Jameson’s Master Blender, Billy Leighton befits his title with one of the best noses in the industry. He talks to us about the process of perfecting the Irish tipple, from handpicking each cask for an increased flavor profile to the right mix of pot still and grain whiskey, culminating in a fruity, charred or […]
Jameson’s Master Blender, Billy Leighton befits his title with one of the best noses in the industry. He talks to us about the process of perfecting the Irish tipple, from handpicking each cask for an increased flavor profile to the right mix of pot still and grain whiskey, culminating in a fruity, charred or even mellow finish in the glass. ANDIE CUSICK
How would you describe what you do as a Master Blender for Jameson?
It all revolves around quality. So the role of Master Blender involves ensuring that everything is in place, by way of spirit type, cask type and age profile of stock, in order that we can maintain the consistent high quality across our range of brands.
Tell me a bit about yourself, where you are from, how long you’ve been blending and what sparked your interest in the craft?
My career with Irish Distillers started back in November 1976 when I joined as a Trainee Accountant. I moved into production in 1988 and that job evolved over the years until I was appointed to the post of Deputy Chief Blender. There was never any moment when I decided that a Whiskey Blender was what I was going to be.
What elements of the role do you enjoy most? And the least?
The challenge of creating a new product is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the role, especially if it is well received at the launch. One of the downsides of the role is the amount of time I spend away from home. I travel quite a bit, but I can honestly say that my favorite place in the world is my hometown of Portstewart on the North coast of County Londonderry.
Would you say blending is a natural talent or a skill you acquire through training?
I guess you have to have a bit of a flair for blending; training can only help to a degree. For me, the key thing is an intimate knowledge of your stocks because unless you have all your components available as and when your brands demand, then life can become quite difficult.
In your role, how many whiskey samples would you test in a day, and how many would you actually taste, if any?
By its nature, the role does not require me to be in the lab every day, but there could be days when I might be screening close to 300 cask samples. This would be done by nose only, tasting is kept to a minimum, but still has to be done at times, for example when creating tasting notes and profiling products.
What, to you, defines Jameson whiskey?
What connects the complete Jameson family is the traditional Irish Pot Still whiskey from its subtle flavors in Jameson Original to the more robust character of Jameson Gold Reserve.
Do all Jameson whiskies mix Irish grain, Irish pot still sherry and Irish pot still bourbon?
The Jameson family are all blends of Irish Grain and Irish Pot Still whiskies and they all use bourbon and Oloroso sherry casks, with the exception of Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve. Vintage Reserve was designed to showcase various expressions of fortified wine cask maturation. So the current Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve is a blend of Grain and Pot using bourbon and ruby port casks.
Why is it necessary to mix grain with another type of whiskey?
The Jameson style is the blending of Grain with Pot so that is not going to change. However, if you consider the renewed interest in Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey, it is not absolutely necessary to include Grain, but you have a completely different style of whiskey.
What varying tasting characteristics do you look for in your whiskies?
As Blender I would be very close to the construction of each product, so there are certain elements I would be looking for to varying degrees depending on the brand. From the distillate point of view I would be looking for the lighter sometimes floral notes from the grain and more robust spicy notes from the pot. Then the cask contribution, vanilla and charred oak from the bourbon and the rich fruity character of the sherry. Then the added depth that comes about with age.
Could you briefly tell me about the various casks you use and the importance of these choices in wood/age/previous use?
The quality of the casks we use is as important as the quality of the distillate we fill into them. For me, as Blender, this gives me the confidence that the mature product will meet my expectations. We take special care over the quality of the casks we procure, whether they be from America or traditional fortified wine casks from Europe. We cycle the casks three times and each cycle offers different characteristics to work with. So taking all the permutations of spirit type, cask type and age, it makes it possible for the Blender to create a range of products each with an unique formulation.
What distinguishes a mediocre whiskey from a brilliant whiskey, in your opinion?
At Irish Distillers we don’t do mediocre whiskey. However, I can relate to my experience on the judging panel of some international competitions. For me, all the elements that make up a whisky (deliberate omission of the ‘e’) must be in harmony. There should be no single characteristic, which dominates, neither should there be separation of flavours. I would be looking for a well-balanced infusion of flavor.
To add water or not?
Don’t instinctively add water. Try a little sip first, hold it in your mouth for a few seconds, then decide if you need to add a little splash.
How do you drink yours? And what’s your current favorite?
As above. It is a very unfair question to ask a Blender. I have a very personal connection to all the brands I am responsible for, so to pick one would be like choosing you favorite child. Just now, like any responsible father, I would tend to pay a little more attention to the newest member of the family, Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel, to make sure that it keeps up the reputation of the family name.