Blending in Berlin
Hole & Corner meets the master blender of Jameson whiskey
The creative hub of Berlin and the heritage whiskey brand Jameson might not seem the most likely of combinations. But it is exactly that blend of youthful exuberance and hard-earned experience where the whiskey industry – and Jameson in particular – is thriving, discovering new audiences without compromising its traditions.
While the current trend for companies to reference the craft, heritage and provenance of their products may be a little frustrating for brands like Jameson, who have always stressed that side of their story, it is equally a great time to introduce some fresh palates to the scene. Which is why we find ourselves at Berlin’s Sauvage, the first Paleo restaurant in Europe, cooking using ‘all natural’ ingredients, completely free of grains, gluten, refined sugar, dairy or vegetable oils. Here – before we tuck into the Sauvage menu, featuring honey fermented garlic cream on toasted yucca bread and pan-fried scallops flamed with whiskey with wasabi cream, grass-fed sauerbrauten, back of Ruppiner lamb and sweet-potato gnocchi, among other delights, we are introduced to Oisín Davis, Jameson’s cocktail maestro to enjoy some of Dublin’s finest creations. We can certainly recommend the Tipperary – not a mixer in sight.
Still, it wouldn’t be Hole & Corner if we didn’t seek out a character with the right balance of dedication and expertise: step forward Jameson’s master blender, Billy Leighton, most certainly the man to provide a fitting story of craft, passion and skill…
It’s a complex role you fulfil, can you give us some detail on the role you have within the Jameson brand?
I suppose one of the key functions is my part in ensuring the consistency of the high quality of the brands, and that means managing the maturing stocks so that the appropriate whiskey is available on time. It sounds simple, but when you consider the complexities of the individual formulations of each brand in respect of spirit type, cask type and age, then you can appreciate how critical the job is. So I am not only looking after maturing stock, but also advising the distiller on volumes required to be laid down each year as well as what type of casks the new-make spirit should be filled in to.
On a day-to-day basis, I will be screening cask samples, particularly for the premium brands. These brands are put together on a batch-by-batch basis, so each individual cask will be approved by myself. Each brand has its own formulation so I must ensure that each cask going into every batch, is appropriate to the style of the particular brand.
Can you give us an insight into your journey to become a Master Blender?
My career with Irish Distillers began back in November 1976 when I joined Bushmills Distillery as a trainee accountant. After 12 years in Finance, an opportunity arose to move into production and over time gained experience in most aspects of whiskey production. Then in 2003, when the retirement of my predecessor Barry Walsh was announced, I was in the fortunate position to call on the previous experience in finance and production when I was offered the role of deputy chief blender. Barry retired in 2004 and I had the honour of becoming the new master blender for Irish Distillers.
How have things changed?
I suppose one of the biggest changes since I came in to the business is the renewed interest in the Irish Whiskey category.
This has driven production to levels that were unimaginable 10 or 15 years ago. This has called for a streamlining of production processes particularly with regard to efficiencies, yields and so on. Some critics say that where there is a demand for high volume production, then you lose the craft aspect of the business. I tend to disagree because I feel that there is additional craft required in order to achieve the same results.
Do you envisage this role continuing for decades to come? Do you have apprentices?
There will always be a need for a master blender and I would be happy to fill that role while I am able. The role itself can be regarded as the focal point with regard to product consistency and as such, there will be a number of colleagues from different disciplines feeding in. But I feel that it is important that the number of people who control of the formulation of the brands is kept to a minimum, to avoid potential confusion with the management of the stocks and thus subsequent issues with consistency of supply.
How important is the human element in the blending process?
There is no substitute for the human element in whiskey blending. We have a laboratory full of very sophisticated analytical equipment, but when it comes down to deciding whether cask is best suited to Jameson Gold Reserve rather than Jameson 18-year-old, it’s the nose makes the call.
What’s your particular blend?
I don’t have a favourite blend, I don’t think the master blender would be expected to have a favourite. With the inside knowledge that I have, I can sit down and enjoy any of the Jameson blends, maybe with just a splash of water.
Is it easy for you define what makes Jameson different from other whiskeys. Scotch whiskey for example?
I think what sets Jameson aside from other whiskeys is the inclusion of the Irish Pot Still Whiskey component in all the blends. From the initial silky smooth mouth-feel to the spicy flavour profile, from the Original Jameson Blend through the premium range, there is something to suit every taste. Versatility is the key.
The forecasting is a complicated process, especially in light of the emerging markets and more youthful audience whiskey is attracting – how do you deal with this?
By law distilled spirit cannot even be called whiskey unless it has been stored in a wooden cask for a minimum of three years, so accurate forecasting is critical. Bear in mind that the whiskey demanded from all the Jameson brands is sourced from one single distillery. Not only am I considering the profile of existing maturing stock (from which the ‘angels’ take their share at a rate of about 2% per year – in other words, it’s lost to evaporation) but also we have to give the distillery an indication of what has to be produced over the next number of years. To achieve this, I have to have a 40-year forecast of the demand for each brand. Luckily I have a piece of software that was developed to help with this exercise.