Jameson Irish Whiskey is easily the best-selling Irish whiskey in the world. It has long been a fixture as such; if a bar stocks only one Irish whiskey, it is almost certainly going to be Jameson. I’m not the sufficient historian to know how and why this came to be so. But it likely has something to do with the fact that Jameson was one of the few survivors of the destruction of a once-thriving international market for Irish whiskey, caused by a trade war with Britain and worsened by the era of prohibition in the United States, both events occurring early in the twentieth century. In addition, being a whiskey manufactured in the Republic of Ireland, Jameson has arguably generated loyalty from many Irish expatriates and their descendants, as opposed, say, to the “Protestant” Bushmills Irish Whiskey from Co. Antrim.
Whatever the reasons for Jameson coming to connote “Irish whiskey” in much of the world, I do think that Jameson’s dominance explains why Irish whiskey has had such a low status for so long. (This has been changing in recent years with a proliferation of good quality new and resurrected brands.) Jameson—and here I am speaking of the plain, ordinary type and not the single-malt and aged varietals—is simply not a good whiskey.
Before I get more specific about my dislike of it, however, I’d like to indulge in a brief reminiscence that perhaps shows how even bad liquor finds its appropriate place.
Those who traveled back and forth between Ireland and the U.S.A. in past years and decades would undoubtedly remember a strange feature of the trip: the forced stop at Shannon Airport. That is, if you had booked a flight from the U.S.A. to Dublin (the capital city on Ireland’s east coast) you would fly across the Atlantic for six and half hours or so, and then, with your destination about fifteen minutes away, the aircraft would descend and land on Ireland’s west coast, at Shannon, a place that seemed more of a glorified airfield than a true, busy international airport. Passengers would be required to leave the plane, for perhaps an hour and a half or so, and then would have to get back on so the plane could take off again for one of the shortest jaunts a jumbo jet would ever make, over what seemed just a few fields and rivers to Dublin city. Although Shannon was at one time a standard refueling stop, nobody was fooled as to why this stopover was maintained as a compulsory one for modern transatlantic airliners; its purpose was only to provide work to the employees of that airport, and to get the travelers to open their wallets in various ways. Indeed, duty free shopping originated at Shannon Airport. And that is not the only thing that Shannon Airport gave to the world.
Imagine, if you will (or recall, as the case may be), that you’ve made this trip. It is an overnight journey, and you are not likely to have slept much, if at all. You did have dinner about five hours ago on the plane, and maybe a drink or two. It is, perhaps, about 6:45 a.m. Irish time as you are forced to decamp from the plane and stumble, somewhat punch drunk, into this place called Shannon Airport, not knowing really why you’re there, but only that you will be leaving again in a very short while. What do you do? Countless travelers over the years have followed countless others in heading towards the most instantly-inviting-looking place, complete with a stool to sit on and the sounds of happy conversation; namely, the bar.
But what do you drink? It seems—with good reason—just plain wrong to order beer or liquor at that hour of the morning, especially when you’re already in a state halfway between consciousness and unconsciousness. Coffee or tea? Well … they’d just given you some before throwing you off the plane, and forcing more down isn’t very appealing. Hey, what’s this thing some other people are already drinking? An Irish coffee? With whiskey and sugar and cream? Oh my gosh: that’s just the thing! And indeed it is the very thing. You drink it in good conscience, since you’re taking your caffeine like a good little traveler, but the alcohol and the sweetness of the whole drink cheers you up and abets your punch-drunkenness with a little of the real stuff. In the otherworldly, almost paranormal context of these early-morning travelers at Shannon airport, an Irish coffee (surely made with Jameson whiskey unless someone requested otherwise) was and/or is a supreme example of a drink occupying and filling its place and time perfectly.
And as part of such a concoction, at such an hour and in such a place, Jameson Irish Whiskey is just fine. I mean, who really could care?
Yet, that is not the context in which to judge the true quality of a whiskey. A whiskey should reveal its various qualities when tasted straight, or with a little water, or surrounding an ice cube or two. If it isn’t good in any of those contexts, than it isn’t good. Jameson isn’t good.
Jameson Irish Whiskey, how do I loathe thee? It is really a case of “let me count the ways.” Its smell is offensive, although at this point in time I admit this may largely be because of how I anticipate that it will taste. On that first taste it is sickly sweet (which might perversely help it work in that Irish coffee) but also strangely sour at the same time, a difficult trick but one that ought to conjure in you that involuntary shudder which is your body’s instinctive rejection of something that it does not want you to consume. At least, it has always conjured that shudder in yours truly, even when I tried to suppress it, feeling in my younger days that this was something an Irishman ought to somehow enjoy drinking. Once swallowed, there is a very definite aftertaste to Jameson which rises and lingers and then increases in bitterness and yuckiness (that’s a technical term used by us highly-educated liquor-tasters) as the moments tick by. Jameson in many of these respects is comparable to a very bad bourbon whiskey, of which there are plenty.
There is no real accounting for the continued popularity of Jameson’s, relatively speaking, just as there is no accounting for the popularity of many bad things in this fallen world. I can only assume that anyone who drinks it regularly must never have really tried a good Irish whiskey, of which there are, as mentioned earlier, more and more these days (some coming from Jameson’s distilleries but very different to the flagship poison). There is of-course the sad fact that many bars might only stock Jameson to fill the Irish whiskey niche, and so the thing gets perpetuated, but a drinker seeking a more pleasant Irish whiskey in a similar price range would be well-advised to seek out Bushmills, Tullamore Dew or even Powers.
So, this is what I believe and this is what I say, although I well know that anything that has been around so long as Jameson Irish Whiskey cannot but have its many advocates and apologists. Don’t believe them. Run from them.
On the other hand, if you’re ever stuck at Shannon Airport at 6:45 a.m., just do whatever you must to survive.
Rating: One out of ten lead pipes.