malt for the heart

It all began in the heady 1980s, in the basement of a smoke-filled bar called Jameson's, right in downtown, thriving Joburg of the time.

It all began in the heady 1980s, in the basement of a smoke-filled bar called Jameson's, right in downtown, thriving Joburg of the time.

As always, journalists are birds of a feather that always flock together; drink themselves motherless together and commiserate together - except for sharing the nitty gritties of their stock-in-trade.

For good measure, the whiskey that warmed the cockles of many a journo's heart - almost invariably - shared the name with the bustling bar. And, whenever a journo slumped over the bar, having slurped inestimable amounts of the tipple, and speech reduced into a whispering slur, the barman knew from the goofy eyes that the bitter remedy was not to close the tap but to continue administering the prescription. It was common occurrence that hardly generated curiosity or derision among the comradely lot. If scoops were the oil that kept the newspapers running, then booze was the grist that kept journos - so to speak - on their feet.

The crux of these reminisces is to note the uncanny way in which the past tends to catch up with the future. The same Jameson whiskey, first sampled by myself in those soggy 1980s, was to pave the way for my first trip to Ireland, whence the distillate originates, nearly 20 years later.

Well, Jameson's journey of discovery normally leads to two nodal points: one to Dublin and the other to Cork. Cork is the second city of the Republic of Ireland and it's third most populous, after Dublin and Belfast, with a population of about 190000.

But it is in the heart of Dublin where the real story began, when one John Jameson, inspired by his family credo Sine Metu - Without Fear - founded his distillery in 1780. It then took about 300 people to run the distillery and to produce five million litres of the spirit yearly.

About 227 years later, Jameson's heritage is today's top-selling whiskey throughout the world - with South Africa in the Top 10 of the countries wallowing in the spirit.

If Dublin be the soul of Jameson, then its Midleton distillery in Cork is renowned as its heart. Fortunately my pilgrimage pointed to Cork, and my heart almost leapt out of my chest in anticipation of the joys of putting the finger on the pulse of the world-renown-ed spirit.

Having whizzed through London's Heathrow Airport, where even the whisper of the name al-Qaeda can lead to the closure of the gateway in seconds, I was relieved to be finally en route to Cork on a connecting Aer Lingus flight. The fact that terrorism has a dark face to it - never mind the darkly intentions - consciously attracts attention to Africans at Heathrow. Just coughing as an African, or even sweating as I do so often at the hint of heat, can set off alarms and frantic searches through one's bags.

Which, inevitably, happened to me.

Relieved to be out of London, nothing had prepared me for a blushful episode that was to unfold aboard Aer Lingus.

At first there was nothing unusual that every white passenger aboard had their heads buried in their copies of Ireland's popular daily paper, The Independent. This was until my eyes connected with page one's screaming headline. Quoting some weirdo, renowned professor credited with discovering DNA, the headlines read: Africans less intelligent than Europeans.

Unsure whether my sheepish smile and diffident body language would corroborate the theory, I - the only African on the flight - quietly sat next to a female passenger who deferentially folded her paper, an act meant obviously to ease my passage through the civilised skies of Europe.

Phew, no sooner had that ruffling episode passed - and I had arrived in Cork uneventfully - than I was seduced by the countryside charm of the beautiful Irish city. Its rolling plains were a soothing brush to a parched, urban soul.

Jameson's Midleton state-of-the-art distillery, where I was headed, was the result of the rough times of the Prohibition- era and trade tariffs imposed by the British after Irish independence. The tariffs had forced four distilleries to institute a survival strategy by forming one company, Irish Distillers, and build the distillery in Cork.

Apparently Cork is a county with a reputation for being cocky, as in being rebellious. But this streak never even remotely showed up among its locals throughout the tour - except in ubiquitous geniality.

From the outside, the rustic appearance of the Midleton distillery belies the state-of-the-art technology that produces millions of litres of whiskey with clockwork precision for the pleasure of global palates. Inside, the large copper pots - pot stills, in brandy or whiskey lingo - boil with fermented mash that is ultimately evaporated into spirit, which is itself distilled three times to reach the requisite spirit form.

Jameson's unique-selling point is that its whiskeys are triple distilled, and this point is consciously driven home throughout the factory tour. Another distinguishing feature is the deserted giant factory, except for the infrequent sighting of a throng of tourists on the premises. A combination of a staff of about 20 people and multimillion-rand technology does the work that would normally require more than 500 people in a less automated environment.

Elsewhere in the factory, four masters dabble with different permutations of the whiskey - mixing different vintages in pursuit of excellence and new combinations.

They are Barry Crockett, master distiller, Billy Leighton, master blender, Brendan Monks, master of maturation, and David Quinn, master of whiskey science.

It is their latest creation that has set the whiskey world abuzz - and which prompted my brief sojourn to this part of the world. From the first lick, the imbiber is left with no doubt that the Rarest Vintage Reserve comes with pedigree, having been crafted from a pick of older grain whiskeys mixed with rare and charismatic pot-still whiskeys matured in second-fill bourbon casks. This was then combined with rare pot-still whiskey aged in port pipes to achieve a degree of sweetness.

If that sounds very complicated, just obliviously savour the new offering's exquisite fruity, spicy, malty finish, which has a 46percent alcohol volume as its backbone. For ultimate enjoyment of its complex, lavish character, it ought not be spoiled with a mixer. Water and ice only, that's what it'll take to reward a keen palate looking for an extraordinary experience rather than quotidian fare.

"This prestigious whiskey represents the ultimate in distilling excellence, and as the pinnacle of the range, is the most exclusive expression Jameson ever created," said Crocket during a special tasting that included the 12-year-old Special Reserve; Gold Reserve; and the 18-year-old Reserve.

For all its glory, the whiskey weaves a mystique that must have something to do with its ancient lineage. There is a sense that, through generations, it has acquired a texture and character that must have been etched by time, perseverance and incremental expertise.

lLen Maseko visited Ireland courtesy of Pernod Ricard.