You have to be specific when talking whiskey with today’s aficionados because—for many of us—the concept of “whiskey” as a single, generic category is unfathomable. Rarely will we use the term without a regional prepositive like Scotch, Japanese, and Canadian, or a descriptor that signifies the type of whiskey, such as single malt or blended. But to the more casual drinker, the term “whiskey” can simply mean “brown booze,” and it’s interesting to think back to how that singular standard has changed from generation to generation. For example, if you ask my parents what "whiskey” means to them, they’ll tell you Seagram’s Seven Crown. Canadian blends dominated the drinking culture of their heyday and the sales statistics back up their conjecture. In 1970, Seagram’s sold 32 million cases of Seven Crown, which is 5 million cases more than what Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey sold in 2017—combined! Thus, you can see why they still consider a “whiskey and soda” to be a “7 and 7.” Seagram’s Seven was the definitive whiskey of their era.
David Wondrich, booze historian extraordinaire, was the first person I wanted to talk with about the idea of generationally definitive whiskey. I wondered if he had ever broached the subject matter, given that he frequently delves deeply into alcohol’s vast archives. “I do think it's generational, and regional,” he said; “Hell, I'm sure for a certain demographic ‘whiskey’ equals ‘Fireball.’ In my youth, in NYC, it would have generally implied blended Scotch or Bushmills; Bourbon wasn't fashionable and rye was rare.” David is a bit older than me, and I’m from Central California, thus my coming-of-age experiences were different. When I was in high school, “whiskey” meant Jack Daniels. At that time in rural Modesto cowboy culture still ruled the night, and kids my age would drive their pick-up trucks out into the orchards to take shots with Dr. Pepper chasers, if they couldn’t handle the straight No. 7.
By the time I got to college in Southern California, “whiskey” had evolved into Scotch. If someone was making a run to the liquor store and you asked them for “whiskey,” you were likely to get a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red in return. Going to rock shows in downtown San Diego, we’d ask for for “whiskey on the rocks,” which inevitably meant J&B at almost every venue. Today, however, when I ask my younger family members and friends what “whiskey” means to them, it’s unquestionably one thing and one thing only: Irish whiskey. More specifically, Jameson. The iconic County Cork brand is suddenly everywhere, permeating the habits of everyone around me. Old friends are pulling out bottles of Jameson at parties, while the millennials I observe at bars and restaurants order shots like it’s their last night on earth. “What are you drinking?” I asked a young woman recently at a local pub, having already watched the bartender pour her shot of Jameson.
“Whiskey,” she answered.
The statistics support my observations. As part of the “fastest growing spirit category in the world,” Jameson grew a whopping 11.3% from 2016 to 2017, and has shown no signs of slowing down with an additional 12% expected growth by the end of 2018. The brand has asserted an incredible dominance over the U.S. whiskey market in particular. To understand just how big Jameson has become with today’s young American drinkers, I’ll tell you a stunning statistic: the number two most-consumed Irish whiskey in the U.S. today is not Bushmills or Tullamore Dew, but rather Jameson Caskmates, the beer barrel-finished edition that uses stout and IPA cask enhancements to season the whiskey. In 2017, sales of Caskmates were up 110% and by the summer of 2018 the label became the second best-selling Irish brand in America, having successfully targeted a younger demographic. That means when the kids aren’t drinking a shot of Jameson with their beer, they’re drinking a shot of Jameson Caskmates with their beer instead.
Still not impressed? How about this: for a four-week period this year, sales of Jameson eclipsed Jack Daniels in the state of California, according to Nielsen data from October. If Americans are beginning to choose John over Jack, then a generational whiskey sea change may be upon us once again. Yes, there’s an Irish whiskey renaissance happening around the world, but what’s caught my attention recently is not just the popularity of Jameson specifically, but also the range of drinkers that make up the Jameson fanbase. Across cultures, age groups, class types, genders, and—most importantly—across regions, Jameson’s appeal is uniquely strong on all fronts, as evidenced by the conversations I had over the last few weeks.
Let’s start with the rock star.
David J. Haskins is one of the most influential rock musicians of the last forty years. From the inception of Bauhaus in England’s post-punk scene, to enormous mainstream success with Love & Rockets, he’s headlined some of the world’s biggest stages, including a legendary headlining set at Coachella in 2005. When I worked as the buyer for K&L Wine Merchants, David became both a whiskey client and a friend, and over the years I’ve sent him some very fine bottles of single malt. The man enjoys his whiskey and, given the selections he’s enjoyed, he has great taste. Yet, whenever I text him to ask how he’s doing and what he’s sipping on, he’s invariably drinking Jameson. Knowing he’s willing to spend more, and that he has a refined palate capable of appreciating world class spirits, I asked him why this particular whiskey? Why not mix it up? What is it that keeps him coming back?
“Jameson is the old dependable,” he told me; “It’s like that ‘forever there’ friend with whom you go way back. That one barstool buddy you can always count on to come through.”
With David’s fondness rooted in nostalgia, rather than the pull of current fashion, I had to wonder if Jameson’s growth might be linked to consumer paralysis in an overcrowded market, so saturated that drinkers end up defaulting back to what they already know and love. While sales of whiskey are still strong, the excitement that once bolstered the category has flattened. Very little of the whiskey released today is an improvement upon what came before it, and I have to think consumers are jaded as a result. As David J once famously sang, “It’s all the same thing, no new tale to tell.”
This is Alan Guillen. He’s a man who enjoys working with his hands: building and refurbishing cars, welding, and repairing construction equipment as an everyday 9 to 5. He’s also my wife’s cousin, and lately we’ve been spending a lot of time together at family functions, drinking late into the night and talking about life. Much of the time we’re pounding beer, while eating his mother’s incredible Mexican cooking, so I was shocked when I saw him carrying around a handle of Jameson at our recent Halloween hangout—a 2-liter of Ginger Ale alongside it for those who wanted mixed drinks. I asked him why he preferred Jameson, and he said:
“I like that Jameson is there when I need him. Smooth and subtle, and when I overindulge I can still function the next day.”
Like David J, Alan’s preference is based on tried-and-true dependability. Jameson is his go-to whiskey of choice when all else fails. But as to why Alan feels that way, it’s because Jameson is both satisfying and practical. It tastes good, it’s easy to drink, and it’s never overpowering. As much as we like to tell ourselves that drinking is an exercise in flavor appreciation, for most of us drinking is a means to an end. It’s an exercise in social enjoyment, one that’s meant to induce a very specific feeling and sense of euphoria. Finding that perfect formula, one that delivers each and every time, is what most of us are really looking for. So why are more and more drinkers turning to Jameson as the vehicle? As someone who has overindulged with Jack Daniels, Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal, and Jameson, I can tell you first hand: Jameson’s “smooth and subtle” character is the easiest to handle.
Two of my favorite people in this world are Eva and Ava Bai, the twin sisters behind Vale Jewelry, a New York-based, low-key luxury designer with a client list that includes celebs like Kelly Ripa and Sarah Jessica Parker. I met the Bai sisters a few years back, when my wife suggested we visit their showcase office on W 48th Street in Manhattan. We hit it off immediately, as we share the same wonderful addictions: food, fashion, and booze. I generally make a habit of sending wine when I want to surprise them with a gift, as both Eva and Ava have a fondness for Italian varietals and bubbles. What I didn’t know until recently was that the sisters also have sweet spot for Jameson. “You gals are fans?” I asked via text message, somewhat surprised.
Eva immediately responded: “Who doesn’t love Jameson? It’s a drink you can order at any bar, regardless of your mood. It’s easy and unhindered by the mystique that whiskies tend to have these days.”
Ava jumped in: “Same here. It’s such a classic drink, and it delivers a smooth finish. Which reminds me, we need to pick up another bottle for the showroom!”
When you start asking people outside of the industry about their preferences, away from the more serious savants in constant search of the next whiskey adventure, you realize that consistency and dependability still mean something to a majority of drinkers. Whereas the last decade saw a steady stream of consumer interest move away from the larger brand names, and towards boutique or “craft” expressions, the congestion of new labels coupled with the disappearance of age statements is clearly having an effect. Like stock traders moving money back into bonds at the threat of a bear market, I’m wondering if sporadic quality will start sending drinkers back into safer, more reliable waters, away from the barrage of confusing new releases.
Does a whiskey’s dependability have something to do with its definitiveness? I think so. In addition to the transitive fashions of taste and trend, satisfaction is ultimately what brings customers back for more. In order for a brand like Jameson to move beyond the confines of regionality and type, shedding the terms “Irish” and “blended” in exchange for the crown of “whiskey” as a whole, a combination of all those elements has to come together. How else could a single brand come to dominate an entire generational psyche?
With Jameson’s transcendence in the states, I was curious if the brand still held the same esteem at home, so I reached out to the most qualified, Irish-born whiskey drinker I know: Kate Flanagan, a California manager for Jameson’s parent company Pernod-Ricard. Kate’s been working for the drinks giant since she was recruited as a Jameson brand ambassador immediately following her university studies in Dublin. Not only is she well-versed on Jameson’s sales performance over the last decade, as a fan of the whiskey she’s also an avid consumer. “Growing up in Ireland, Jameson was a staple in every household, it still is,” she told me; “But what I remember most vividly is my dad ordering ‘a pint and a short,’ and the bartender always knowing what he meant: Guinness and a dram of Jameson. You didn’t have to specify”
We talked a bit about the increased demand for Jameson in California, the largest whiskey market in the U.S. and often a barometer for trends to come. I asked her specifically about the brand’s growing popularity, moving from the top-selling Irish whiskey in America to one of the top-selling whiskies—period. Obviously, the folks at Pernod-Ricard are aware of Irish whiskey’s renaissance. With the explosion of interest in Midleton’s pure pot still brands like Redbreast, Green Spot, and Powers, the category has never been hotter. But Jameson’s popularity is now such that it transcends the genre, and—from what I’ve seen—the brand is flirting with the aforementioned generational definitiveness, standing on the precipice of something much greater. “We’re very proud of Jameson’s achievements and what it has done for the Irish whiskey category,” Kate added, “but our ambitions are indeed beyond Irish. Jameson is a great whiskey, not just a great Irish whiskey.”
As I got off the phone with Kate, I received a text message from an old high school friend, one who—coincidentally enough—loves to drink whiskey. “Hey, do you still drink Jameson regularly?” I asked him.
“I’m drinking Jameson right now,” he replied.
“What is it you like so much about it?” I added.
“It’s consistent and always available. It’s a notch above all the rot gut nonsense. And it has drinkability. When I want whiskey, that’s what I want.”
How’s that for definitive?