As a big lover of the amber nectar, going on a distillery tour in the home of whiskey was right at the top of my wish list for our visit to Ireland. So when Jameson invited us along to The Jameson Experience tour and a premium tasting, there was only ever going to be one answer (a very enthusiastic YES PLEASE!!). And yes, you read that correctly, I said the home of whiskey. Believe it or not, whiskey was actually invented in Ireland, not Scotland as many people wrongly believe - just one of the things we learnt on this awesome tour. Although even more confusingly, John Jameson who founded the Jameson brand in 1780 was originally from Scotland.
Anyway, whether you’re a whisky lover or not, The Jameson Experience Midleton should be on your to do list when you visit County Cork. It transports you back in time to when the distillery was first started and charts its course up to the modern day, painting a picture along the way of what it was like to live and work in Ireland throughout that time. The site itself is a beautiful series of old buildings that allow you to feel the history. We learnt about the production techniques they developed here and the processes that go into making the smooth and exquisite whiskey millions of people all over the world enjoy today. The tour guide we had, Sarah, was really enthusiastic and knowledgeable about all things Jameson and made it a really enjoyable outing for the group. I’m going to give you the lowdown on what the tour involves, a bit of what we learnt and why you should visit the Jameson Distillery Midleton.
**You may be wondering why I’ve spelt the name of the spirit in question two different ways - there’s a very simple explanation for that. The Scots (and pretty much everyone else in the world) call it whisky, while the Irish and Americans call it whiskey with an ‘e’. Why? Don’t ask me, that’s just how it is!**
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A Brief History of the Jameson Brand
Jameson’s history is both varied and fascinating, and the tour charts its many ups and downs. These include growing steadily through exports before being badly affected by war, prohibition and the temperance movement, right up to being the world’s leading Irish whiskey today.
John Jameson took over the management of the original distillery in Bow Street, Dublin in 1780. Production quickly increased as Jameson built an international reputation for making a smooth whiskey from the finest quality ingredients. The move to Midleton was a logical one that saw the distillery move closer to the barley farms they bought from and allowed for increased production.
Then in the 1970s, a state of the art facility was built next to the old Midleton distillery and all production was moved there. The tour doesn’t include the modern facility but it’s clearly visible in the background as you walk around the grounds, an interesting contrast to the old distillery next door.
Highlights of the Jameson Experience, Midleton
The Craft Distillery Room
The craft distillery room is a newly developed addition to the complex and is a bit like a science lab where the distillery boffins try out exciting new recipes. They also test out varieties of old recipes that were hand written by John Jameson himself all those years ago, to produce small batches that will no doubt become collectors items of the future. It’s an exact replica of a traditional distillery, just in miniature.
The Still House
This is where the magic used to happen and the distillation process itself would take place. Inside the still house, three of the original pot stills from the 1800s remain. They’re basically huge copper vessels that capture the alcoholic vapour produced when you heat up the fermented liquid you’re going to purify. One of them is actually the largest still in the whole world, capable of holding over 140,000 litres! That would keep me going for a while.
The Giant Water Wheel
The giant water wheel sits on the outside wall of one the buildings and was at one stage used to produce most of the power required for the distillery. Amazingly it’s still turning, and although it’s no longer a power source, gives you an idea of just how advanced the brewery was for its time.
One of the really interesting things about the whiskey making process is just how much attention to detail that go into making a great one. Once the liquid has been distilled, it must then be aged in barrels and the type of barrel used has a definitive impact on what the end product tastes like. Using barrels that have been used to age other spirits imparts certain characteristics into the whiskey, for example the sweetness from a sherry barrel. Jameson don’t actually produce any of the barrels they use, but they buy them in from various different sources. Rather than construct the barrels, the cooper ensures they are fit for purpose and repairs them when necessary. The barrels get retired after 20 years, at which stage they go on sale to anyone who wishes to own one. A single barrel will set you back a cool £75,000. And remember, they're empty...
The Head Distiller's Cottage
Though we didn’t go inside, it was fascinating to learn about the long line of head distillers who were given the use of this cottage for the duration of their employment. From the front it looks like a small bungalow, but when you see it from side on you realise it is in fact huge and goes back much further than you’d imagine.
The Jameson Bar
At the end of the tour your ticket entitles you to a free sample of Jameson's! Yes free! You get the option of having it straight up, on the rocks or in a cocktail mixed with ginger beer and a squeeze of lime. It’s a generous serving of whiskey as well and almost the perfect way to finish off the tour.
The Jameson Premium Whiskey Tasting
Now this is officially the perfect way to finish off the tour, particularly if you’re a whisky lover like me. This premium whiskey tasting allows you to sample four of the many varieties that Jameson produce while a connoisseur talks you through each one.
The Jameson Shop
The Jameson shop has everything from rare whiskeys to Jameson branded clothing on offer and is the perfect place to pick up some souvenirs or gifts for whiskey lovers. You can also hand bottle your own cask strength bottle of Jameson whiskey straight from the barrel and then produce a unique label to stick on it with your name on which is really cool.
I’ve been a big fan of whisky for about 10 years now and over that period built up quite a nice collection of aged single malt scotch whiskies. But I must confess, I’d never taken a great deal of notice of Irish whiskey, apart from the odd drop of Jameson from time to time. There is a bit of a misconception that scotch is in some way superior to Irish whiskey, but actually that’s really not true. Yes, there are definitely differences in the characteristics of the spirits produced in each country, but Ireland produces some of the finest whiskeys in the world.
Yet to be convinced? Book onto the tour and see for yourself!
We were invited on a complimentary tour and the premium whiskey tasting by Jameson, but this in no way affected what we have written here. The tour was genuinely extremely enjoyable and the whiskey tasting was a real treat.