I have been meaning to do this review for a long time. A very long time in fact. Actually, it’s around 2 years overdue, which shows that I am in equal parts very easily distracted and very good at procrastination.
Let’s time travel back to May 2018 and I was setting off on a pilgrimage to Ireland’s sunny southeast to visit Waterford Distillery to check what all the fuss was about. The second part of the trip was a short drive down the road to Midleton to visit Midleton Distillery, the place responsible for Jameson, Green Spot, Redbreast & of course Midleton itself. Myself and my fellow cohorts were just a little excited by this road trip to say the least.
I suppose being a big fan of Redbreast I was maybe more excited about seeing around Midleton than I was Waterford and I had a very specific bottle choice to buy at the distillery store from the multitude of options available, that being the Jameson Black Barrel Cask Strength…but more on that later.
First, let me be completely open, and tell you that my visit to Midleton incurred no cost to myself and my companions. It was generously covered by the good people at IDL. This standard tour costs €23 normally.
So, what did I make of the tour experience at Jameson? To be honest I was a little disappointed, but that may have something to do with having an absolute geek fest at Waterford the previous day, where our party of 6 had nearly 3 hours in the company of Head Brewer Neil Conway and Head Distiller Ned Gahan being talked through the ideology and processes of Waterford in extreme detail. No question we had went unanswered.
At Midleton though it was immediately clear that we were in tourism central. I think on our tour there were roughly 35 individuals (I’d say made up of around 80% Americans) and our tour guide stuck to her script with admirable aplomb. It kind of felt that we were just being ushered through an array of pretty buildings, with limited chance of interaction with our guide, as we had to make it round the site in the allocated time, before the next group of Americans made their way through the front doors of Irish Whiskies Mecca. Really, this tour is an Irish Whiskey 101 for those with only the most basic understanding of how whiskey is made.
Perhaps the most startling thing was that you don’t actually get to see any of the production happening onsite. No mash tuns, no fermentation vessels and definitely no stills! No instead you get to look at what went before, equipment that are now essentially museum pieces while being given the briefest description of how it all meshed together to make Irish whiskey from water, yeast and barley.
Part way through the tour, you do get to see the Midleton Micro Distillery, where they train their apprentice distillers. While many a distillery in Ireland would be envious enough of that set up, it just isn’t quite the same as having the opportunity to see the stills that actually, you know, produce the spirit that goes on to become Jameson and the other IDL family members.
Don’t get me wrong, Midleton is a beautiful place with loads of character in the buildings, but when I visit a distillery the pretty buildings only make up part of the experience. I want to be able to get a sense of the place, the people involved and the product they are making. I don’t really want to be herded around a whiskey theme park.
From this, you can probably tell that I wouldn’t really be that enthused about taking the tour again, not the bog standard one anyway. I found the pricing to be pretty expensive for what you got. A tour that for me was overcrowded and that afforded you a single dram of Jameson half way round and then a cocktail at the bar afterwards for €23 doesn’t seem good value. Neither did the add on of €30 to try 4 20ml measures of Black Barrel, Redbreast 12, Powers Johns Lane & Midleton Very Rare.
Of course, there are other options available to the geekier of us whiskey types, but they do cost. However, if you are making the trip to Midleton and you are pretty keen on your whiskey, I’d wager the extra money would be better spent.
So, after making myself totally unwelcome at Midleton ever again let’s chat about some whiskey.
Jameson is pretty much ubiquitous worldwide as the de facto Irish whiskey. Found in every bar in Ireland, the American choice of shot to go with your cheap beer (although Proper Twelve may have stolen that title now, although I hope that many bars Stateside are still using it in its proper place as toilet cleaner.) It has reached South Africa, Russia, India, Nigeria and China. A global reach few can argue with. While this may all seem impressive, the standard Jameson blend is also incredibly bland.
Thankfully though, the Jameson family has quite a range of expressions to choose from and today we’ll take a look at Jameson Black Barrel and the bottle your own distillery exclusive Cask Strength version.
So, how does Black Barrel differ from regular ‘bland’ Jameson? Well quite a lot actually. The grain component is not the regular grain spirit that is made for Jameson Original. It’s actually a combination of two types of small batch grain, one of which starts its life off being distilled in a pot still before finally running through the continuous stills. The other grain component has a mashbill with a higher malted barley content that is distilled completely through the continuous stills. These grains are only matured in first fill and refill bourbon barrels.
The Double Charred barrels come in to play with the pot still component. This pot still component uses double charred casks, first fill and refill bourbon barrels and a significant amount of oloroso sherry casks.
As regards the age of the components the grain is roughly around 5 with the pot component being up to 10 years old.
I bought the Black Barrel for £34 at Tesco but it can regularly be found on offer here or Amazon for £25. The Cask Strength bottle your own version was only available at Midleton for €100, but can now also be bought at the Dublin Experience visitor centre. This was the bottle I really wanted to buy at Midleton, but in the interests of full disclosure, when I went to pay the charge had been covered by the good folk at IDL. I didn’t leave Midleton without spending money though as I bought three bottles of their 12 year old distillery exclusive blends at a cost of €60 each (and I plan to get around to covering those on here at some point too).
Jameson Black Barrel 40% – review
On the nose: Very fruity – apricot, nectarine, peach & vanilla. Some sherried notes with red berries, raisin and cocoa. Cask char is present but not overpowering with light pot still spices and caramel.
In the mouth: Decent mouthfeel for a blend – definitely oilier than regular Jameson. Bourbon casks lead the charge – sweet arrival of honeyed grains, vanilla, caramel. Mid palate brings cask char to the fore with woody spices, nutmeg and cocoa. The finish is of decent length with warming spice and vanilla.
Jameson Black Barrel Cask Strength 60.6% – review
Colour: caramel (albeit marginally lighter than the 40% version)
On the nose: Immediately the extra abv is noticeable. Very much more wood & spice driven without water. Once past the alcohol there is a grassy freshness here with lots of vanilla & caramel sweetness. A menthol note along with cinnamon, clove and citrus oils. Cocoa notes and new leather. With water: a softer feel with more fruit now. Peach, pineapple and banana along with cream soda.
In the mouth: Again, the abv is very noticeable on arrival. Sweet, honeyed grains give way to alcohol heat and wood spices. Grilled pineapple studded with cloves, caramel too with a light smokiness from the cask char. At full abv this is all about wood tannins, cask char and spice. With water: okay things open up much more now…. sweetness is dialled up. Salted caramel, dried fruit – dates, raisins, dried banana. Hazelnuts and chocolate. Spices are tamed and more balanced. The finish is long, nutty, spicy and fruity.
Let’s start with the regular Black Barrel. This is a really solid, easy drinking whiskey that could easily become a daily sipper. At full price, I think, it’s worth exploring, but on offer at £25 it’s a no brainer. It’s also a major step up from Jameson original. The small batch grain definitely adds an oilier mouthfeel to the occasion and makes a big difference to the flavour delivery. There is a small amount of sherry casks influence but it’s much more about the bourbon and recharred casks.
The Cask Strength is a bruiser at full abv and definitely benefits from the addition of a little water to open proceedings up. Is it worth €100 though? Personally, I think it is a bit overpriced and maybe €80 would be fairer. Then again, regular Black Barrel costs €50 in the South of Ireland so perhaps that is wishful thinking. But if you do visit either the Dublin Experience Visitor centre or Midleton I reckon it’s worth getting as you won’t get it anywhere else and bottling your own whiskey is always fun.
There is commission link within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement.