Travel Writing by Cory Hanson

Review – Old Jameson Distillery


In Smithfield, one of Dublin’s most historic and most colorful neighborhoods, there stands an unmistakable tower. This old chimney looks over Smithfield Square and the rest of Dublin and serves as a marker for one of the city’s most famous attractions: the Old Jameson Distillery.

Jameson Barrel Label

The label says it all. Since 1780, Smithfield has been the home of Dublin’s famous golden stuff, and since 1997, the old fermentation house has been open for tours. The team at Jameson invited me for a long-overdue visit to one of Dublin’s most popular attractions.

I’ve been to Smithfield before, but had never ventured into the Jameson complex. Following the signs from Bow Street (the famous Jameson address), I walked into a cute little square between the imposing buildings east of Smithfield Square. An old copper still stood in the center, and outdoor seating for two restaurants looked on to the Jameson welcome reception.

Old Fermenter Foundation, Jameson Distillery Dublin

Old Fermenter Foundation

Stepping inside, the most striking feature is the glass floor displaying the round foundations of the old fermenting vessels. The tours today are in what was the Jameson fermentation house—where sweet grain wort was fermented into an alcoholic wash by yeast in large tanks.

Visitors learn on the tour that the Jameson complex once covered several acres of then-booming Dublin and employed a significant proportion of the city’s workforce—malting, milling, mashing, fermenting, triple-distilling, and maturing millions of gallons of whiskey for consumption in Ireland and abroad.

In 1975, Jameson moved their whiskey-making operations to a more spacious facility in Midleton, Co. Cork. In the sunny south of Ireland, they now source all of their ingredients (impressively) from within 100 miles. The Midleton facility is open to visitors and offers a selection of tours as the Jameson Experience.

The Tour

So what’s left for Dublin visitors at the Old Jameson Distillery? An entertaining and informative tour, especially for novices coming to Dublin to get a little hands-on whiskey education. The tour begins with a short video chronicling the history of the Jameson brand from its eighteenth-century roots to its place in the whiskey world today.

After the video, the guided tour continues through a small-scale model of a distillery—demonstrating each step in the process, “from grain to glass.” Guests see what working conditions would have looked like in the grain stores, the malting room, and in the mills where dry malted grain was crushed. A two-hundred-year-old, well-worn millstone is on display for visitors to see and touch “three times for ten years of good luck!”

The Old Millstone Jameson Distillery Dublin

The Old Millstone

The tour continues through the whiskey production process, with scale-model looks at the techniques and equipment used at each step. Crushed grain is mixed and mashed in warm water to extract the fermentable sugars; the sweet wort is fermented in large vessels, once made of wood, now stainless steel; and the fermented wash is distilled three times—a tradition that was later made part of the legal definition of Irish whiskey—in copper pot stills.

Mash tun at Old Jameson Distillery

Mix & Mash

Model Stills at Old Jameson Distillery Dublin

Copper Pot Stills

Once distilled, the young spirit is diluted to maturation strength and barrel-aged for no less than three years and one day—again according to tradition and law. Jameson whiskey is aged in “used” casks, that have already aged another spirit. These pre-seasoned barrels (usually used to age American bourbon or Spanish sherry) impart the golden color and various flavor compounds to the maturing whiskey.

Once aged, the whiskies from different barrels are blended to create the appropriate balance of flavor compounds expected by the Jameson drinker and bottled in the unmistakable green bottles—a savvy bit of branding that makes Jameson stand out on the pub rail and the off license (liquor store) shelf.

The last home for any beverage is, of course, the glass. At the conclusion of the tour, the guide walks the guests through a tasting of Jameson with a leading scotch whisky and a leading American bourbon. Next to the smoky, earthy taste of scotch and the corn-heavy sweetness of the bourbon, the unique properties of Jameson—and Irish whiskey in general—are apparent even to a first-time taster.

After the side-by-side tasting, the tour concludes in the comfy upstairs bar with a standard serving of Jameson neat or in the signature cocktail, Jameson & Ginger.

Jameson’s Role in Whiskey Tourism

Jameson is in a unique position in the burgeoning Irish whiskey business; its large scale and international brand recognition make it a popular go-to for international whiskey drinkers and a known destination for tourists. Even though whiskey is no longer produced in the Dublin facility, the tour is a great primer for international visitors learning about whiskey for the first time. The tasting of Jameson with scotch and bourbon is a particularly beginner-friendly choice; newbies to whiskey might have a trickier time discerning the different characters of three similar Irish whiskies, but no one can mistake the smoke and dirt of a scotch for the mild, mellow spirit that is Jameson standard.

I spoke with Sales & Marketing Executive Sabine Sheehan about the exciting future of Irish whiskey tourism. With business bouncing back, many smaller distilleries are re-opening and buying back their labels around the country. In a future where Ireland may have more than 20 distilleries operating tours in a reinvigorated whiskey landscape, “Jameson looks to lead the category in quality, production, and distribution,” as well as continue to grow their popular visitor attractions in Dublin and Midleton.

Because they’ve been welcoming hundreds of thousands of visitors a year since 1997 (284,000 last year alone), Jameson operates a very smooth and visitor-friendly tour. Well-trained guides offer tours in multiple languages through the accessible facility. True, this is not a working distillery, so you won’t smell the bready fermentation or feel the heat of the copper pot stills, but the variety of offerings, beginner-friendly tasting, and the name recognition of this famous spirit make a visit to Jameson a good value for the whiskey curious—particularly with the 10% online booking discount.

Nuts and Bolts

  • The Old Jameson Distillery is open daily, guided tours operate through the day Mon–Sat 09:00–18:00; Sun from 10:00. Adult guided tours 15.00 euros, small sample of three whiskies and a standard 35.5mL drink or cocktail included. 10% discount for tours booked online in advance (strongly recommended).*
  • Restaurant, bar, and gift shop open at reception. Food, drinks, and other tasting packages (see current offerings here) are available during distillery opening hours. Barrelman’s Feast evening dinner & drink packages and other special events can be booked as available.
  • Smithfield is on the west side of Dublin’s city center, most easily reached by the Luas red line (SMITHFIELD stop). If the weather is nice, Smithfield is a pleasant walk along the river, passing the Christ Church Cathedral neighborhood and the green-domed Four Courts. While in Smithfield, consider also a visit to St. Michan’s Church with tours of the underground crypts or a stop at my favorite traditional music pub in Dublin, The Cobblestone.

*Opening hours, prices, and tour offerings current as of August 2015, and subject to change. Visit the Old Jameson Distillery website for current information and to book online. See my full disclosure for more about invited reviews.

Bottom of the Glass

After the tour, I learned about a fun collaboration between Jameson and Cork-based Irish craft brewery Franciscan Well. The almost-too-good-to-be-true story goes that executives from both companies bumped into each other in a Cork pub and struck up a conversation, ending with a handshake deal to team up.

In addition of pairing Franciscan Well brews with Jameson in American-style “beer backs” at the Old Distillery bar, they decided to experiment with whiskey-barrel-aged beers and beer-barrel-aged whiskies. The result?

Jameson Caskmates

Jameson Caskmates

A tasty (and successful) limited edition bottling for both companies. I tried the Jameson stout-aged Caskmates at the bar, and greatly enjoyed its coffee and chocolate sweetness. I look forward to seeing (and tasting!) more beer/whiskey collaborations like this in the future!

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