My South Side Irish Chicago Dad always told me that Jameson was the Catholic whisky and that Bushmills was the whiskey made by “the damn Protestants”. Now this character I met at the bar is trying to tell me it’s the other way around. Help! Who do I believe, the man who raised me, or some drunk I met in a bar? You can see why I am confused.
I was wondering when someone would ask this question. The truth of the matter is, the age-old faux-pas of ordering Bushmills for fear of supporting English aggression and offending the Republic of Ireland is about as Irish as corned beef – which is to say, not very Irish at all but rather Irish-American (Sorry, kids, corned beef is a Jewish invention).
Anyway, both of your sources are wrong, but at least your father got the order right. The widely-accepted Irish-American version is that Jameson is Catholic whiskey and Bushmills is Protestant whiskey. But that’s merely based on geography: Bushmills is from Northern Ireland (a predominantly Protestant region) and Jameson is from Cork – Catholic country.
Jameson was pretty much founded in 1780 when John Jameson – a Scottish guy – purchased the Bow Street Distillery, which at the time was one of the biggest distilleries in Ireland. Now, it’s important to note that the Scottish Reformation occurred in 1560, so odds are in favor of the founder of the Jameson distillery, being Scottish, was a damn Protestant.
Bushmills, on the other hand, was officially licensed in 1608 by King James I (of Bible fame) and despite of its location deep in the heart of Protestant country (and this next bit is straight from my local Bushmills rep, so take it or leave it) has a Catholic as a master distiller.
According to everyone I’ve spoken with on the subject, you only really find this debate in the States, where Irish-American support of the Republic can sometimes be blind and often fueled by the very product we’re speaking of. But none of it means much, anyway: both distilleries are owned by huge international entities: Jameson by French liquor conglomerate Pernod-Ricard, and Bushmills by the English firm Diageo.
As for my preference, I tend to like the lighter Bushmills as it’s the first Irish whiskey I discovered years ago, and I’ve certainly enjoyed my share of Jameson from time to time. But my personal preference is Redbreast, a twelve-year pot still Irish whiskey produced at the Old Midleton Distillery and a real delight to sip while enjoying a late-night Irish breakfast of sausage, egg, pudding and soda bread. Delicious.