Of the many contributions of the Irish to world culture—from colcannon and those silly snap-brim tweed hats of which my father is so fond to the music of the Pogues and the films of Jim Sheridan—I don’t think anyone would argue with my saying that whiskey is the best.
There’s an old Hibernian saying that goes something like, “If it wasn’t for whiskey, the Irish would rule the world.” But then again, who wants to rule the world? That sounds like a tough job. Better, then, to sit around all the day long, sipping a bit of Irish dew and talking of things inconsequential. Without whiskey, Brendan Behan might’ve lived a good while longer, but without whiskey he might never have come up with words as brilliant as the ones he strings together in Borstal Boy. Without whiskey (and a taste for the ponies), Shane McGowan would’ve never written “Fairy Tale of New York”—the single greatest Christmas song ever made. Without whiskey, I might’ve never asked my darling wife Laura to marry my punk ass, might not have gone through with the act on the day in question, and likely wouldn’t still be married today. As the Irish insist, “What whiskey will not cure, there is no cure for.” And love is one of those things.
W.C. Fields once famously said: “Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite. And furthermore, always carry a small snake.” That’s good advice, and some that I have lived by for many years. At home, I have a bottle or two. In my bag, I carry a flask. And in my desk at work I have both—plus a few small airline bottles in case of emergency and a drawer now full of the best of the Jameson distillery in case of an emergency so large that the abovementioned stock is insufficient balm. I have yet to purchase myself a small snake, but frankly, what with all the booze stuck here and there, I don’t know where I’d keep the thing…
Anyway, my love for fine whiskey has been well established over the years, and while my tastes are generally fairly pedestrian (a Jim Beam and Coke is fine by me, two fingers of Bushmill’s a good way to start any night and scotch whiskey only an acceptable substitute when nothing else is available), I do know the good stuff when I taste it. And lucky me, because a few weeks back I got a call from a PR person at Jameson asking if I might be interested in sipping a little of the very good stuff: Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve, which is quite simply the greatest whiskey that’s ever been bottled.
And that’s not the Jameson people saying that. It’s me. I mean, the Jameson people said it, too, and while I might’ve initially been somewhat skeptical, the PR person (now my new best friend) rushed me out a bunch of samples and I now agree wholeheartedly.
Still, I am a critic. And I knew that the only way to properly judge something as important as a glass of whiskey would be to drink more. Thus, the good people at Jameson asked if I’d be down for doing a formal, comparative tasting. See, they were on tour, touting the release of Jameson Rarest Vintage. They would be coming through Denver. And in addition to carrying plenty of booze, they were also bringing along Brendan Monks, the Jameson Master of Maturation, one of the four Master Distillers who more or less raise these whiskeys from birth, see to their growth and character, then usher them out into the world when they are fully grown and ready to be appreciated. So would I like to meet the man and have a couple drinks?
Uh, yeah. Absolutely.
A recent edition of "Vlog the Impaler" deals briefly with the tasting at the Brown Palace before degenerating into the kind of whiskey tasting most of us are probably a bit more familiar with—full of singing, feats of strength, punching and deep discussions about the old DuckTales cartoons. Our experience at the Brown, though, was quite a bit more civilized and at least as educational. I learned, for example, that John Jameson (“A great man and entrepreneurial spirit,” according to Mr. Monks, and who am I to argue?) founded the original Dublin distillery in 1780 and that Jameson has been being produced steadily ever since. I learned that whiskey itself, in some form or another, has been around since the 4th century and that the word “whiskey” is actually a bastardization of the word ishkebah, meaning “water of life.” Again, no argument here.
I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the malting, sprouting and distillation process (though if I ever have the urge to open my own Irish whiskey distillery, I can certainly say that I learned the basics from a master), recorded some fascinating facts about the worldliness of Jameson’s reach, of its international connections to Spain and Portugal and the Americas (from which the casks are acquired—mostly aged sherry and port casks, or American bourbon barrels) and of Monks’s early days, sitting for a week outside the offices of Sandeman Port in Oporto, waiting to hear whether or not he was going to be able to go back to his bosses in Ireland and tell them that they would have the Iberian oak casks they needed for the maturation of the Jameson Rarest Vintage. That was something that he did almost thirty years ago. And the bottle that he cracked for us that afternoon at the Brown? It was the result of the yes that he finally got in Oporto and then twenty-five or more years of waiting.
“Those casks went to sleep for many, many years,” Monks told me, smiling a serene, Irish Buddah smile. To make something as good as this requires a trust, a patience bordering on supernatural. I told him that there was no way I could do it—that I would be down there in the cellar every day with a long straw—and he laughed knowingly, making me think that maybe he has done exactly the same thing once or twice or a hundred times in the last quarter-century.
We tasted four whiskies that day: a twelve-year-old Jameson, Jameson Gold Reserve, Jameson 18 year Limited Reserve and, finally, the Rarest Vintage Reserve. And while each of them were better than anything I am accustomed to drinking, the Rarest Vintage was simply unbelievable.
“This represents our oldest grain and rarest pot-still whiskey,” Monks explained, asking us to smell it, to think about the wood of the casks, the flavors of the grain; to think about how, many years ago, it was the discovery of records of all the communications between the distillery and the outside world—of casks being imported and grains being shipped and whiskies being matured—that led Jameson and Monks and his fellow Masters down the path that would lead them from Middleton to Oporto to Denver.
And when I sipped, for just an instant, there was an overwhelming sense of port, of well-aged wines, followed by the sting of alcohol, the scent of melon, vanilla and oak—of trade routes and foreign latitudes. It was tantamount to tasting a vintage Bordeaux in its complexity, to opening a bottle of ’45 Latour for the impact it had on me. I had never before tasted a whiskey of its caliber, its sweetness and perfect balance. It was breathtaking.
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Doubly so when I was told the price: $250 a bottle, with only a thousand-odd bottles being released into the United States market.
So is it worth it? Yes. Drinking a glass of Rarest Vintage is one of those palate-changing experiences—one of those moments where you realize that there is more out there in the world than that six-dollar Jack Daniel’s on the rocks or sickly-sweet and syrupy Southern Comfort. It is an affecting moment, made more so by understanding the history of the bottle, the work that went into crafting it, the time that it took to mature and the faith required by Jameson to continue filling casks of stuff that they knew would not be marketable for three decades. It is, far and away, the best whiskey I have ever been fortunate enough to sample and it makes me happy just knowing that I have some waiting for me whenever I want or need it.
Snake or no snake, my life is made better by having whiskey in it. And its benefit is exponential when talking about the best whiskey ever. -- Jason Sheehan