Jameson Caskmates is one the newest additions to the Jameson family and one of a string of new innovation releases from Irish Distillers.
Jameson has created a stout finished Irish whiskey using craft stout seasoned barrels from the Franciscan Well brewery in Cork City. This new whiskey is a creative new direction for the Jameson NAS whiskey portfolio, taking a step aside from the stereotypical ex-bourbon & ex-oloroso sherry barrels.
I was very lucky in 2015 to be able to work with the brand owner for Caskmates in Irish Distillers. I tied in to the global launch for a domestic promotion and thankfully got to know this exciting brand quite well.
The whiskey itself is incredibly smooth, the characteristic Jameson smoothness is complemented by the creamy hops imparted by the stout seasoning. The vanilla and caramel tones from Jameson original are joined by the hops once again but are followed closely by notes of milk chocolate, nut and a small amount of coffee.
Caskmates was announced late 2014 with 3,000 bottles initially released in what appears to be a, small scale, consumer trial within Ireland. The success of the new brand has lead to a global release for Caskmates, which saw the brand enter the US, UK, Canada, Australia, France, South Africa and travel retail from August 2015.
The initial release bottles, which closely resembled the original Jameson bottle design, had a red cap and a Jameson label with a black and white label. The bottle for the global release has some identifiable changes. The red Jameson cap has been swapped out for a matte black finish and the label itself has been reworded and reprinted in spot UV for an almost “craft” matte finish. The black/white label very cleverly mimics the aesthetics of a pint of stout.
This new innovative direction is definitely a hat tip to the “craft explosion” that is happening worldwide. Irish Distillers are taking the craft brewery idea of whiskey barrel aged beer and flipping it on its head, creating a beer barrel aged whiskey.
The marketing story goes:
Initially the Irish whiskey behemoth loaned several bourbon barrels to Franciscan Well to age their stout beer. After 12 months of aging their stout the barrels were returned to the Midleton distillery in Cork. At this point the Master Distiller saw an opportunity to possibly create something new and exciting. The barrels were subsequently filled with Jameson original for six months and thus Caskmates was born.
The real story goes:
Barrels were loaned to Franciscan Well brewery. After being used and disgorged the barrels were forgotten about in the small Cork brewery until IDL eventually picked them up. Somebody is Midleton did have an amazing idea to fill these barrels with Jameson original and see what affects the stout would have on them. The barrels were forgotten about a second time, until a warehouse manager asked for these random barrels to be moved or properly stored. After remembering that they had tucked away the team in Midleton discovered that their experiment had worked and Caskmates was born.
Personally I like both stories but I can definitely see why the marketing version was decided upon!
Now it must be said that there are some differences between the initial run of Caskmates (commonly enough referred to as the “red cap release”) and their globally released brothers and sisters. The initial run of Caskmates had the luxury of being finished for a longer period of time in the seasoned barrels. Whereas, the new global release is seeing shorter maturation times in the barrels. Funnily enough, I asked the head of Production down in Midleton how they were producing so much Caskmates if Franciscan Well was so small. He informed me that Franciscan Well stout was now being produced in the brewery in Midleton to facilitate the hugely increased demand for the seasoned barrels.
The production methods aren’t the only things to have changed. There are some definite differences in the nose and palate of these two first cousins. The red cap (1st edition) still displayed a lot of the chocolate, coffee and nut that current Caskmates are known for although it boasted a beautiful creamy mouth feel paired with much stronger chocolate notes. The current edition has much more influence from caramel, citrus and surprisingly a much larger hoppy body. And a word to the wise, if you do see a “red cap” out in the wild, pick it up and try them side by side you won’t be disappointed at all.
Personally, I think that this is a fantastic and very inventive way to encapsulate the “craft” market that many small breweries and distilleries are tapping into without subscribing to misleading advertising. Many drinks companies are being very liberal with their claims of craft distilling but this collaboration with a craft brewery opens the door for a legitimate claim to a semi-craft product, even though a drinks industry giant like Irish Distillers produces it. The stout seasoned barrels appear to be the backbone of the Caskmates brand going forward. That said the craft revolution of the brand isn’t stopping there. Craft isn’t very craft when you mass-produce the same product and never touch the recipe again.
Therefore, Jameson are creating local releases with craft breweries that are outside of Ireland too. This will see local releases of Jameson Caskmates that will have beer finishes from micro/craft breweries in that geographic area. Craft breweries in foreign markers are aging their beers in Jameson barrels before shipping the barrels back to be refilled with Irish whiskey in Midleton. This creates the opportunity to have regional craft beer releases of Caskmates in specific markets around the world.
For example, in London, Beavertown brewing have collaborated with Jameson to create a 500-bottle run of stout seasoned Caskmates from the London area. In New York, Kelso brewing out of Brooklyn have helped create an IPA edition of Caskmates that will feature on the east coast of the US with a 3,500-bottle release. These are the first scheduled collaborations with the Caskmates brand across both sides of the pond. I think this is extremely exciting for a brand that is only having its official worldwide release next month. I can’t wait to see what experimental brews these craft breweries come up with in the future for the Caskmates brand.
Furthermore, in my own opinion, I absolutely foresee the “Jameson Drinking Buddies” initiative translating into these breweries creating the seasoned barrels for new regional additions to the Caskmates portfolio.
The Drinking Buddies project sees Jameson inviting 5 craft breweries from the US (Deep Ellum; Dallas, Hillard’s; Seattle, Angel City; LA, Great Divide; Denver and Captain Brewing; NY) to the Midleton distillery. There they were given Jameson barrels to create a unique craft beer product in their own towns. Each of these breweries are creating their own stamp on craft culture using the name and barrels of Irish whiskey. From IPAs, pecan stouts to imperial red ales they are crafting beautiful whiskey barrel aged beer and once the beers have matured I have a sneaking suspicion that these barrels might find their way back across the Atlantic and once again be a vessel for maturing Irish whiskey…. Dark lager Caskmates anyone?
Regardless of whether or not Jameson Drinking Buddies spawns a new set of Caskmates the current additions to the seriously innovative brand are truly very exciting. Hopefully I will find some good friends abroad who will tuck away a bottle or two for me. I see big things for this brand as a stand-alone section of the Jameson portfolio. While the whiskey itself may be opting for a craft finish the price certainly isn’t. Sticking to the Jameson standard of 40% CF, the bottles recommended retail price is €38.99 in Europe (700ml) and $29.99 in the US
(750ml). This is a craft finished whiskey with a not so craft price tag, which is very refreshing. This creates a very affordable non-age statement whiskey, which is certainly worth the money. Midleton seem to be very on-point with their recent releases so I am very excited to see what the rest of 2016 holds from them.