JAMESON CASKMATES IRISH WHISKEY LCBO 429258, $39.95
“Irish whiskey is poised to make a strong comeback, with dynamic new brands launching off the shoulders of legendary whiskeys like Jameson and Bushmills.” Sean
John Jameson started distilling whiskey in Dublin in 1780 and the brand is certainly now the best known, accounting for 70 percent of Irish whiskey sales worldwide, though Powers and Paddy are more popular in Ireland. Here in Canada, this is very probably the first Irish whiskey anyone tries, a good benchmark to start our tasting.
A triple-distilled blend of pot-still and grain whiskeys, aged a minimum of four years, Jameson has been known to fox people in a blind tasting, sometimes mistaken for a brandy. The nose is certainly more full of fruit than grain. Sean found plum, orange, pear and sweet vanilla, joined by toasted nuts and cereal when he tasted it; Shane got honey and spicy cloves. “There’s tons of fruit,” said Charlene, “orange rind and toasted marshmallow. I always think it tastes like a Ricola cough drop — round but not smooth.”
Caskmates is Jameson that has been finished in whiskey casks previously seasoned with stout from Cork’s Franciscan Wells Brewery, a good example of the modern taste for novelty in the Irish whiskey industry. That sort of treatment often lends a creaminess to the spirit, but not this time. Charlene and Sean both experienced a sort of astringent grip—more a feeling than a flavour—and we all found the nose herbal, like mint or even pine. The Jameson fruit was still there, although Shane also discovered hints of dark chocolate and tropical fruit but less of the spice he enjoyed in the Jameson.
“At the heart of every Irish whiskey, no matter what else the spirit has been through, you taste the grain.” James
What does that virgin wood impart to the Legacy? Plenty of oaky spice, to be sure, plus vanilla, coconut, caramel, butterscotch… “And plum blossom,” said Sean, though that was the only fruitiness we found. And it’s elegantly smooth, despite its strength at 46% alcohol by volume (ABV); any hint of a rough edge has long since disappeared. In the mouth, its something of a shapeshifter, starting out silky and light then growing creamier, while oak tannins loom up, fade away and then return for the long finish.
I remember the Very Rare from my visit to Midleton’s mighty distillery, just outside Cork. There were only 50 casks of it and it was bottled in individually numbered bottles whenever Barry Crockett deemed it to be “ready,” sometime between nine and 12 years old. It reminded me of Cognac at the time, with a hint of caramel corn and almond paste on the finish. This time the aromatics seemed more like bourbon, we all agreed, “with a fudgey feel,” added Shane. The lightbodied grain whiskeys in the blend contribute to the clean texture while the potstill spirits add firmness and backbone. Don’t look for flirty fruit or floral notes; this whiskey almost demands to be taken seriously.
“All the whiskey drinkers I know love Writers’ Tears—or maybe I just keep getting gifted bottles because we’re all melancholy journalists!” Charlene
Single-pot-still whiskey is a particularly Irish idea, made by distilling a mixture of malted and unmalted barley. Said to have come about because the British imposed extra taxes on malted barley in Ireland, it gives a slightly oily texture and a telltale linseed taste. It’s there in Writers’ Tears, part of an intensely aromatic nose which Charlene found floral and heathery but which reminded Sean of caramel and coconut. We all noted a citrus note, like Meyer lemon. “It’s so round, so sweet, so smooth,” pointed out Shane, “it’s more like a Canadian whisky than a spicy Irish—which may be why it’s so popular here!”
The Bushmills Single Malt was definitely the odd man out in our tasting. There’s no peatiness, of course, because the barley is malted with heat but no smoke, but there’s plenty of vanilla and a touch of bittersweet astringency from the 10 years in oak. “I get a nice mouth-watering acidity,” said Charlene, “like biting into a yellow apple.” “A caramel apple,” added Sean. “The flavours are so intense, with that sweet malt everywhere.” But the body is lighter than many single-malt Scotches because the spirit is distilled three times, not twice.
“Redbreast is like your favourite uncle—the one who always slips you five pounds. I’m happy to see it every time!” Shane
“Yes,” declared Shane, “46% is the sweet spot for Irish pot-still whiskey, especially when you’re using it in a cocktail. Dilution doesn’t diminish it so quickly. I make a Blackthorn (whiskey and sloe gin) with the Powers.” “There’s also a grapey Cognac note that makes me think it would be great in a Sidecar,” suggested Charlene. “Or an Old Fashioned,” said Shane, “made with orange bitters.” The ageing is finished in oloroso sherry barrels, which may account for a ripe blackberry or blackcurrant note in its aftertaste.
Oh, the fabulous length of the Redbreast 21! And the complexity! The list of illusory aromas was the longest yet, including molasses, demerara sugar, figs, nutmeg, licorice, rum dunder… “When Irish whiskeys get old,” said Shane, “they go down the Christmas cake route. Redbreast 12 Year Old has a candy note; this is what it becomes with nine more years.” A few drops of water opened up the Redbreast in a remarkable way, releasing a whole new range of earthy, dried-fruit impressions. Of all the whiskeys we tasted, this is the one I’d most like to meet for a nightcap, before I turn in.