Today we battle it out with two titans of Irish whisky: Bushmills white label and Jameson Irish. Both being blends they are made from grain whisky (made from any cereal grain, often maize, in a column still) and pot still whisky. To be called ‘pot still’ whisky, the formal rule states (quoted from an excellent article here from Pernod Ricard):
The Irish Whiskey Technical File lists that Irish Pot Still Whiskey must be made from a mash which contains a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley, with up to 5% of other cereals such as oats and rye added if required.
Note the use of unmalted barley, which differentiates Irish from Scotch whisky. Other rules state that the aging must be at least 3 years in oak. Like most Irish whiskies, the pot still component of both are triple distilled. The law states for a blend it must be “a mixture of any two or more of the styles of malt, pot still, and grain whiskey” (source whiskyadvocate).
How do they differentiate themselves?
Straight out of the gate, Bushmills hits you with the ‘we’ve been here for 400 years’ tagline, and they lay that claim on somewhat shaky ground (there was a royal charter for a distillery in the area in 1608, but there has not been continual production since.) They have a firmer foundation to claim establishment in 1784, plenty long ago, while Jameson started four years earlier, in 1780. With that head start, Jameson is, according to Wikipedia, ‘by far the best-selling Irish whisky in the world’ at 7.3 million cases. Cases, not liters.
But all that is history. The question is, given modern production methods, who makes the best blended Irish whisky between the two? We’re not comparing craft marques here. These are big producers owned by international liquor conglomerates – Proximo Spirits (Bushmills) and Pernod Ricard (Jameson). At $25 a bottle locally (Oregon) for Jameson and $24 for Bushmills, we’re comparing moderately priced, blended whisky you should feel comfortable sipping or mixing without guilt.
Bushmills, scrappy sub-titan
According to Whisky.com, the Bushmills distillery boasts a production of 4.5 million liters a year, roughly 1/10 that of Jameson.
On the Bushmills web site they take the time to cover the history of whisky-making in Ireland, specifically the Irish malt tax, which made distilling from barleycorns (corn) cheaper than distilling from malt. They take a swipe at their competition – “the biggest and most infamous Irish blended whiskeys use only corn” – and point out that Bushmills continues to use some malt in their mash bill. Well, of course: Irish law mandates either full malt or (part-malt) pot still whisky be blended with the grain component. They also claim to be the only Irish distiller that makes, matures and bottles its product on site. I have seen several sources about Bushmills White label that list the pot-still component at 55% and aged five years. That’s typical for a non-ABV blend.
Aged in what, you may ask. On the focus site for Bushmills Original, they state both bourbon and sherry barrels are used for aging. I find that surprising given the light color of the final spirit. There cannot be much sherry-finished spirit in that vat. As you can see in the photo above, the spirit is a very light amber.
Jameson, the titan
The Jameson website states they age their pot still and grain whiskies for a minimum of four years. That’s at least a year longer than required by law, but it’s not a long time for a sipping whisky and a year less than Bushmills. They also mention triple distillation. And that’s all we know of Jameson from their own site.
The author of coolmaterial.com visited the Jameson distillery. They have some interesting details, such as all Jameson’s barley is Irish (there is not enough barley in all Ireland for the totality of Irish whisky production) and the fact sherry casks are used along with ex-bourbon casks for aging. Given the deeper color of the Jameson Irish compared to Bushmills, I can believe they include sherry casks in the vat – either more of the blend comes from sherry casks or they use earlier-generation casks (for example, first and second fills vs. third and fourth-fill). Of course some of that color can come from good old e150 (caramel color), but we’ll be looking for sherry aromas on the nose.
And Jameson’s reason for using barley corn as well as malt? For a spicier taste. Nothing about taxation. Frankly their marketing department fudges about as much as Bushmills does. Unsurprisingly, the folks at Jameson would not disclose to the coolmaterials author how much of their blend was grain vs. pot still whisky. By the way, you wonder how Jameson can produce so much product? They use ten 80,000-liter pot stills. Those are massive stills! In the larger Scottish distilleries you’ll see stills 1/4 that size (Glenfarclas uses 20,000 liter stills and those are considered quite large).
Enough already, which tastes better?
Upon opening many a single malt, my little computer room often is enveloped by aroma. On pouring a Bushmills, not so much. A bit of sherry does reach me (confirming some amount of sherry maturation) and a closer sniff unveils red apple and herbal aromas reminding me of green bell pepper and fresh parsley. A deeper sniff gets its characteristic dusty nose. We’re dealing with subtleties here so I covered the glass, aired out the room and poured the Jameson. The James also gives a hint of sherry on the pour. The fruity nose carries red plum as well as red apple, and a deep sniff uncovers their mineral content – not as clearly evident as Bushmills, though; more wet granite than dust. There is more malt and rising bread-dough in the Jameson nose and a hint of herbal aroma.
Jameson claims they use corn for spice, and there is some balanced spice on the palate. The finish reminds me of red lollipops my mom would always buy around Valentine’s day; they were a local tradition and I haven’t seen them in many years. Jameson Irish is not overly sweet. They’ve balanced the palate with vanilla, gentle tannins and faint remnants of herbs. Overall, a very different experience than Scotch blends, which tend to be very sweet with some oak and little else. Also to note, neither whisky stings the nose, probably due to the triple distillation.
On the palate, the Bushmills has a lighter toffee sweetness than the Jameson. It is laid back, with less spice and less oak. The herbal element found on the nose does not upset the balance, it’s rather muted on the palate, loitering on the finish. The mid-palate will catch a citrus flavor, which to me comes across as Valencia orange. Bushmills is smooth by virtue of less excitement.
I’d say it’s not a knockout on either side. While Jameson is a bit richer on the toffee, they surely have more going on with lively oak – those Spanish sherry casks make their mark. Jameson would make more impact than the Bushmills in a cocktail. Someone wanting a less punchy dram would go for the Bushmills. It’s less-forward golden toffee remains more evident than the thicker, browner Jameson toffee simply by virtue of not being overwhelmed by spicy oak and tannins
Bushmills Original Irish Whisky (While label), 40% ABV
Nose: A light aroma of sherry, red apple green bell pepper and fresh parsley.
Palate: Golden toffee, gentle tannins to balance, oranges, a hint of its herbal nose.
Finish: Fairly quickly cleans up both the sweet and bitter elements, leaving a hint of herbs.
Jameson Irish Whisky, 40% ABV
Nose: Red apple, red plum,fresh bread, wet granite.
Palate: Dark toffee balanced with vanilla, dry oak and woody spice.
Finish: Sucrose, vanilla, gentle tannins and faint remnants of herbs.
Bottom Line: I’ve always been a Bushmills guy and never really gave Jameson a try as a sipping whisky. If I had any it always ended up in coffee. I came away with a better appreciation for the stuff. It’s fairly rich in its sweetness and if not complex, has some interesting flavors. Considering the mass quantities at which they produce it, it’s a really nice alternative to Scotch blends for those who are peat-smoke averse, or who don’t want cloying sweetness of the less costly Scotch blends. Bushmills still holds its own for its unique character. It boasts citrus and more forward herbal notes, but it is a bit less full-bodied than Jameson.