Bowing out

The new Jameson Bow Street 18-Year-Old sits atop Krass Clement’s Dublin.

I loved Dublin. It’s the city of my birth, where my wife and I fell in love, and where we became parents. I spent four great years there from 1999-2003 and it broke my heart to leave. But I had to face the fact that I am a culchie. Like the salmon swimming back upstream to spawn, once we had a child, we wanted to get home. If I had stayed I could have had a better stab at a career, given that 90% of the national media is based there, but we took our chances and headed south.

In the first few years after the move we went back to Dublin five or six times a year. Now we rarely go back, and when we do we see more and more decay, more addiction, more poverty, more problems. You can say it’s because life in the country has made me soft, that I’m just a nervous bogger, or you can look at the bodies in doorways, the child beggars, the aggressive junkies, the alleys you walk past and see, out of the corner of your eye, a heroin addict with his trousers down, injecting into his inner thigh. Watching the Dublin edition of The Layover last week reminded me of all that I loved about Dublin, but what I see when I go back is a world away from Bourdain’s frenetic, joyous journey through the city and more like Johnny’s nocturnal odyssey through London in Mike Leigh’s Naked. This ailing city was never somewhere I could call home.

My house now overlooks Midleton distillery. It’s the first thing I see when I get up in the morning, and the vapours from the chimney are a good indication of how the weather is outside. There are warehouses around the distillery itself, and more warehousing out past my house in the woods of Dungourney, not far from where the whiskey river rises. At least once a day, either on the way to or from work, I will meet a grain truck, a lorry loaded with casks, or a spirit tanker on the roads, because Midleton distillery is a whiskey super producer. Just as well, as the demand for what they make is rocketing. I’ve no doubt that Midleton, Bushmills, Cooley, West Cork and Dingle could probably sell every single drop in their warehouses right now, but that isn’t going to happen as this is a long game. Besides, it’s Jameson that the world is screaming for, and Midleton is the Klondike of this liquid gold rush. John Teeling’s recent warnings of a whiskey shortage made for a great headline, but when someone who is making and selling whiskey to third parties is telling you that there is a looming shortage – thus encouraging greater demand and prices – you need to engage the critical faculties a little bit more. I’ve been hearing various reports about dwindling mature stocks for years, but it would appear that if you have a good working relationship with one of the big three, then you are good. I digress. 

It irks me that Jameson labels still bear the address of Bow Street, a location that may be home to their biggest tourist attraction, and is a very central to the history of the brand and Irish whiskey itself. But as I pointed out previously, Bow Street is a phantom limb – it has no real bearing on the production of Jameson today. Or, at least, that’s how it was.

The massive refurb of Bow Street by the team behind the Guinness Storehouse cost 11m and saw Bow Street take tours to the next level. However, one of the most interesting additions to the venue was an actual functioning warehouse space – the first in Dublin in decades. And so it was that IDL relaunched their 18-year-old premium blend as Jameson Bow Street 18-year-old – the first Jameson in decades that had the right to put Bow Street on the labels. And if this wasn’t enough, they have lodged plans for new labels for standard Jameson that remove Bow Street from the address.

As a proud Midletonian, this is great news. The question now is – will this matter to America? That is, after all, where it is all happening for Irish whiskey, with those insane growth figures being largely centred on the US and largely centred on Jameson sales therein. So how discerning those drinkers are remains to be seen – Jameson has triumphed as the easy-drinking, beer-and-a-short everyman. Could a slight change to labels get people wondering that is going on? Or is it likely that the loss of the Bow Street address on the labels will make little difference, especially given that they will have Midleton distillery’s address on there? But the change on the standard Jameson labels certainly amplifies the Bow Street address on the 18 year old – it highlights that this is the first whiskey in decades to spend any time in Dublin at all (Teelings et al age their whiskey elsewhere).

Midleton distillery, as seen from my gaf.

So the Bow Street address is back, not just as a nod to history but as a live maturation site. As for the whiskey itself, here is a breakdown:

Jameson Irish whiskey, which is produced by Irish Distillers in Midleton Distillery, has today announced the launch of Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Cask Strength; the first cask strength Jameson to be available globally, which finishes its maturation in Dublin’s only live Maturation House in the Jameson Distillery Bow Street. A reinterpretation of the revered Jameson 18 Years, the new expression celebrates Jameson’s Dublin heritage by returning part of the production process to the brand’s original home in Smithfield for the first time since 1975.

Distilled and matured at the Midleton Distillery, Co. Cork, Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Cask Strength is the new head of the Jameson family. After spending 18 years in a collection of bourbon and sherry casks, the blend of pot still and grain Irish whiskeys has been married together and re-casked in first-fill ex-bourbon American oak barrels for a final six to 12 months in the Maturation House at the Jameson Distillery Bow Street.

‘Marrying’ is a traditional method of re-casking batches of vatted whiskey and re-warehousing it to ensure infusion before bottling. The first batch is presented at 55.3% ABV without the use of chill filtration and will be available in 20 markets from July 2018 at the RRP of €240.

Billy Leighton, Master Blender at Midleton Distillery, commented: “I’ve long had the unique luxury of being able to taste Jameson straight from the barrel at cask strength. With this first ever global launch of a cask strength Jameson, I’m thrilled that Irish whiskey fans around the world can now experience the full intensity of our whiskey or add a few drops of water to enjoy it at their own preferred strength.

“As a tribute to John Jameson’s distilling legacy in Smithfield, we’ve introduced some methods that would have been employed in days past. The final maturation period in Bow Street is our nod to the traditional “marrying” method. We’ve put our own Jameson stamp on it by using first-fill bourbon barrels, whereas the traditional approach would be to use casks multiple times. I like to think of the whiskey getting engaged in Midleton and then “married” in Dublin!”

Clearly, no one is going to think that the period spent in Dublin has anything to do with how it tastes. I have a shit Dub accent, but that’s because I spent four years living there and wanted desperately to fit in, before realising I preferred agricultural shows to teenage riots, wide open spaces to packed Luases, and the rolling hills of Midleton to the Liffey at low tide. Besides, it is unlikely that anyone would want to detect notes of Dublin city centre – packed DART on a rainy day, methdone on the top deck of the 29A, spicebags at dawn, sticky paving on Grafton Street in summer, and an urban sprawl that needs to appoint Ra’s Al Gul as Lord Mayor. When I die, Dublin will be written on my heart, but every time I go back I am more and more convinced that I did the right thing by leaving. My time spent there, much like the time the Bow Street 18 spent in the city, was an enjoyable interlude, but we are both from Cork, and better for it.

The big news item in the press release was not that this was the first cask-strength Jameson, nor was it the Bow Street maturation period, but rather the price. Jameson 18 used to be about €130, although when they cleared it out in Tesco a year or two ago before the relaunch, it went for €85. Salutations to anyone who got it then.

Obviously, this being cask strength makes it worth more – let’s say €180. The remaining €60 is presumably for those who like the Dublin finish, and also the premium packaging. The presentation is a lot more like its updated cousin, Midleton Very Rare, as these blurry photos show – basically, there is a lot more wood and copper than the old 18:

But wait – there’s more:

Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Cask Strength is presented in a premium bottle design that truly reflects the quality and rarity of the liquid within. The bottle features 18 facets, one for each year of maturation, and the wooden presentation box celebrates the traditional pot stills used during the production process. In addition, a unique copper coin located underneath Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Cask Strength bottles provides Jameson fans with access to an exclusive online portal where they can delve deeper into the story of the whiskey which bears the Bow Street name.

This, I presume, is aimed at the travel retail and tourist market. Nobody else really gives a fuck about portals, unless they lead to another realm populated with Lovecraftian abominations and free booze. It reminds me of Irish Distillers’ tourism project, The Cork Whiskey Way. It is/was a series of classic Cork pubs – and (ugh) SoHo – with four premium Midleton whiskeys in each of them, and the pubs were linked by QR codes. I can’t even remember how it was meant to work (here is an explanation), and doubt very much that it did, but this was four years ago when whiskey didn’t just sell itself and elaborate gimmicks were sometimes required. As an aside, if you want to do a trip around Cork that is whiskey based, Eric Ryan – a distiller, whiskey collector and history buff – does a brilliant whiskey walk around the important sites of Cork distilling. I did it last year and it is a great way to spend an afternoon, with great whiskeys, good food, interesting chat and a lot of craic.

Back to the Bow Street 18, and on to some typically incoherent tasting notes.

On the nose – expecting serious blowback from the strength, but this really is rather mellow. A lot of toasted pine nuts, vanilla, maybe a little smokey bacon lurking in there somewhere. I need to work on the nose with this one – nothing jumps out at me here, all very nuanced, very mellow. Not sure I enjoy that, as I’m really more of a sturm und drang kind of guy. Furniture polish, and, oh fuck it, the inside of a grand piano. Please, kill me now.

On the palate – it’s clobberin’ time. So bizarre having any Jameson at cask strength – if only Midleton Very Rare came in a CS edition. But in the meantime, this will do – smooth, with a wallop. Banana, those toffee notes I always look for, loads of vanilla, that slight acetone element carried over from the furniture polish detected on the nose. I like this. The finish is long and lingering, but that is the least you would expect from an 18 year old cask-strength whiskey. I should probably add some water, but life is short so you need to take large bites out of it. I’ll dilute when I’m dead.

It comes down to this – is the Jameson Bow Street cask-strength whiskey worth €240? Yes and no. For whiskey nerds, I would tend towards a no. You could buy a Redbreast 21 and a Redbreast 12 for that money, or three Redbreast CSs, or a load of John’s Lanes, or any number of absolutely beautiful, diverse whiskeys from Midleton, because this isn’t just one distillery, it is really four distilleries that happen to be placed on one site. A Scottish friend was staying at my house some time back and when I pointed out the distillery to him, he said it was a pity it was so unsightly. I felt quite insulted. It’s as simple as this – without Midleton, Irish whiskey would be fucked. They consolidated the old firms and created a glistening machine that creates multiple expressions and helped keep a category alive. I bristled slightly when I heard him tell me that the distillery isn’t pretty enough – it was, for a long time, Irish whiskey’s last hope, a distilling Noah’s Ark, keeping the category going through those cruel years in the Seventies and Eighties when nobody, and I mean nobody, wanted anything to do with Irish whiskey. Midleton distillery may not have the aesthetics of a UNESCO world heritage site, but it is a working distillery, one that has been thumping out the whiskey for four decades and shows no sign of slowing.

The new Bow Street 18 has a little bit of added value in packaging and narrative, and would make an ideal gift for the returning tourist, eager to bring a little piece of Dublin back home with them. But this isn’t one for the hardcore whiskey fan, or the guy who earns sod-all PA. If this is the jumping off point for premiumisation, so be it – the oligarchs are welcome to whatever else Midleton can rattle out. For my money MVR is a better value dram, despite its uninspiring 40% bottling strength, while the Dair Ghaelach, at €260, continues to be vastly superior to both MVR and BS18.  

Finally, I hate to be the ignoramus who keeps saying a drink is ‘just a blend’, but that is, in the end, what this is. However, perhaps it is just too subtle for a culchie like me, that if I was a fey flaneur wracked with galloping consumption and urbane ennui I might be able to dig its subtlety, but for me there are many, many other superior, better value whiskeys from Midleton that the world needs to drink before they start throwing down €240 on a history lesson.

On that note, I’d like to thank my neighbours in Irish Distillers Limited for giving me this bottle for free. Awwwwwwwkward.

One response to “Bowing out”

  1. Love this article! It made me laugh and the comparisons you use are spot on. So glad to hear you mention again that MVR is a very nice whiskey, but at 40% ABV it is lacking what the true, experienced whiskey drinkers are craving. Dair Ghaelach is probably worth close to asking, it’s at cask strength and is SINGLE POT STILL!! Grain (maize) ages differently to barley and is more linear in its taste profile, maybe a contributing factor to why Jameson is so popular; it is nice, inoffensive but less challenging. It is the girlfriend you will date but never marry.

    Dair Ghaelach or Redbreast 21 on the other hand are the ones that you will never leave out of your sight. My relationship with them has evolved and keeps evolving. They will always have a special place in my heart and in my whiskey cabinet.

    I just can’t pony up that extra amount for BS Cask Strength when I know there is a Single Pot Still love affair waiting to happen on some liquor store shelf down the street.

    I get it that Bow Street 18 Cask Strength is a genuinely nice whiskey, but I really do appreciate your honesty here.

    Awkward or not, I appreciate your honesty.

    John. (@spirit_magic)

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