Bill Linnane selects his own exclusive bottle of Jameson whiskey straight from the cask and drinks deep from our long love affair with full-strength alcohol.
THE Celts were a crafty bunch.
Enjoying as they did the odd drink or ten, they realised that storing alcohol was a problem, and set to work finding a solution.
At roughly the same time that Jesus was turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana, our ancestors across northern Europe were carving wooden staves and binding them together to create the first rudimentary shapes of what we now call the barrel.
Not that they boasted about it — Celts had no written language at that time, and virtually all physical evidence of the barrels themselves has disappeared. But the Romans took note of this ingenuity, and in the first century AD Pliny The Elder wrote of the use of casks by Celts living in the vicinity of the Alps.
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This humble vessel became the tool upon which empires were built, vast migrations enabled, armies deployed, and alcohol transported, stored and matured. This last use has seen the barrel live long into the plastic age, because, unlike its synthetic counterpart, wood interacts with its contents — it has a personality and identity all of its own.
So it seems fitting that you can now stamp your own personality and identity on the contents of this most ancient of vessels, at the Jameson Heritage Centre in Midleton, Co Cork, where a device that allows you to bottle your own, personalised whiskey straight from the cask, has been installed.
The launch was an important one for Irish Distillers, a fact driven home by the presence of Master Distiller Brian Nation and recently-promoted production director of IDL, Tommy Keane, who had been general manager of the Midleton plant.
Both men played huge roles in the transformation of the distillery into one of the largest and most efficient operations in the world, but there is no grandstanding about it.
They both talk about how happy they are at the growing community of distillers in Ireland, how the whiskey renaissance is good for everyone.
This rebirth of our national beverage has seen the distillers of Midleton embrace the Celtic spirit of innovation through the recent release of Dair Ghaelach, the first whiskey to be finished in native Irish oak.
Ignacio Peregrino, general manager of the Jameson Heritage Centre in Midleton pointed out that the personalised bottles of Jameson you can buy in the distillery gift shops in Cork and Dublin, are by far the best selling items they stock, so it made sense to enable the public to take the final steps in the journey from grain to bottle.
The expression (a fancy whiskey term for variety), in this case is Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel, a sweet, sherried drink that is a great introduction to the Jameson premium whiskey sector.
The contraption that dispenses the whiskey is a reassuringly solid wooden device with a barrel sat atop it and a steam-punk dispenser complete with levers.
Add to this some gravity and a bottle, and you get to fill your bottle with cask-strength whiskey.
Once you’ve selected and filled your 700ml bottle, you personalise the bottle label with your name, the date, the number of the cask, the bottle number and the alcohol strength before placing the label carefully on the bottle and creating your own exclusive bottle of Jameson Select Reserve Cask Strength Black Barrel.
This is the only way to get your hands on the cask-strength version. After your bottle is labelled, you can log it in the ledger, ensuring that it becomes part of the history of Jameson forever. The ‘Bottle Your Own’ experience costs €100.
It’s worth noting that cask-strength is a whiskey category in itself. Most whiskeys have purified water added to them after being released from their three year-plus sleep, bringing them down to a still-impressive 43% or 40%ABV or so.
But cask strength is, as you would imagine, a more potent beast, in this case a daunting 59%ABV. For someone who enjoys a big, punchy flavour, cask strength is heaven.
However, a teardrop of water can also open it up, bring out new flavours and personality that may have been partially eclipsed by the powerful alcohol vapours, so it’s worth having a little H2O on hand to soften the fire.
But if you would rather take your Black Barrel in a cocktail, mixologist Andy Ferreira of RaiseTheBar.ie and bar Pigalle on Barrack Street in Cork city has a recipe to tickle the tastebuds.
“Jameson Black Barrel Cask-strength has got us pretty excited at Raise the Bar,” he says.
“A big part of what we do is to try and evolve classic cocktails and introduce new and exciting elements and flavour profiles to existing recipes.
“The increase in ABV from the cask strength gives an already ludicrously tasty whiskey an added oomph and will stretch what is already a very long finish.
“We’ve been using Black Barrel as our whiskey of choice in our Old Fashioneds for a few years now. The concentrated spice, nutty notes and vanilla sweetness are wonderfully enhanced by this method of preparing a cocktail.
“The Old Fashioned is the epitome of a classic and globally a standard-setter among bartenders. Since it’s birth sometime in the 1880s bartenders have added there own nuances, but the basic ingredients and principles remains the same — sugar, bitters, base spirit stirred over ice and finished with an orange zest, the gradual dilution of the ice enhancing the rich notes in the spirit.”
Andy’s Black Barrel Old Fashioneds went down a treat at the closing event of last year’s Web Summit, the Founders Group gathering of 280 international technology leaders at the Grainstore in Ballymaloe, Co Cork. However, for the cask-strength edition he recommends a slight upgrade:
“Previously we have made Black Barrel Old Fashioneds with a drop of good sherry and chocolate bitters.
“In Pigalle in Cork city our signature whiskey cocktail is the Black in Fashion —Jameson Black Barrel, bitters and a house syrup of Antica Formula sweet vermouth, blackberries and honey.”
Black in Fashion Stir over ice: 70 mls Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel Cask Strength 20 mls syrup (equal parts sweet vermouth, honey, blackberries) 2 dashes of Angostura bitter Orange zest to finish.
“The higher ABV in the cask strength Black barrel will be softened by the tangy, woody notes of the vermouth.
“Orange and dark fruit merge with the toasted wood and spices roll through from the pot still whiskey and flame-charred barrels.
“We extenuate this further by coating the glass with smoke from a Jameson stave that we scorch with a high-intensity flame. But this is a drink that is warm and soothing in cold months, and cool and refreshing on a long summers day.”
Or what our Celtic forefathers might have called ‘an all-rounder’. But, a warning from history: Greek historian Diodorus Siculus writing between 30 and 60BC noted the Celts’ love of full-strength alcohol and discussing how they took their libations with no added water, before drinking greedily and falling into a stupor or a manic disposition.
So when you decide to roll out the barrel and toast Celtic ingenuity, it might be best to do so in moderation
* The bottle-your-own facility is available in the Jameson Heritage Centres in Dublin and Midleton now.
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