Did you know that Ireland’s most famous alcoholic drink (ok, second most famous, after Guinness) was created by a Scotsman? I’m talking about Jameson Whiskey, of course!
Mark and I took a tour of the Jameson Distillery, located in Midleton, Ireland, to learn more about the whiskey distilling process. Although Irish whiskey isn’t one of our favourite alcoholic beverages, this tour gave us a new appreciation for it.
But before we get into the nitty-gritty, here’s a bit of a history lesson for you.
John Jameson was born in Alloa, Scotland in 1740. He actually began his career as a sheriff clerk, and not as a distiller. He got into the business thanks to his wife, Margaret Haig. Her immediate family owned Haig Distilleries, while her cousins owned Stein Distilleries.
This is where the official dates of the Jameson company get a little twisty-bendy. The Stein family founded the Bow Street Distillery in Dublin in 1780. Immediately after marrying Margaret in 1786, John became the General Manager of this distillery. (At the time, Dublin was the most prolific whiskey producer in the entire world).
John didn’t take full ownership of the Bow Street distillery until 1805. But because he married into the family business, the date of establishment for the John Jameson & Son brand is set in history as 1780 – the year that Stein’s Bow Street Distillery opened. It’s a little bit messy. Any way you look at it, though, Jameson Irish Whiskey has had a long-standing foothold on the industry.
Not only has the company been around for hundreds of years, but it became a major success story very early on. By the turn of the 19th Century, Jameson was one of the the largest whiskey producers in the world, producing 1,000,000 gallons of liquor per year!
Ok, with all that now out of the way, let’s go on a tour!
This is where the tour begins – the Jameson Experience in Midleton. This distillery building started out as a woolen mill in the late 1700s. In 1803, during the Napoleonic wars, the government purchased the building to use as a military barracks and stables.
In 1825, the Murphy Brothers – James, Daniel and Jeremiah – took advantage of the Excise Act that came into effect in 1823, and turned the building into a distillery. The Excise Act changed the way industry was taxed and regulated. It also reduced the duty on spirits, paving the way for legal distilleries to take the world by storm.
The brothers turned their business into a booming success in a short span of time. By the 1830s they employed nearly 200 staff!
The Murphy brothers were also great innovators for their time. They installed a massive copper pot still with a capacity of 31,618 imperial gallons! In fact, the still was so large that it was assembled on-site, and they built the distillery around it. Although it’s no longer used, to this day it remains the largest pot still ever built. It now strikes a formidable pose on the distillery grounds:
The Murphy brothers also installed a water wheel to help power the distillery. The wheel powered the millstones, pumps and elevators. They replaced the original timber wheel with this cast iron version in 1852, which remained in use until the distillery closed in 1975:
Things didn’t always go smoothly for the company, however. The Temperance movement in the 1830s called for social and legal reforms advocating for the prohibition of alcohol. The Great Famine of the 1840s further put a damper on domestic demand for alcohol. By the 1860s, James Murphy realized that the local distilleries had a better chance of surviving these bumps in the road by amalgamating their resources.
In 1867, four Cork-based distilleries amalgamated to become the Cork Distilleries Company Ltd (CDC). This included North Mall, The Green, the Watercourse and Daly’s. James Murphy’s Midleton Distillery joined the amalgamation a year later.
The amalgamation may have slowed the eventual closure of some of the distilleries under the CDC umbrella, but couldn’t stop it completely. By the early 1900s, three of the five distilleries had ceased operations. In 1920, a fire destroyed North Mall Distillery’s mill and damaged many other buildings. Rather than rebuild, all production was focused on the Midleton distillery.
With whiskey sales still in decline, in 1966, the last two distilleries in Dublin joined the CDC. These were John Powers & Son and, of course, John Jameson & Son.
The CDC then became known as Irish Distillers. John Powers & Son and John Jameson & Son closed their existing distilleries in Cork and Dublin, respectively. In 1975 they consolidated their production to a new facility adjacent to the Old Midleton distillery. The Irish Distillers then closed the old distillery.
Well. That was a very lengthy explanation as to how Jameson Irish Whiskey came to own the current building where you can take their tour!
This is the wash still, built in 1825. The three stills were originally heated by coal fires. You can see the furnace in the lower half of the photo.
The smoke stack from Old Midleton Distillery.
This old scale was used to weigh the whiskey barrels. This helped to determine the amount of excise tax to charge.
The cooperage was where the coopers built the whiskey barrels. It took seven years of apprenticeship training under a master cooper to learn the trade! The casks were always made from oak, and still are today.
And here is some antique firefighting equipment from the original distillery. Fire was always a huge threat at distilleries, where coal-fired furnaces heated the stills and high-alcohol spirits were extremely flammable!
Look at this beautiful antique delivery truck outside of the distillery. I imagine it would have had a hard time navigating the narrow, winding streets in many Irish towns and hamlets, though.
After the informative bit of the tour ended, we got to the good stuff: an Irish whiskey tasting! As you can see, we got to taste-test three very different styles of whiskey. A scotch whisky, an American whiskey, and of course, Jameson whiskey.
Scotch whiskey is usually double-distilled, and aged in seasoned oak casks. It can exhibit peaty, earthy or fruity notes, depending on the region in which it’s made.
American whiskey, on the other hand, is only single-distilled, then aged in new American oak casks. This can make the flavours much more harsh and biting.
Jameson, however, is triple-distilled before aging in seasoned oak casks. The extra round of distillation removes much of the harshness, making smoother and more mellow.
Mark and I walked away from the Jameson Experience with a lot more knowledge about Irish whiskey, and Jameson as a company.
Oh, and the best part? At the end, we received “qualified Irish whiskey taster” certificates with our names on them!