Screaming deals don't last forever. And make no mistake: when Jameson Black Barrel could be easily sourced for about $25, it was one of the very best screaming deals that whiskeydom had to offer.
The way I’d best describe it was this: for an extra $5 more than the regular-ass variety of Jameson (usually $20), you would get a superior whiskey. The bracing, acrid finish of Jameson would be removed, and instead of a whiskey with a vaguely watery nature, you'd get a spirit with true Irish character—more on the specifics of this later. I'm still hard-pressed to think of any whiskey that could touch it at $25.
To me, reviewing the Jameson Black Barrel today involves confronting my own biases and cognitive hang-ups when it comes to consumer psychology. Back when I drank Jameson in my twenties, slapping down an additional half sawbuck rewarded me with a monumental step up. Now, about seven years after my first taste of Jameson BB (and in the aftermath of a packaging reboot) something doesn't sit right with me when it comes to slapping down another $7 or $8 and getting... the same thing?
A bigger cynic than I might say that the Jameson BB put a target on its back when it moved to the $33 to $40 mark. Now, it isn't competing with rack-grade Irishes like Jameson or Tullamore DEW, but with the vast number of entry-level single malt scotches and age-stated Irish whiskies. The “in for a penny, in for a pound” kind of spirits buyers might fairly conclude that they’re only a stone's throw away from a knockout bottle like Green Spot or Redbreast 12, so why not go whole hog? Just that extra $8 moved it from “impulse buy” to “considered purchase” territory for more than a few people.
I would say this: after the price increase, the Black Barrel no longer feels essential. But even despite my grumbling, I was excited when I'd see it pop up on cocktail menus, I was excited when I saw it in my friends' liquor cabinets, and I was excited to get it as a gift. So let's take a run at it from that angle, judging it purely on its own merits.
I think the Black Barrel is tailor-made to convert bourbon drinkers to the wonderful world of Irish Whiskey. It's not 100% traditional in the sense that the “black barrel” part of the name comes from the toasting process, which is identical to what they do with bourbon. When you blowtorch the wood, it caramelizes and produces sugars and vanillin that get absorbed by the whiskey. In the Jameson BB, there are sweet, honeyed tastes out the wazoo.
And yet, the BB has all of the hallmarks a person can expect from a textbook “good” Irish whiskey. The nose is Irish all the way: the best way I can describe the scent of unmalted barley in a whiskey is somewhere between bubble gum, turkish delight, and mint. It's really something to savor. I'm not one of those guys who puts how something smells on the same plane as how it actually taste, because my reasoning is that most people drink this stuff rather than railing it like a line of cocaine. The enjoyment I get from this particular smell though—man, I just can't get enough of it.
Additionally, a “good” Irish whiskey has a taste that is so cohesive it's hard to really get across through combinations of other foods, but I'll try. Jameson BB has a delightfully coppery taste that is somewhere at the intersection of star anise, red grapes, and some meaty umami flavors. With the barrel charring, that classic Irish profile gets a wash of sweet flavors layered over the top, and the combination of honey, vanilla, meat, malt, and spice fit together as comfortably and naturally as maple syrup over pancakes and sausages.
Begrudgingly, my answer is that the Jameson Black Barrel is still worth it. The distillers must have realized how good it was and what the market was really willing to pay for it. True, it’s no longer an instant buy, but I’ve never once regretted the purchase.