Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Boston Cocktail Summit: Jameson Black Barrel

In the U.S., Irish Whiskey had great growth from 2010 to 2011, a boost of 23.9%, though it is still a small category at approximately 1.76 million cases. The most popular choice in the U.S. as well as its native Ireland, is Jameson Irish Whiskey. It is ubiquitous in airport duty free shops and Russia has become the second top consumer, jumping from seventh place in the span of a single year. Jameson has just invested in a new distillery to double their capacity and they already possess the largest distillers in the world, which were hand crafted.

Jameson Irish Whiskey held a seminar where they introduced the Jameson Black Barrel, as well as discussed the art of cooperage. I find the art of cooperage in the wine and spirits industry, the creation and maintenance of barrels, to be fascinating. There is still much mystery in the use of barrels, such as how two seemingly identical barrels, containing the same alcohol under the same conditions, can produce different tasting alcohols. It is also an art which retains its historical roots, with some of tools and methods remaining relatively unchanged for thousands of years.  

Master Cooper Ger Buckley, pictured above, is one of four coopers at Jameson. He is the fifth generation of cooper in his family and has been working as a cooper for about 36 years. He has hopes that a nephew will become the sixth generation, though Ger will be getting an apprentice next February. Ger discussed the job of the cooper, showing some of the tools he uses as well as discussing Jameson Irish Whiskey in particular.

The first evidence of cooperage extends back to the ancient Egyptians, around 2000 BC. Many of the tools coopers still use extend that far back as well, including the ax, adze and hammer. All of the tools and activities used in cooperage seems to possess their own unique name. Ger told us that the procedure for cutting trees for staves for barrels is called quarter sawing, as the tree trunk is essentially cut into quarters. Interestingly, when using a plane on a stave, you actually hold the plane solid and move the stave over it, which is the reverse of usual woodwork.

He also explained the reason why whiskey barrels are now charred. Originally, many of the barrels were previously used, such as to store and transport fish. That fish smell pervaded the barrel so would have ruined the taste of the whiskey. Just cleaning the barrel was insufficient to remove the fish smell so they charred the inside of the barrel to remove the odor. They later realized that the whiskey actually tasted better in the charred barrels, and started to do so even when it wasn't necessary.

Did you know that the first Kennedy brothers to come to Massachusetts were coopers?

This is a short video of Ger taking apart a barrel so we could have a closer look at an individual stave. It is interesting how everything fits together as it does, sufficiently tight so that no liquid leaks out.

For Jameson, they use only high quality barrels, obtaining their used bourbon casks from a U.S. distributor and their used sherry barrels from a bodega in Jerez. Their whiskey does not possess an age statement as the blender does not want to be restricted, desirous of the ability to select whiskey when he feels it is ready. In general though, the regular Jameson Irish Whiskey has a rough age of 5-7 years while the Black Barrel has a rough age of 8-16 years.

At distilleries, you may find pot stills or column stills, or even both. But, in the world of Irish Whiskey, "pot still whiskey" has a specific meaning, and not what you might think. It is a blend of malted and unmalted barley produced in a pot still. It is the unmalted aspect which differs from usual pot distilling. It was originally created in an effort to reduce an English tax on malted liquor. In general, it leads to a creamier mouthfeel in the whiskey.

The Jameson Black Barrel ($35-$40) is only made once a year, a total of around 9000 cases, and is sold in only a limited amount of countries. They wanted to create a sweeter style whiskey and I believe they succeeded in their objective. The Black Barrel is a blend of pot still whiskey and small batch grain whiskey, and they use virgin bourbon casks for aging. It has a sweet aroma, actually reminding me a bit of a nice bourbon, and on the palate, there is plenty of sweetness, yet not cloying. There were creamy tastes of vanilla, caramel, honey and even toasted marshmallow. It was mellow and smooth, with a lengthy and pleasing finish. A fine sipping whiskey, especially on a chilly autumn or winter evening.

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