On the impressive Midleton Distillery (Jameson) / by Jason Hambrey

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I recently visited the Midleton distillery in Co. Cork, Ireland – remarkable. On the site is a lot of old heritage, including the largest pot still in the world, which at one time could consume 4 tons of coal in 24 hours. It sits now, idle – beside a modern, sleek looking industrial distillery which alone produces nearly all the pure pot still whisky in Ireland (and has the only mature pure pot still stock). Midleton is home to brands Jameson, Redbreast, Green/Yellow Spot, Powers, and for now is still contract distilling for whiskies such as Paddy’s and Tullamore Dew – they also supply the grain whiskies in the bushmills blends.

Irish whisky has one of the most interesting whisky histories, starting with, as many believe, the invention of whisky. Eventually it grew to be the most popular spirit in the world amidst some severe ups and downs. In the 19th century, Dublin was the distilling powerhouse of the world, home to the “big 4” – Powers, John Jameson, George Roe, and William Jameson – but were hit by the Irish and English trade war, prohibition/temperance movements (in the US, particularly – one of their main markets) and bans on distilling grain during the wars.

To survive, distillers banded together – first the distilleries of William Jameson and George Roe (at the time perhaps the largest distillery in the world) along with the Jones road distilling company in 1891. Eventually even this coalition, with a whopping production capacity, didn’t survive. Distilleries continued to collapse until the 1960s, when the remaining distillers banded together: Cork distillers with their Paddy brand, Powers, and John Jameson. This turned into what is now the new Midleton distillery – to which all the brandsmigrated in 1975. In Midleton, it had easier access to grain (being further from Guinness and in an agricultural areas. At that time, in all of Ireland, there were only 2 distilleries left standing – Midleton in the south and Bushmills in the North. At the time, they were owned by the same company.

Today, as far as I can tell from my (somewhat brief) internet research, Ireland is number 5 in the world in whisky production, behind Scotland, USA, Canada, and Japan. Irish whiskey is the fastest growing segment of spirits, and has been each of the last 10 years. The other remarkable feat is that most of all of Irish whiskey is the Jameson brand (some sources say around 90%). The Midleton distillery has about 1.5 million barrels maturing (a bit bigger than Crown Royal, and a bit smaller than Hiram Walker, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniel’s).

They have some really interesting whiskies, particularly in their method and madness range - I tasted a chestnut cask finish! A few unique observations about the distillery:

  • they typically use their casks 3 fills only, before shipping them to become casks for other products, like Havana Club rum.
  • If you see casks in the warehouse, you’ll see neatly stamped original barrel markings – Jim Beam, Jack Daniel’s, etc. – which is remarkable since they export barrels in whole rather than breaking them down, as typical.
  • They try to import their sherry casks in the winter so it is cooler and there is a lower chance of infection.

I was able to taste a few barrel samples in a blending class. Pure pot still is the best style they make, clearly – but despite its spicy and oily might, it is delicate and can't easily be thrown around in a big cask (it comes off the still at 84%). They produce grain whisky from corn imported from France – after 4 years in a second fill bourbon barrel, it is light, piney, citrusy and spicy (I expect the first fill might have been pot still) but still creamy and sweet. The finish is quite spicy. Very reminiscent of Jameson, and most of the rough character of Jameson comes from here. Compared to corn whiskies from Canada I’ve tasted out of ex-bourbon barrels, it’s broadly similar with the pine and citrus notes, but this stuff is sweeter and less fruity or grainy, maybe a touch spicier.

They produce four styles of pure pot still – triple pot distilled whiskey made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley – a light, two medium, and a heavy body style. In a sherry cask after 8 years, a sample I tasted of the pure pot still was swamped by sherry – both the wine and the French oak. The pure pot still is delicate – tasting the 8 year sample made me impressed even more with how well they were able to get Redbreast Lustau to work in balancing so well the sherry and French oak with the pot still. Perhaps my sample was a lighter pot still style, but I was surprised at how much the cask dominated (I would say 2/3 cask, 1/3 spirit). The star of the show is the ex-bourbon pot still style (think Green Spot). It is rich, creamy, and spicy – with the bourbon enhancing the creaminess of the pot still while adding complementary herbaceousness and dried fruit. It is brilliant stuff – it’s no wonder they import so many bourbon casks compared to sherry casks.

I hadn’t tasted Distiller’s Safe, Blender’s Dog, or Cooper’s Croze either – which I was lead through at the distillery. They are good whiskies that won’t blow you away, but I’m impressed with what the brand decided to do – a whisky focused on distillate (Distiller’s Safe), a whisky focused on wood (Cooper’s Croze), and a whisky focused on blending (Blender’s Dog). It’s a nice way to explore the distillate at Midleton.

Also, to toot my Canadian horn – the more I learn of other distillate styles, the more I’m impressed with Canadian product as being so diverse in natural flavour: diverse stills (column, pot, hybrid), grain (corn, wheat, barley, triticale, rye – and all malted and/or unmalted), casks (refill, bourbon, sherry, port, rum, cognac, new and more), and different yeasts and fermentation regimes different yeast strains and fermentation regimes. And some big distilleries. Too bad Canada hasn’t talked about itself enough so people actually know what’s out here. And too bad a number of micro-distillers in Canada still only want to replicate Scotch rather than speak with a more Canadian voice….