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6 February 2024

Tasting Jameson’s Bow Street 18 YO Batch 2 Review With Master Blender Billy Leighton

I was warmly greeted by Brendan as I ambled out of Dublin airport security. It’s been a while since I was last in Dublin and his easy charm and humour made me regret that as he escorted me over to the Jameson’s Bow Street Distillery, for a couple of days whiskey blending and tasting to launch the new Bow Street 18 YO Batch 2. In half an hour we had covered our similar family histories, Brexit and exchanged a jokey tale or two. It was good to be back.
Walking into the Jameson’s Distillery in Dublin, the only distillery in Dublin that ages whiskey casks on site, is a great way to start the working day. After a brief lunch and catch up with friends we were treated to the Bow Street Experience Tour. The compere alone makes this worth the trip, loud, funny, forthright and a dead ringer for Eddie Redmayne, he took us through the history of the distillery and Jameson’s founding fathers.
John Jameson and Son Irish Whiskey was actually established in 1810, but the Bow Street Distillery has been there since 1780, originally built by John Jameson’s wife’s cousins, the Steins, a Scottish distilling family from Clackmannanshire. Dublin was the centre of whiskey production at the time, but subsequent events put pressure on the company. Namely a trade war with the British over Irish Independence and prohibition in the USA which saw Ireland lose out to Scottish whiskies. In 1976 Irish Distillers opened the new Midleton Distillery in Cork  which now produces most of the Irish whiskey brands today.
The Jameson family motto is “Sine Metu” or without fear, awarded to the Jameson family for their bravery in fighting pirates off the Scottish coast. Piracy plagued the Western Isles of Scotland and even affected King James I as he was captured by pirates and sold to King Henry IV. Scottish piracy make fascinating reading, particularly with a fine Irish whisky in hand.
So it was without fear that I got stuck into batch 2 of the Jameson 18 Year Old Bow Street blend. I had not seen the master blender Billy Leighton since the launch of the Very Rare last year and it was great to catch up and find out what he had been up to and the inspiration behind this very successful blend. Our first sip was in the ageing cellar, straight out of the barrel, surrounded by the casks that had been brought up from Midleton that very morning for next year, the third batch for 2020.
The bung on the barrel is broken, a whiskey thief inserted and a small measure of liquid heaven removed and poured into a glass. This batch is at cask strength of around 55.5%, last year it was around 55.6 %. The taste is clean with a lovely soft mouthfeel, a distinctive floral note with a spicy aftertaste. Surprisingly smooth for cask strength.
A quick aside on the running discourse of whether to add water or not. Water does open a whiskey up and soften it, allowing the aromas to expand, but I’m with Mr Leighton that you should first sip it neat, just to take a proper measure of the body and perfume. After that it’s your own preference that matters.
The barrels used for this 18 year old are Sherry and Bourbon medium or Char 4, this is how Jameson can blend the whiskey within well defined parameters each year, delivering a consistent result to connoisseurs. Did I mention that it’s the only maturation site in Dublin? By the way the Angels Share, or whiskey lost to evaporation is 1 million bottles a year over all of Jameson’s output. Bet someone is working on a way to bring that back, or steal it…
This was followed by a conversation with Carol Quinn, Jameson’s historical archivist and Billy Leighton, master blender, revealing their favourite moments in Jameson’s history and their preferred tipple. See next articles for more about them.
Feeling very warmed up we moved on to the private bar for a blending lesson, where we would attempt to prepare our own 18 Year Old from a combination of a 2nd fill ex-Bourbon cask pot still whiskey 1999, 1st fill pot still whiskey Sherry Butt 1997 and 1st fill grain whiskey ex-Bourbon 1998. The 2nd fill ex-Bourbon 99 is super strong, you really taste the alcohol at 52% cask strength. But its not all about the cask strength as the 1st fill Sherry butt is very sweet yet its 58.1%, and should be used sparingly in the mix. The 1st fill grain ex Bourbon is smooth as anything at 53.4%.
I ended up creating a blend of 40% 2nd fill ex-Bourbon, 10% 1st fill Sherry Butt and 40% 1st fill ex-Bourbon grain, which was surprisingly good. But I won’t be taking master blender Billy Leighton’s job anytime soon, despite the daydreams.
Then it was on to the cheese pairing. Jameson’s have teamed up with local cheese suppliers Loose Canon in Drury Street to treat a few lucky people to a whiskey and cheese experience.  Kevin Powell from Loose Canon and Billy Leighton made it a grand event, and a few artisan cheeses and whiskies later, we had conclusive proof that whiskey is even better than wine with the right fermented dairy delights.
After a quick stop at the Hotel Merrion we convened at The Ivy for a superb meal in the ornate dining room, before a few snifters at the 9 Below bar, a stylishly decorated basement speakeasy with intimate and private rooms on the site of the old Hibernian Club, Stephens Green. A few more whiskies were supped and the conversation flowed easily well into the night.
Jameson’s whiskey are in an enviable position as one of the best selling whiskies in the world because they supply an extraordinarily good quality at every price point. It is hard to beat even their standard bottle for quality and price and the limited editions simply build on that. The Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Old Cask Strength, a special blend of rare pot still and grain Irish whiskeys, is quite simply magnificent. Smooth, unpeated, very much like a fine champagne cognac with subtle aromas of vanilla, caramel, herbs, figs, butter and woodland flowers.
Produced at the Midleton distillery and aged for almost two decades before finishing in casks in the Maturation House at the Jameson Distillery Bow Street in Dublin, this is Jameson’s rarest release and an absolute masterpiece, blending rich subtle flavours that last and the fascinating history of this legendary Irish distillery.  Jameson’s Bow St. 18 YO Batch 2 is an exceptionally fine whiskey that connoisseurs and new whiskey drinkers alike will adore.
Ruairi drove me back to the airport and turns out we knew a few good people in common, so more great conversations . Dublin is like that, a terrific town with a warm welcome. Jameson’s is the spirit of Dublin in liquid form.