Sunday 15 April, 2012

Perfecting My Irish

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Brand Ambassadors are the field lieutenants of the spirits world: all the marketing displays and advertisements in the world can’t replace what they do in terms of communicating a product’s potential and best uses to the people who sell it, and drink it. I know a lot of great brand ambassadors, but following Jameson’s Kate […]




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Brand Ambassadors are the field lieutenants of the spirits world: all the marketing displays and advertisements in the world can't replace what they do in terms of communicating a product's potential and best uses to the people who sell it, and drink it. I know a lot of great brand ambassadors, but following Jameson's Kate Flanagan around Vegas for a day for this Tasting Panel magazine story was a great way to see how much flexibility and how much focus they have to balance. Oh, I also got to sample some wonderful drams.

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Photo by Danielle DeBruno

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Jameson isn’t just a popular drink, or a historic brand. In Ireland, it’s practically a way of life. So when Kate Flanagan talks about telling her father back in County Lough that she’d joined the company as one of six Brand Ambassadors for the US, you can almost hear the emotion and pride.

Despite 230 years under its belt, Jameson has seen its US sales increasing markedly this decade (3 million cases in 2011), even while faced with ever-expanding competition from American, Irish, Caribbean and other brown spirits. To experience how a venerated label stays fresh and vibrant, THE TASTING PANEL asked Flanagan to let us tag along on a typical day in her Ambassador life, visiting a variety of Jameson-friendly venues.

“You have to have a lot of energy,” says Flanagan, “and really like meeting people.”

Flanagan, 24, handles all of Colorado, Nevada and Arizona for Pernod Ricard’s Irish Whiskies, but in her first few months, Kate’s spent almost her entire time in Las Vegas—hardly surprising considering the number of venues and volume of consumption in Sin City. What does surprise, though, is Jameson’s top account here: it’s not a big steakhouse or cigar lounge on the Strip, but the decidedly downmarket off-Strip punk club Double Down, who move up to three cases a week (in the nightclub world, it’s The Cosmopolitan’s Marquee that dominates). Flanagan will end her day there at a midnight promotion for Jameson & Ginger highballs. But there are miles to go before she gets there.

McMullan's Irish Coffee

McMullan's Irish Coffee

McMullan’s

Next door to the locals-friendly Orleans Hotel & Casino, McMullan’s Irish Pub may resemble just another typical tavern from the outside, but indoors, it is a serious replica of the old country. Flanagan greets Head Barman and Manager Dallas Perry, making sure he has the full line behind the bar, including 12 Year Old Special Reserve, Gold Reserve, 18 Year Old Limited Reserve, and award-winning Rarest Vintage Reserve.

“These are the best Irish Coffees in all Vegas,” Flanagan tells me in her soft lilt, proffering a small goblet filled with fresh black coffee and standard Jamesons with a thick cap of whipping cream. It is, indeed, perfectly blended and balanced, drinking with dangerous ease—a great way to kickstart a day.

Flanagan discusses St. Patrick’s Day plans in the works, obviously including some of her biggest promotions of the year, such as a whiskey festival at the elegant off-Strip M Resort, and a special bar crawl which will feature a unique Jameson signature cocktail at each stop.

Bar & Bistro

Speaking of stops, next, Flanagan heads to Vegas’ burgeoning Arts Factory and the popular loft-like Bar + Bistro, whose owners Wes Isbutt and Debra Heiser are brown spirits fans in general, and strong Jameson supporters specifically. Flanagan gives the staff a refresher tasting of the Jamesons line, as well as Red Breast–the only single pot still Irish whiskey available Stateside–that one calls “the gateway drug” to all Irish Whiskies (that’s a compliment). She also revisits the success of a Jameson Fusion Dinner they held just last week, featuring Jameson-infused and paired dishes by Chef Beni Velazquez, like Marcona almond rainbow trout (cooked with Midleton Very Rare) and whiskey ice cream made with Jameson Gold.

“Everything you need to know about Jameson is right on the bottle,” Flanagan tells them, retracing the story of John Jameson founding his Dublin distillery in 1780, when there were some 2000 such houses in Ireland. Today, Jameson is one of only three, and the family motto “Sine Metu” (Without Fear) has become a popular bartender tattoo.

What separates Irish Whiskies from Scots—a common question—is principally in the process. No peat is used to dry the barley, which means the product is naturally less smoky, and following John Jameson’s original process, they distill three times (rather than the Scots’ two), also adding to the smoothness. Lastly, the various products are not only a combination of more robust pot still and lighter column still, but also from a variety of recipes, and aged in a variety of woods, including sherry casks, bourbon barrels, and port pipes.

“A lot of poetry goes into the maturation process,” she muses.

Crescent School of Gaming and Bartending

“Essentially, my role is education and mentoring,” says Flanagan on our way to the next stop, a well-established training ground for casino employees. The Crescent school isn’t really a client (most of the bar training is practiced with colored water), but Flanagan’s complimentary tasting for the students is more than altruistic. “Get them while they’re young,” she half-jokes us as we pull into the parking lot. To be sure, a bartender familiar and comfortable with Jameson, is one who’s likely to hand sell it more.

Here, Kate lets down her hair and has fun, repeating the key tasting points of the Jameson line and distilling process while sharing her own insights on the bartender’s role. “People don’t go to a bar just to drink, you could do that at home,” she notes. “You go for the experience, and you guys play the lead role in that.” While Crescent instructor Bret Stanley (who won a mixology contest with a Jameson-based cocktail) directs the 30 students on how to properly nose and taste the whiskey, Flanagan stresses the importance of asking the customer’s preference for “neat” or “rocks.”

“To me, it’s the taste of the product that really matters,” says Kate, adding suggestions for different easy mixers (ginger ale, cranberry juice, even orange juice shots or pickle juice backs). She recommends the 18 Year Old as a dessert drink, and suggests that “If a girl came to your bar who wasn’t sure she liked whiskey, I’d upsell Gold Reserve to her.”

Stanley offers the unofficial statistic that “whiskey drinkers tip an average of 30% on drinks,” before Kate gives a pop quiz, awarding bottle openers to the winners, and mentioning that Jameson sponsors an annual Bartenders Ball on the Strip as a way of thanks.

Vanguard's Deconstructed Irish Car Bomb

Vanguard's Deconstructed Irish Car Bomb

Vanguard Lounge

“I don’t miss anything Jameson involved,” says bartender Stan Stilwell at our next stop, the Vanguard, one of the more serious mixology spots in downtown Vegas. “Your dedicated Jameson drinkers are downtowners,” Flanagan tells us,. Unlike other brands, Jameson is more interested in supporting real patrons than promoting image. “We have many celebrity advocates,” she says, “but we don’t invest in that at all.” While Flanagan and Vanguard manager Nathan Greene discuss an upcoming cocktail competition there that Jameson is sponsoring, Stilwell makes us one of their signature drinks, The MacGruber, described as a “deconstructed Irish Car Bomb” with Guiness Stout foam and Kona coffee-infused Jameson, The malty nose gives way to a sweet milky mouth coddling full Jameson flavor. A real winner.

“I’m picking up a big undertone of heaven,” says Stilwell, over a glass of the 18-year-old, neat. And when the Rarest Vintage is poured, even the bar’s owner appears out of nowhere to share.

Whiskey Attic

Flanagan’s next stop is something of a Brigadoon–a place steeped in Las Vegas legend. Created by University of Nevada professor Adam Carmer, the Whiskey Attic is part saloon and part museum, a tasting room dedicated to collecting every single brown spirit ever made. Yet with literally thousands of unique bottles, Carmer still reserves a very prominent shelf for the Jameson line. “There’s nothing better in all of Ireland,” he says of their Midleton Very Rare, pouring a sampling alongside the simpler but classic Paddy and a few other rarities. Carmer’s enthusiasm and knowledge is both infectious and overwhelming.

And, as the witching hour nears, Flanagan is off to the Double Down. “Jameson is actually comfortable with the grittier side of things,” Flanagan confides. Clearly, this is a spirit that can go anywhere.


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