There’s a theory (you can look it up and read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) referred to as the 10,000-hours rule, which basically says that if you practice something for that many hours you will pretty much be an expert at it. But the 10,000-hours rule notwithstanding, here is what makes someone an expert: a piece of paper.
Anyone who has watched the great and powerful Oz turn Scarecrow into a genius remembers how that wish was granted. The wizard handed the straw man a diploma and voila! Scarecrow starts doing math. Same deal for anyone who has messed about with the idea of getting an advanced degree. Having the paper makes you an expert and you’ll soon be rolling in offers of dream jobs and mounds of cash. Right? Likely not, but still, we can hope.
Today I would like to introduce you to the world’s newest whiskey expert: Me.
For the price of €14 (about $19) (minus the €3 that I got discounted with a outdated coupon from an old “What’s On in Cork” monthly tourist guide) plus an hour and a half of my time, I got a certificate that proves I am extremely knowledgable about all things whiskey.
Technically, my certificate states that I am a “Qualified Irish Whiskey Taster” which sounds like the good folks at Jameson’s distillery are covering their butts a bit. Since I also tasted some other whiskeys in my training (also known as a tour) I clearly ran the gamut of whiskey tasting, plus I did my own tests traveling through Ireland, I stand by my declaration of expertness.
On a recent visit to Cork city, I spent some time wandering about on foot, as I usually like to do on arrival when I am traveling. The city center is located on an island in the river Lee and it is small enough to cover ground pretty easily walking. The English Market is an institution in the city and a great place to have a meal, a beer or a coffee, and especially to buy the stuff you would need for a marvelous picnic lunch. Local cheeses and hams were my choice that day, plus some lovely fresh bread. If you have not been to Ireland before (or recently) you might think that all you will be dining on is boiled potatoes, cabbage and corned beef, but fear not! Irish cooks all over the country have been swept up into foodie heaven and came back down to earth creating scads of scrumptious stuff. You will still gain 5 pounds on your trip, but it won’t be from potatoes, I promise.
After polishing off my picnic I decided the sensible thing to do was have a drink. A benevolent bartender told me that I was just a short train ride away from the Jameson’s whiskey distillery in Midleton, a small town in east county Cork. Ten minutes walk from the English Market I found the train station, bought my ticket at the self-service kiosk and spent the ride studying up a bit on Irish whiskey.
I need not have bothered. My tour guide at the Jameson Experience was more knowledgable than the free brochure I had cadged from the tourist information office. For an hour and a bit she talked about the ingredients (barley, water and maize, which we in the USA like to call corn unless it’s Thanksgiving), and about roasting and malting, milling and fermenting, and all sorts of other processes that turn perfectly normally stuff into an elixir of Irish goodness.
Toward the end of our tour, in a darkened room at the very heart of whiskey-orama, where we were not allowed to take photographs, so deep were the secrets we were party to, our tour guide asked for volunteers–four women and four men–to take part in a whiskey tasting session. Well, I believe strongly in volunteerism and giving back, so I stepped right up and became one of the chosen eight. My education in whiskey was about to go from theoretical to some hands-on practical.
Our group was ushered into the Jameson’s Distillery bar, all polished wood and brass, with glowing lights and caring bartenders who poured us a free shot of Jameson’s whiskey (neat or rocks) or (my choice) a Jameson’s and ginger with lime. Once our pumps had been primed, we were seated at a table to begin our training as whiskey tasters. Each volunteer had laid before them on a table mat three small shot glasses with different whiskey styles: a Scotch whisky (no ‘e’ in the stuff from Scotland), Jameson’s, and an American whiskey: Jack Daniels.
My fellow-tasters and I learned that Scotch gets it’s particular smoky taste from the peat fires that the barley is roasted over. The Irish version was roasted over near-smokeless anthracite (coal) in the olden days, though now they use natural gas. Irish whiskey distillers are that sort of can-do folk, able to change with the times and still maintain tradition.
The distillation process also separates the whiskey styles. Jack Daniels goes through a single distillation, Scotch is distilled twice, while Irish whiskey is triple-distilled. According to Jameson’s, this process makes for a smoother spirit.
The upshot for me was that I finally figured out why I never quite loved Scotch: the peaty-smoky flavor. I think I liked the sound of peaty-smoky flavor more than anything else. Also, peat is a finite resource, so what happens when they run out? I fear for my Scotch-loving friends. The Jack, quite frankly smelled like a perfume worn by an old French man. Although I am not an expert in old French men.
I am now though, by virtue of my certificate, a Qualified Irish Whiskey Taster. An expert. And I would say that the version of Jameson’s we sampled had the scents of vanilla and honey. Just the right warm tones one wants in a whiskey. Plus I got a nifty three-ounce stainless steel flask in the gift shop that fits perfectly in the plastic quart zip-bag in my carry-on.
Back on the train to Cork city, I felt a warm glow for my fellow passengers and gratitude for my whiskey tour guide/trainer whose name I could no longer remember. I clutched the tube where my proof-of-expertness was rolled up, honored to have been chosen as a volunteer. I may have quietly laughed, just a little, at the 10,000-hour rule.