In the dusty and dark Cooperage at Jameson’s Midleton distillery, Ger Buckley tends to the casks that will shape the profile of so many classic Irish whiskies. And for all the distilling and blending that takes place on these grounds, it’s in these barrels where that whiskey will spend the majority of its life. They’re important. For years precious liquid will sit in them, evaporate out of them, and mature between the staves of them. And something so important doesn’t simply get built and tossed away like a pair of worn sneakers. No, each barrel has a long, and mostly hidden, story. This is the life of a whiskey barrel.
Jameson barrels aren’t brand new—outside of a few and those Irish oak ones they are starting to mess around with. The American white oak casks used by Jameson are first used by bourbon makers in Kentucky. Three cooperages—Kelvin Cooperage, Barrels Unlimited, and Brown-Forman Cooperage—source and select barrels from the aforementioned distilleries and send them over to Jameson. Each offers certain desirable characteristics from the Quercus alba, the amount of toasting, and from the bourbon that sat in them.
Spanish sherry butts are the other barrels Jameson brings in. All of these casks come from Antonio Paez Lobato in Jerez, Spain. Antonio manufactures these casks, and they get seasoned with Oloroso sherry for two years in two different bodegas: Lustau and Páez Morilla. These butts are made from Spanish oak. Much of the whiskey from Jameson will see time in both these sherry butts and the ex-bourbon barrels.
Finally, Jameson sources port pipes from the Tacopal cooperage. These Portuguese oak barrels are seasoned with wine for a year and then with ruby port for two more.
With barrels in-house, Jameson starts to put them to good use. For example, when making Jameson Black Barrel, Ger Buckley overseas another toasting and charring of certain casks, and for Jameson Gold, some virgin oak barrels are tossed into the mix. If you want to really get a sense of the barrel’s importance, head to the distillery and pick up a bottle of Jameson’s 12 Year Old Special Reserve. That whiskey, which is only available there, highlights the toasted wood, spice, and sherry of the ex-bourbon casks and the sherry butts used in the 12 year maturation.
After years of helping develop fine hooch, it would be a shame to see these barrels hit the scrapheap. Luckily, they’ve got at least one more life left in them. The majority of the casks used at Jameson get sold off to other Pernod Ricard brands, where they’ll be used again for another spirit. Havana Club, in particular, gets many barrels from Jameson. Some barrels make their way into the hands of vinegar makers, while other find their way to craftsmen who make garden planter tubs and furniture.
At this point, some of these casks would have been around for more than a few decades. Like The Giving Tree, at some point, the wood just has nothing left to give.