St Patrick’s Day is all the excuse I need to have a dig in the Irish whiskey cupboard. In honour of the patron saint of sexy accents, pathetic arguments about flags, ginger hair, green Guinness, petty gangsterism dressed up as primitive religious self-righteousness, oversized buckled hats, several of the finest minds in the history of literature, Father Ted and triple-distilled whiskey, here’s a round-up of a clutch of Irish whiskeys from yesteryear, plus a recent curio. Most of these bottles are readily available in the shops or at online auctions.
Today’s soft and gentle whiskeys are counterpointed by the noisy soundtrack of my wannabe-rebellious teens in ‘90s Belfast: Therapy?, specifically the brutal Babyteeth and Pleasure Death EPs released in 1991/2. The latter includes perhaps the most Irish song of the 1990s, Potato Junkie, which contains the immortal lines “I’m bitter, I’m twisted, James Joyce is f*cking my sister”.
Anyway, we’ll start with your everyday bog-trotting-standard: Jameson, the natural benchmark. This is the most recent St. Patrick’s Day litre bottling featuring the usual pretty but pointless symbollocks artwork.
*Full disclosure / disclaimer: None of these whiskeys were promotional samples. All opinions, particularly the offensive ones, are my own and not those of The Whisky Lounge.
Jameson (St. Patrick’s Day 2018)
Nose: Green apples, toffee sauce, Cadbury’s Fudge, vanilla custard, polished bourbony oak. It’s not complicated, but it’s clean, balanced and well-defined.
Palate: Middleweight. Gentle grainy, sweet popcorn flavours, then toffee apples, broad-spectrum vanilla and coppery potstill character. Toasted sweetcorn pops up mid-palate.
Finish: Medium-length. Sweetness and a little potstill spice. A balance of edgy, metallic and gentle, creamy grain. Moreish.
Comment: Just so easy to drink. In my opinion, Jameson’s is the only mainstream mixing whisk(e)y you can sensibly countenance drinking neat. It’s much gentler than the harsh young Johnnie Walker Red and yet lacks the cloying sickliness of Jack Daniel’s. It’s no wonder Irish whiskey is growing so fast as a category with this as the cheerleader.
Next up is an old Powers Gold Label (±2012), Ireland’s favourite whiskey. While both Jameson’s and Powers are blended from single potstill and grain whiskeys, the proportion of potstill is much higher in Powers (I’ve seen it quoted as 70% pot still from one Irish retailer). The average age of the whiskeys in Powers is generally reckoned to be around 5-7 years. It’s my default whiskey for hot toddies.
Nose: Straight off the bat it’s a lot spicier than the Jameson. Earthier and without some of the sweeter aromas. Black pepper and buttered digestive biscuits. Develops really pure brown muscovado sugar aromas, weetabix and faint hints of sponge cake, very faint apple pie.
Palate: Medium-full. Brown sugar and a wonderfully metallic spicy, peppery bite: the hallmark of potstill whiskey. Grainy, fudgy, caramel-flavoured Butterkist sits in the background.
Finish: Good length. Coppery, buttery, peppery. There’s nothing not to like.
Comment: Scotch whisky drinkers might find it a bit odd-tasting at first, but once you get the potstill bug you’ll always love this whiskey. It’s mystifying to me that Powers is so hard to get hold of in the UK, particularly as Pernod have expanded the range so much in recent years. The only possible reason is fear of a perceived threat to Jameson, which is utterly ridiculous to my mind, given their different characters.
Pound for pound, Powers is probably the best value whiskey in the world in my opinion and this bottling is from a particularly shiny part of the golden era of Irish whiskey we currently inhabit.
Back to the Jameson brand now, and a comparative tasting of Jameson Black Barrel.
Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel (bottled ± 2015)
I remember trying this at The Whisky Show when it was first released and immediately falling in love. This bottle came from an Italian online retailer a very short while ago and I’m nearly through it already.
Nose: Very clearly a much more serious whiskey than the happy-go-lucky Jameson’s and the earthy, agricultural Powers. There’s a really creamy, custardy depth here, with apple pie, flapjacks, powdered cinnamon, glazed Belgian buns, fruitbread dough, milk chocolate and melted vanilla ice cream.
Palate: Medium-full, but it’s all about the sexy, silky mouthfeel. Lovely raisiny fruitbread here: barmbrack / hot cross buns, milk chocolate. The toffee and apple flavours show the lineage of standard Jameson, but it’s just dialled up more without becoming overpowering.
Comment: I really want to try the cask strength version of this that you can apparently buy at the distillery. This is great whiskey and excellent value for money. There is literally no Scotch whisky at the same price that I’d swap a bottle of this for.
Jameson Black Barrel
I confess I much preferred the old packaging, seems classier to these old-fashioned eyes. Jameson in clear bottles just doesn’t seem right somehow.
Nose: Smells earthier, still a bit custardy but lighter: less fruity and less depth than the older bottling.
Palate: Similar weight in the mouth but noticeably less heft in flavour terms. The chocolate is much less forward and while the flavours remain sweet and appley the whole seems hotter and a lot less complex.
Finish: Sweet, and just a bit too hot. I’m guessing more grain and younger than its predecessor.
Comment: Compared to the Select Reserve there’s less difference between this and normal Jameson. Still a nice whiskey but disappointing compared to its predecessor. It’s always slightly worrying for a cynic like me when a brand / distillery suddenly starts whanging out lots of new expressions. It risks over-stretching stock and losing focus. Black Barrel should be better than this.
Jameson 1780 Reserve 12 Year Old (±1999)
A 12 year old blended Irish whiskey with a high proportion of pot still, this bottling has a decent reputation and can be found for £50-80 at auction. Which makes it all the more hilariously inexplicable that a pair of prize wingnuts managed to bid a bottle up to £680 (!!!) recently on whiskyhammer. I don’t know what’s the matter with people. Did they think it was actually from 1780?
Nose: Big and rich. Smells oily. Rich brown sugar, cooked green apples, very faint treacle. Probably a sherry cask or two in the mix. Potstill coppery notes emerge, double cream, custard – basically standard profile but much richer and heavier.
Palate: Medium-full. As luscious in the mouth as a 40% can be – oily and unctuous. Heavy rich sweetness, syrupy, chestnut honey, raisins again – definitely some sherry wood here – then big potstill spice and copper heaves itself onto the mid-palate and settles in.
Finish: Long and deep with peppery spice, custard, toffee. Once again, this is a very good whiskey for the money. The great thing about not spending too much on very good whiskey – and that’s very possible if you know what you’re about – is that there’s no guilt if you happen to charge through it pretty quickly. There’s no perceived moral obligation to make it last or keep it for special occasions, you can just crack it open and enjoy it.
Finally, a bit of an oddity. It’s a single malt for starters, and it’s the only whiskey we’re tasting that wasn’t made at Midleton. It’s also 26 years old, which is very, very unusual for Irish whiskey. The distillery isn’t disclosed on the bottle, but there’s only two possibilities for an Irish single malt of this age, and all secret whisperings suggest it’s the more northerly of the two, and most likely distilled in 1991 (2017-26=1991).
What the hell is this, you ask? Well, it’s from Aldi (yes, that Aldi!). Don’t ask why, no-one knows. Aldi’s drinks buying team are brilliant. This came out last year with change from £40 and is now around £65-80 at auction.
Aldi Irish Reserve 26 Year Old Single Malt
Nose: Lots of fresh and tinned tropical fruit. Canteloupe, watermelon, fresh banana, kiwi, mango, tinned fruit salad… you get the idea.
Palate: More of the same, with lots of tinned fruit syrup. Huge lychee hit mid-palate. This is pretty great, I’m kind of regretting only getting two bottles.
Finish: Very gentle, fading tropical fruity sweetness.
Comment: Fantastic stuff. The only drawback here is that it was bottled at 40%. Still a great whiskey but you wonder what might have been. If you want to know tropical deliciousness but you’re on a budget, seek this out urgently. BTW, I’ve been warned by a friend who opened his bottle a few months ago and saved it that this one fades quite quickly if left in the bottle. So, in true Oirish fashion, I suppose you’d say that this would have to be drunk quickly. That won’t be a problem for me, but it’s worth passing on.
Well, that was fun! Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone! I’ll leave you with a stern warning about the dangers of not taking celebrating seriously enough: