A voyage to Midleton Distillery in Cork County, Ireland
Distilling Tradition: A Visit to the Home of Jameson Irish Whiskey
Irish whiskey is one tradition that many beyond the Emerald Isle scarcely know, despite the island’s profound role in molding the drink into the revered male favorite it has become. But this wasn’t always the case. At the height of its glory, the product of Ireland’s distilleries was once the favored drink of the British empire, and its most notable ambassador, Jameson, was the world’s favorite whiskey. What happened next reads like a lost Dumas manuscript, complete with revolution, religion and economic turmoil all ending in the drink’s unjust imprisonment. The good news for drinkers is that after patiently biding its time for well over a century, the era of Irish whiskey’s redemption is finally arriving, and it’s easy to spot if you know where to look.
The Midleton Distillery has remained a central figure throughout the industry’s triumphs and disasters, stubbornly persisting when others failed. If you’ve ever tasted Jameson, or Midleton’s other notable products, including Redbreast, Powers or Paddy, you’ve felt its proprietary warming touch from a far. Recently, we were graciously invited to explore the iconic distillery for a day on the cusp of a rare changing of the guard. A brand new distillery — and the future of Midleton’s production, built right next to the existing one — was scheduled to open in just a few months. At the same time, whiskey icon and Midleton’s Master distiller of 47 years, Barry Crockett, was working his final day before retirement. The very same day we were scheduled to visit.
Clearly, our timing couldn’t have been better. The luck of the Irish was with us, and we hadn’t even boarded the plane at JFK.
The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Irish Whiskey
The word whiskey actually arose from the Anglicization of a Gaelic phrase, “uisce beatha”, meaning “lively water” or “water of life”. History shows the art of distillation reached the island no later than the 15th century, with the first written record of the brew appearing in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, a 17th-century translation of a lost Irish chronicle that covered events on the island from pre-history to 1408 A.D. The whiskey footnote, dated to 1405, came 90 years before the first scrawled mention of the spirit popped up in the kilted land to the north — in the form of a 500-bottle order to a priest, no less. The Irish record was certainly more macabre: it was the death of a local chieftain from too much whiskey at Christmas that inspired some prescient Irish citizen to take a note for ages. Perhaps the medieval Scots just partied harder. Or smarter.
STAY: CASTLEMARTYR RESORT
Castlemartyr combines a grand 17th century country manor, an 800-year-old castle, a Ron Kirby golf course and ultra-modern guest accommodations into one incredible five star resort. Make sure to give yourself time to walk the pristine manicured gardens and castle ruins. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, there’s always whiskey and Monopoly in the living room lounge. Ten bucks says this place appears in a future Bond flick. castlemartyrresort.ie
EAT: CORK ENGLISH MARKET
Spend the morning perusing Cork’s quaint cobblestone streets whiling ignoring the chain stores every three feet and then head to the English Market. Established in 1788, it’s one of the oldest of its kind, and today stands as a foodie paradise, selling groceries as well as quick-serve meals to everyone with an appetite. Gawk at the seafood and sample local specialties like hot buttered eggs, drisheen (sheep intestine blood sausage), corned beef and Irish stew. Make sure to curtsy at the photo of Queen gussied up in light green on your way out. theenglishmarket.com
SEE: COBH HARBOR & ST. COLMAN’S CATHEDRAL
The Irish know Cobh as a cruise jumping-off point today, but it’s the history of this old port town you should stay focused on. Cobh was the final port of call for the RMS Titanic before she set out across the Atlantic and served as the last taste of home for 2.5 million of the six million Irish who emigrated to the U.S. from 1848 to 1950. There’s even the Irish Alcatraz, Spike Island, nestled in the middle of the harbor. When you’ve had your fill of sea gazing, head up the hill and peek inside the impressive St. Colman’s Cathedral, completed in 1915, and repent for all those whiskey tastings you “accidentally” swallowed. visitcobh.com
Jameson isn’t Ireland’s oldest whiskey brand, but it’s still been around nearly as long as the United States. Despite the brand’s role as global ambassador for Irish whiskey and a source of pride for Ireland’s citizens today, the company’s founder, John Jameson, was actually Scottish. He established the company in 1780 at the Bow Street Distillery in Dublin, which still stands as a tourist attraction. Over 30,000 gallons were produced from the distillery annually in these early years, and by the end of the 1700s, Jameson was the second largest producer in Ireland, making roughly a million gallons annually. Soon, Irish Whiskey trailed only rum in global popularity — and by 1805, Jameson was the top whiskey in the world.
While Irish whiskey enjoyed ups and downs locally due to the Irish temperance movement, a phylloxera infestation in France starting in the 1860s devastated grape production and destroyed wine and brandy supplies in the process, creating a new runway for Ireland’s barley-dependent spirit to gain popularity. At the turn of the 20th century, Irish whiskey was the leading spirit in all of Great Britain and was gaining momentum abroad, particularly in the U.S., thanks to the help of London exporters, sustaining over 28 distilleries. But the spirit’s favor in the eyes of the Empire changed with Ireland’s official declaration of independence in 1919. Flexing its economic muscles, England closed its markets to Irish exports. At almost exactly the same time, the Eighteenth Amendment to The Constitution was passed stateside, setting the wheels of prohibition into motion. Two huge markets were snuffed out in an instant. The Irish Whiskey industry was crippled.
By the 1960s, only four distillers remained on the island. In an attempt to salvage the industry, John Powers & Son, John Jameson & Son and the Cork Distillery company merged to form the Irish Distillers Group in 1966. Bushmills eventually joined in 1972 (but was later sold in 2005), giving the new group total control over the category. To cut costs, the collective’s distilleries in Cork and Dublin were closed and consolidated into a new facility in 1975, built alongside the original Cork Distiller in Midleton. This move, combined with a renewed global interest in whiskey, proved to be a lifesaver. Now, roughly a century after the business’s darkest days, history seems to be repeating itself. According to sources like the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, Irish whiskey is today the fastest growing spirit category in the American market, with sales increasing by a whopping 400% since 2002 and 22.5% in the past year alone.
A Unique Recipe
The roots of Irish whiskey wind centuries back in to the culture of Ireland, but the passage of the Irish Whiskey Act of 1980 serves as a modern day guide for defining the drink. Under the law, to qualify as “Irish whiskey”, the spirit must be distilled and aged in Ireland for at least three years in wooden casks, be no higher than 94.8% ABV and be made from both malted and un-malted barley. That last stipulation in the modern day incarnation owes its existence to another law passed three centuries earlier. The English Malt Tax of 1725 levied heavy fines on malted barley, a key ingredient in whiskey; Irish distillers simply responded by substituting a portion of un-malted barley into their process.
In traditional terms, making Irish whiskey involves a five-step process of malting, mashing, distillation, maturation and blending. During the first step, malting, barley is steeped in water for a period of time. The water is changed several times throughout the process, and the last batch used to soak the barley is then heated to kick off the germination process. Next, the barley is removed from the water and allowed to germinate for a period until the sprouting grains begin to release sugars. At this point, the germination process is stopped by drying the newly “malted” barley in a closed kiln. This drying process is one of the primary differences between the whiskey of Ireland and the whisky of Scotland, since the latter is usually dried in the direct presence of peat smoke, which in turn imparts a characteristic smoky flavor to the whisky.
Next comes mashing. The malted barley is mixed with un-malted barley and passed through a mill for grinding. The resulting product, dubbed “grist”, is then mixed with water in a mash tun and slowly turned in order to allow the barley’s natural sugars to dissolve into the water. This water, known as “wort” is then drained off, pumped into separate vessels and fortified with yeast to kick off the fermentation process. After this process, which converts the sugars to alcohol, the brownish liquid is finally pumped into copper pot stills for distillation. It’s not always the case, but most Irish whiskeys, including Jameson, are triple distilled for a purer and lighter taste compared to most Scotch whiskies — which are only distilled twice.
Post-distillation, law requires that the resulting clear liquid be aged for three years in wood casks (typically American white oak previously used to store bourbon, or sometimes sherry), but most are aged well beyond that benchmark. The last stage before bottling involves vatting or “marrying” the various casks of whiskey to create a consistent flavor in line with a particular brand’s taste profile. Compared to Scotch whisky, which can be vatted for over a year in some cases, this process is far quicker with many popular Irish Whiskey brands. In this way, the contrast in whiskey making traditions is clear: Scots emphasize blending, the Irish, distilling.
Today, most Irish whiskeys are blends of both pot stilled and column stilled distillates. Some brands advertised as “pure pot still” or “single pot still”, such as Midleton’s widely renowned RedBreast or the more boutique Green Spot, are rare exceptions, following the exact process described above.
The Lost Art of Coopering
Jet lag and several rounds of whiskey tastings don’t combine to form captain cameraman. That nugget of wisdom was revealed to us the morning after our day at the distillery. Still, in the interest of learning, we decided to share this iPhone video of Midleton master cooper Ger Buckley showing off how a whiskey barrel stave is traditionally made. Watch, learn and please don’t judge us.
Coopering — or barrel building and repair — was once a critical skill set for the whiskey industry. At Irish whiskey’s peak in the 1800s, over 11,000 coopers were employed to help meet booming demand. Today, Midleton is home to two of the remaining four Master Coopers in Ireland. Ger Buckley is a fifth generation cooper who learned from his father, and graciously agreed to talk us through the important role barrels play in giving unique character to each of Midleton’s Whiskeys. The tools so familiar to his hands would make antique dealers swallow their spoons along with the Vichyssosie. Most have been handed down through generations and perfected for the intricacies of White Oak casks, while others mirror the same designs used by ancient civilizations, developed hundreds of year’s earlier.
The vast majority of barrels used for the maturation of Jameson — and the Irish whiskey industry at large — are made from American white oak. Though casks have been made from a variety of woods throughout history, it was the Romans who discovered white oak’s prowess at storing wine without tainting it. In the whiskey industry, though, this wood is valued just as much for what it imparts versus what it doesn’t. 100% of a whiskey’s color and up to 50% of its taste is imparted by the wood, which materializes on the tongue in the form of vanilla and caramel flavors. American Oak is preferred over other oaks such a French (used often in white wines) because of its denser, harder characteristics, which makes barrels less prone the leakage. Lactone’s — or flavor-imparting molecules within the wood — also give a unique taste preferred in whiskey manufacturing. Given the large hand American white oak plays in the development of their spirits, Midleton goes to elaborate lengths to ensure access to the best possible barrel stock. The vast majority of their barrels are charred American White oak purchased from American distillers after they’ve done a tour of duty aging bourbon.
While most distillery barrels are broken down to their rings and quarter-cut oak staves for shipping overseas and then rebuilt at random on arrival, Midleton ships casks fully assembled. It’s a terribly inefficient use of transport space, but by eliminating the reassembly process, Midleton ensures the spirit stored in each barrel is exposed to a collection of staves that have all undergone the same aging experience. It’s just one of the ways purity and smoothness are guaranteed in the distillery’s lengthy production process.
A Drink with the Master
Barry Crockett began working in the Irish Whiskey business in 1965 at the age of 17, which likely came as a surprise to no one given he was born on the Midleton grounds and his father was the long-time Master Distiller. Sixteen years later in 1981, he succeed his father as Mildeton’s Master Distiller; he’s been responsible for the Irish Distillers Group’s entire range of whiskeys for the last 32 years. During his tenure, Barry has watched the industry’s reemergence on the global stage — and has played a major role in returning it to prominence. He was there for the creation of the Irish Distillers group and for the commissioning of the group’s new collective in 1975, where he worked to help shepherd the reintroduction of single pot still Irish whiskey style back into the market. In short, he ensured the traditional methods that originally defined the category could be enjoyed by generations of whiskey drinkers to come. In honor of his impact, a Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy expression was added to the distillery’s line of spirits in 2011, placing Crockett in rare company. Not since John Jameson had the Irish Distillers Group produced a spirit named after an individual distiller.
Before entering the tasting stage of our visit, we were informed that Barry had graciously agreed to walk us through some of his favorite creations on his final day as Master Distiller of Midleton. What we didn’t know was that the tasting was happening in Midleton’s newly minted Irish whiskey academy, housed in what was once the distiller’s cottage — the place where Barry was born. The academy was designed as a center for education on how each of Midleton’s distinguished brands are produced, so it seemed only appropriate that our teacher should be the guiding hand behind the wall of spirits proudly displayed in the academy’s entrance.
Crockett’s in rare company. Not since John Jameson had the Irish Distillers Group produced a spirit named after an individual distiller.
Inside the academy’s pristine bar and sitting area, Barry talked us through a flight of five whiskeys, including Jameson, Jameson Black Barrel, Jameson Gold, Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength and Midleton Very Rare. Beginning with original Jameson as a foundation, we tasted and listened as he described the flavors contained in each expression, searching for common taste experiences our own set of senses could relate to. Anyone who has participated in a formalized tasting should relate to the surprise and frustration involved. Your palette detects clues it ordinarily misses, but still falls miserably short of teasing out all of the subtleties noticed by experts.
We tippled away, mulling over the familial resemblances and differences found between all of the spirits we tried — even across brands, like Jameson, Redbreast and Midleton. Each had a strong identity, some rivaling the finest single malts and bourbons we’d had the fortune to try. But something still held them together. At the time, we lacked the words to describe it that would make sense to the well rested and sober members among our group. Looking back on it later, though, the answer was clear. It was the life’s work of two generations of Crocketts that had been sitting there at the tip of our tongue.
Jameson: The world’s most popular Irish whiskey is a blend that boasts orange, toffee and notes of honey through the nose. Light and thin mouthfeel. The citrus carries through on initial taste, and then mellows to vanilla and fudge before dissipating quickly to spice and heat. $26
Jameson Gold Reserve: This spirit is a blend with a higher proportion of pure pot-still whiskey. You won’t find an age statement on the label (which gives the blender the flexibility to choose whiskeys that may vary in age from year to year, to obtain a consistent taste), yet it’s priced above the 12-year-old and below the 18-year-old. Its nose is pleasant but light, with hints of oak and wood layered on top of molasses and caramel. It is decidedly sweeter than the original. Butter and honey leap off the tongue, followed by crisp oak and peanut. Jameson Gold Reserve is one of our favorites in the collection and a treat for those who value complexity. $53
Jameson Black Barrel: Black Barrel is a relatively new release stateside (it’s known as Jameson Select Reserve abroad). As of now, it’s only available in a few select states like New York and New Jersey. Though it looks like the original in the glass, its nose is far fruitier, with green apples stealing the show. Vanilla and oak are faithfully present on the palate, followed by teases of sherry and lingering faint notes of char. $32
Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve: Jameson “RVR”, as it’s affectionately known by fans, is the ultimate offering in the Jameson line and one of the finest Irish whiskeys on the planet. It’s made from a blend of 20- to 23-year-old whiskeys aged in port casks. That unique aging experience creates a rich, thick nose with hints of cacao, leather and darker fruits — plums, blackberries and blackcurrant. The taste is equally enveloping, starting with lemon and malts that progress to brighter fruits like melon and pineapple. It’s the finish, though, that’ll leave many dying for the next sip: it patiently delivers the strong notes detected in the nose down to the palette over the course of up to 5 minutes, ending on satisfying dry spices. Do like The Cranberries and let this linger. $250
Powers John’s Lane Release: We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. Powers John’s Lane is one of the best bang-for-your-buck whiskeys on the market today. Hives of honey bombard the nose, along with charred wood and the tiniest hint of chocolatey darkness. The taste is smooth, teasing sweet toffee and vanilla up front followed by toasted oak, some pepper and crisp green fruit tartness on the finish. $64
Redbreast 12 Yr. Old Cask Strength: Like Powers John’s Lane, Redbreast 12 Yr. Old Cask Strength is a single pot still style whiskey. The cask strength in the name refers to its lack of dilution with water before bottling. That tweak gives it a higher alcohol content (57.7% ABV), as well as a richer, fuller taste dimension. The nose is an oily, thick jumble of marzipan, oak, burnt sugars and butterscotch. A splash of water will release further fruit notes, with banana being the most noticeable. Tasting reveals coconut and spice ahead of the numbing alcohol heat. After a moment, hints of brown sugar, caramel, sherry-soaked fruits and copper return to the picture. It’s as balanced as they come while still throwing haymakers at every opportunity, which is likely why it was named Irish Whiskey of the Year by several outlets in 2011. $70
Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy Reserve: This top-of-the-line single pot still whiskey lacks an age statement on the bottle, but it’s made of whiskeys aged anywhere between 10 and 22 years. Whiffs of fresh pear, toffee and cedar strike the nose first, with typical vanilla and oaks overtones following. Tasting supplies apples, apricots and a twinge of cinnamon before escalating to spice and a strong, oaky close. This is Irish whiskey in all its black tie, dandied glory. It’s elegant and refined, but still confident enough to know exactly what the crowd’s eyes are focused on. $230
It was only appropriate that our long afternoon ended inside the central corridor of one of Midleton’s 11 aging warehouses, each built to hold roughly 30,000 barrels apiece. We had learned all we could in a few hours’ time about the towers of casks surrounding us, the distillates maturing within them and the man leading the team responsible for filling them. We were too jet lagged to bother our guide again on the specifics of what was stashed where. It was more fun to imagine that some barrels were rolled into their space on the ground floor just a few years after the “new” distillery opened in 1975, while others arrived just the previous week, as one of the last batches made under the Crockett family’s oversight in a distillery that would soon be replaced. The staggering contents of what would one day become Jameson, Powers, Paddy, Redbreast, Midleton, Green Spot or Yellow Spot were the concrete evidence behind the trade mag headlines announcing Irish whiskey’s vindication. Just as much, they were the legacies of lifelong craftsmen like Barry Crockett and Ger Buckley.
Dumas famously ended the Count of Monte Cristo by saying that all human wisdom could be summed up in two words: “wait and hope”. With its history in mind, it seems the Irish whiskey industry feels the same way. Moving forward, understanding how Midleton and its various whiskeys will transition into the new distillery under the guidance of its new master distiller, Brian Nation, will require still more “wait”. As for that second bit, though, just order a dram of any of Midleton’s Irish Whiskys, made using the exact same recipes for decades, or in Jameson’s case centuries, and you’ll understand that the spirit’s days of hoping are over.