In 1927, with his eyesight failing, James Joyce despaired about finishing the book he’d begun writing five years earlier. It was then he hit on the harebrained scheme of getting someone else to finish it for him, namely an Irish writer named James Stephens. Joyce, a man who loved puns and double meanings, took delight in imagining how the cover of the book might look: As he explained in a letter to a friend in England, “J J and S (the colloquial Irish for John Jameson and Son’s Dublin whisky) would be nice lettering under the title.”
Fortunately, Joyce’s eyesight improved, and a long 12 years later he finally published the book—Finnegans Wake, which famously ends in the middle of its opening sentence. Though not immortalized on the cover, “Jhon Jhamieson and Song” is referenced several times, albeit obliquely, in the novel. Today, some might still argue that the Wake is best savored after a couple of belts of the real JJ&S, which Joyce insisted was distilled with unfiltered water—mud and all—from Dublin’s River Liffey.
My affinity for the writing of Joyce and the whiskey of Jameson took root almost simultaneously. In June 1978, after a second, revelatory reading of Joyce’s Ulysses, I traveled to Dublin, intending to visit the sites mentioned in the book, which is set entirely on June 16. Known as Bloomsday, after the novel’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, the date is currently something of a municipal holiday in Dublin.
But 42 years ago, it barely registered on the city’s consciousness. On the afternoon of the 16th, I entered Davy Byrne’s pub, where Bloom had enjoyed a Gorgonzola sandwich with a glass of Burgundy. When the bartender approached, I wondered aloud if he was doing anything to celebrate Bloomsday. He looked at me in amazement, asked where I was from, and beckoned a few other drinkers from down the bar.
“I’ve been reminded its Bloomsday,” he told the circle of men—and then stood a round of drinks. The men were slightly stunned, not only that the parsimonious publican had bought the round, but that it had been a kid from Chicago who jarred their collective memory. They all understood the reference to Bloomsday, but none of them had realized that the day had dawned. Several Jamesons and a few pints of Guinness later—no Gorgonzola and Burgundy for this bunch—I bid my new friends farewell and, in the long-lasting twilight that limns northern latitudes at the solstice, lurched along the Liffey toward my lodgings.
Back home in Chicago, I found my newly acquired taste for Jameson not easily sated. You could always get a shot of Johnny or Jack, but JJ&S—hah! All that’s changed: Jameson, like Bloomsday, is today widely celebrated, to the point where I miss the days when devotees of either comprised a secret cult. A number of Chicago pubs now pride themselves on their wide selection of Irish whiskeys, and if you become a regular at one of them, the bartender, especially if she’s Dublin born, will encourage you to try a smoother brand.
I’m always happy to sample, and confess a fondness for Redbreast’s single pot variety. But most nights, when I pour a generous dram or two (or three) of whiskey, I turn to the JJ&S. That’s the particular usque baugh—“water of life”—I crave, with a kick as it goes down and a residual burn as it lingers. Life is only occasionally smooth; whiskey should be the same way.
In the summer of 2017, after innumerable false starts—including the epic collapse of 2013, when I hit the wall at midpoint—I finally managed to read Finnegans Wake from beginning to end (a dubious accomplishment, in that I, like all the book’s other readers, ended up right back where I had started). That fall, bound for a conference in Geneva, I flew in to Zurich, Switzerland. With a little time to spare before my connecting train, I found my way to Fluntern Cemetery, where Joyce lies buried beneath a statue depicting him seated with crossed legs, an open book, and a cigarette.
Something was missing. I pulled out a half pint of Jameson, took a long swallow, poured a copious draught around the grave, capped the bottle, and set it in the crook of the writer’s sculpted arm. I was loath to leave, but I had a train to catch. As I turned to go, I detected from the bronzed bard “half a glance of Irish frisky (a Juan Jaimesan hastaluego) from under the shag of his parallel brows.” JJ and JJ&S reunited at last—no dubious accomplishment that.