end of the line, it makes little or no difference to flavour. The exception perhaps is peat smoke, which transmits itself impressively into the resultant whisky through malting (or specifically kilning). Consequently, the constitution of that smoke, the peat from which it emanates – be it coastal, in its many varieties, or inland – makes a mark, albeit subtle.

The grain then gets milled, mashed, and fermented, but there aren’t really enough differences between distilleries for these processes to have any kind of a pronounced impact. Wooden or metal washbacks? It’s nice of them to point it out on a visitors’ tour but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Bourbon and Japanese producers tend to make a lot of noise about their individual yeasts. I’m still in dreamland, although maybe because it has never been specifically demonstrated to me. Some whisky experts disagree, I’m still not sure that the average whisky lover would notice or should care.

The culmination of production, like a shining copper beacon in the night announcing its importance, is the distillation itself. And here’s where it’s time to wake up. Woodford Reserve is the only mainstream bourbon to be distilled in copper pots – affording its distillate a “conversation” that resonates in the final product. Glenmorangie has the tallest stills in Scotland – the height of an adult giraffe. How do I know? They’ve ensured that I’ve absorbed this fact by repeatedly disseminating it to me. And it is indeed important. The type of still, the size of the still, the copper, and the shape of the still, are all critical to the individual taste of a whisky. Glenmorangie’s long slender stills foster a light, delicate spirit, Macallan’s short, rotund stills a richer, heavier spirit. I swear that I can almost taste their shape when I drink a Macallan. That may be a stretch but there can be no doubting that it sets the liquid apart. Every distiller will tell you that when they replace a still it’s copied to the last detail – if the original was dented, well then a near-as-damn-it identical dent is administered to its successor. As to differences (actual real differences) in length of distillation, and the number of distillations…apologies to Glengoyne and Jameson – as much as I enjoy both of their creations, I remain to be convinced.
Moving on. Whisky may be the water of life, but the role of the water used in its production and its reduction is pretty much equivalent regardless of the source. The former is distilled – I’ve yet to taste distilled water that distinguishable one from another. The latter is demineralised – rendering it as generic as generic gets. Yet whiskies often talk up their water, talk best digested with a liberal pinch of salt.

I’ve saved the most important for last. It’s generally acknowledged that up to 70% of the flavour of a whisky comes from the wood in which it’s aged. It follows then that maturation is a critical point of difference. Spanish, American or Japanese oak? Seasoned with sherry, bourbon, or something more exotic? First-fill, or refill? Duration of maturation? Double maturation or extra maturation (otherwise known as finishing)? As promised I’m sparing you the detail, save to say that there’s nothing that exerts more sway. Take careful note, and drink it all in.

There’s lots more, lots. But this brief guide hopefully should map out the areas that warrant exploration, and those that don’t. These are the questions on the exam paper, the noise-cancelling earphones to sift out the sweet music of whisky. Good luck, and may the dram be with you.

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What to do at 30 000 feet

Get yourself one of those dinky bottles, take a sip, sit back and read my article in the October edition of British Airways’ High Life magazine.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared – p2.

May the draaam be with you!

I love Irish whiskey

And to anyone who doesn’t I have this to say – don’t be an eejit man!  Tree times distilled, you canna go wrong…

One who does not like Irish whiskey

In many ways the history of Irish whiskey reflects the very soul of Ireland itself: tragic, principled, enduring, resurgent, and throughout it all, ebullient, and abundant in lyricism and warmth.  The Irish story is bittersweet, having travelled a course of buoyant victories and bitter setbacks.  It led the charge of whisky in the nineteenth century, but passed on the trend to blend, much to its commercial detriment.  Scottish corporate interference then stunted the industry’s capacity to produce grain whiskey.  One hindrance followed another.  Independence and separation from the Empire deprived it of vast markets.  The industry shunned bootleggers and then was insufficiently prepared for the revocation of Prohibition, leading to severe reversals in one of its most successful markets.  Later post-war government policies further limited development, bringing the once flourishing industry to its knees, ravaged and barely hanging on with only 2 distilleries still operating.

But hang on it did, and in the last 20 odd years it’s been progressively emerging from the darkness.  There are now two new distilleries, independent and Irish-owned to boot.  And then there’s Jameson, the leading Irish whiskey brand and spearhead of the recovery, today logging sales of over 3 million 9-litre cases annually…and still growing.    As the more perceptive amongst you may have gleaned from the title of this post, I’m a big a fan of Irish.  So I couldn’t be happier about this turnaround.  There’s still some way to go but I’m starting to believe that it’s on its way to reclaiming its rightful place in the whisky pantheon – which is important, not only because Ireland is the birthplace of whisky, but more so because Irish offers whisky lovers an astonishingly good, and meaningfully distinct style of whisky.  The more it thrives the richer our whisky adventure becomes.

What makes Irish Irish?  As with Scotch any such analysis is general at best.  The industry may be more limited than that of its celtic cousins, but its whiskeys are significantly diverse.  Nonetheless, certain signature features have evolved over the centuries which on a broad level may be considered representative.  Most people know about triple distillation.  Whether this makes a whiskey “twice as smooth” is debatable, but it certainly does have an effect.  The original strength – i.e. before reduction – is higher than a twice-distilled whisky and this will influence flavour.  Furthermore the stills are notably and consistently larger than those of the Scotch industry.  You’ve probably heard stories of distillers replacing old stills by putting dents in a new still to match those that were on the original: it’s not scientifically quantifiable but it’s accepted as fact that the size, shape, and surface area of a still impact flavour.  They affect the “conversation” of the spirit with the copper.  These are the subtle differences – more tangible is the difference in ingredients.  Irish generally uses unpeated malt in its mashbills, whereas Scotch (very generally) uses peated malt.  And whereas the single malt is the bastion of Scotch, the heart of Irish is the single pot still (previously known as the pure pot still), made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley (and sometimes a sprinkle of oats).

Peat. Lots in Ireland, little in Irish.

Single pot stills are still scarce, although this is changing as the industry prospers again.  Until recently there were only 2 brands, Redbreast and Green Spot, available…but sparsely distributed.  Two new brands – under the Midleton and Powers umbrellas – were introduced this year.  These are all produced at Irish Distillers’ Midleton Distillery, however there are rumours that Cooley, the aforementioned independent distiller, is now also producing and laying down stocks of single pot still.  Hooray!

The Single Pot Still family

I’ve got to come clean.  I’m trumpeting this news and singing the praises of Irish despite having never tasted a single pot still.  This will imminently change.  A bottle of Redbreast soon will be winging its way to me.  Irish blends can be made with a combination of any or all of single pot stills, single malts, and grain whiskeys.  The grain whiskey is usually lightly flavoured so as not to interfere with the “master” component. I’m very partial to brands such as Jameson, Tullamore Dew, and Powers, but recently, when biting down on my regular-ish Jameson, I’m left with the impression that it’s over-diluted.  I like the flavour tremendously but I’m not getting enough of it.  The more premium versions, like the Gold Reserve, which obviously have a greater proportion of single pot still (and also benefit from longer maturation), go some way to solving the problem, but I want more.  I need to take my appreciation of Irish on a journey, and there can only be one destination – single pot still.  So I’m as familiar with and as confident about this style of whiskey as it’s possible to be without actually having tasted it.

I recently told a mate of mine who works for Diageo that Bushmills wasn’t a real Irish whiskey, because it doesn’t have a single pot still component.  He was seriously unimpressed by this opinion.  Admittedly I was being unfair, and exaggerating my point (I like to stir).  The truest of Irish, the heart of its tradition, is the single pot still, but that should by no means exclude the other fine whiskeys produced on the island.  To make up for this slight I’m going to follow-up on this post with a review of Black Bush, an unfortunately named (try an unfiltered image search on google), but superbly constituted whiskey.

Until then may the dram be with you!