What you should know:
- Irish whiskey used to be way more popular and successful than Scotch in the 1800s.
- Unfortunately, and ironically, Irish independence cut off the market for Irish whiskey in the UK, and precipitated the loss in demand for Irish whiskey.
- Redbreast is also one of the very few Irish whiskey brands to have been produced almost continuously since 1900s, surviving the Irish whiskey decline.
- This new release is a limited edition Redbreast 10 Year Old which has a very similar vintage white label and red seal resembling the label of the original Gilbey’s Redbreast 10 Years Old (last sold in 1971).
- bottled at cask strength of 1% ABV
- matured in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks
- Nose: Honeycomb and earthy cedarwood
- Palate: Sweet Oloroso wine with dried raisins, apricots and figs
- Our Quick Take: Decently-priced cask-strength with full flavours to anticipate. Worth a buy
The rise and decline of Irish whiskey
Although the most expensive whiskies today tend to be Scotch whisky, the Irish whiskey was much more popular in the 1800s. Back then, Irish whiskey could be sold at a premium of many times a bottle of Scotch. Back in 1887 when historian Alfred Barnard chronicled The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, he visited 28 Irish distilleries and wrote that they were incredibly large and advanced at that time. Irish whiskey took up 70 percent of the world whiskey market! Two out of every three bottles of whiskey sold in London were Irish, and even in Scotland, Irish whiskey outsold Scotch whisky.
The Bow Street Distillery in Dublin was one of the powerhouses of the Irish whiskey industry (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Redbreast brand of whiskeys was first released in 1903 by a major spirits distribution company, W&A Gilbey. The spirit was distilled in Jameson’s Bow Street Distillery in Dublin.
Unfortunately, the Irish whiskey industry slowly declined starting from around 1919. Ireland won independence in 1919, and this cut off demand of Irish whiskeys from the rest of the cities markets in the what remained of the British Empire. At the same time, the US passed the Volstead Act which officially enforced the Prohibition, destroying Irish whiskey’s largest market. To make matters worse, the Irish government saw the whiskey distillers as pro-British Unionists, and was minded to impose heavy taxes on even the domestic sale of whiskey. The Irish government even imposed a limit on exportation of Irish whiskey at half of pre-war levels.
The above events essentially destroyed the competitiveness of Irish whiskey. At the same time, Scottish distilleries began to recognise the importance of marketing their whiskies, and began building powerful international brands.
Thus goes the decline of the Irish whiskey industry. In 1887, there were 28 Irish whiskey distilleries. By 1972, only 2 whiskey distilleries remained in Ireland. (More recently, Irish whiskies have seen a comeback, not least amongst popular female celebrities and the millennial demographic. But more on that here and here.)
Introducing Redbreast Whiskey
Redbreast is one of a small handful of single pot still whiskeys still sold today, one of only two to have been produced almost continuously since the early 1900s. (“Single pot still” means that the whiskey was made by a single distillery from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley- the traditional Irish style.)
How did the name come about you say? One of W&A Gilbey’s chairman at the time was said to be an avid bird watcher. He fancied calling the whiskey, which has a reddish hue, "Redbreast" in reference to a species of bird called the Robin Redbreast which has a patch of amber feathers on its chest.
A Robin Redbreast bird. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Being an occasional bird watcher might be normal. Yet I, for one, cannot imagine being an “avid bird watcher”. The early 1900s must have been a really boring time that watching birds could become an obsession for people.
In any case, one of W&A Gilbey’s first releases was a 10 year old bottle of Redbreast with a white label, red seal and a decorative border pattern of Fleur-de-lis (⚜). This particular edition of Gilbey’s Redbreast whiskey had ceased production in 1971.
Gilbey’s Original Redbreast 10 Years Old (Image Source: Whisky Auction)
More recently, Irish Distillers, the current owners of Redbreast whiskey, are commemorating the 30-year anniversary since the Redbreast brand was re-launched, and also paying tribute to W&A Gilbey who founded the brand.
They would be releasing a limited edition Redbreast 10 Year Old expression which has a very similar vintage white label and red seal resembling the label of the original Gilbey’s Redbreast 10 Years Old.
(Image Source: Irish Distillers)
The newly released Redbreast 10-Year-Old is a mixture of whiskeys distilled in the same place, aged for between 10 to 15 years, but matured in different either American oak ex-bourbon barrels or Oloroso sherry seasoned butts from Spain.
It is also bottled at a cask strength of 59.1% ABV, which I really like.
We have received word that the flavour profile would be as such:
- Intense honeycomb and cedarwood with earthy notes, dried tobacco leaf and worn leather.
- Dark fruits linger in the background and slowly develop with toasted almonds and sugar
- a pot still spice intensity continues to build, adding to the complexity of flavors layered over a strong foundation of oak.
- Rich in wood tannins but well balanced with the spirit.
- The sweetness of oloroso wine casks emerge along with dried raisins, apricots and figs.
- Hints of blueberry jam, with mild vanilla and treacle lingering in the background.
- The pot still spices rise to a crescendo and then finally give way to the toasted oak and delicate sweetness that lingers until the very end.
This expression has already been released and priced at about S$180, and is available exclusively to Redbreast’s members via The Birdhouse, Redbreast’s online membership platform.
Being a cask strength expression, I fully expect the flavours to be rich, punchy and satisfyingly sweet. A cask strength being sold at about S$180 is also quite a bargain. This expression reminds me very much of the core Redbreast 12 Years Old- Cask Strength Edition, which is another one of my favourite go to bottles to drink.
The Cask Strength Redbreast 12 – one of my favourites (Image Source: The Whisky Exchange)
I frankly do not find that the vintage design of the newly released bottle to be a great motivating factor in getting a bottle. After all, the original Gilbey’s Redbreast was last sold in 1971. Anyone who might have recalled (legally) drinking the original Gilbey’s Redbreast in 1971 must be at least 68 years old now.
Unless you are at least 68 years old, I doubt you would have any nostalgia for the original Gilbey’s Redbreast. Furthermore, even if you have drunk the original Gilbey’s Redbreast 10 Year Old, it is unlikely to taste exactly the same as this new release.
That said, my experience with cask strength Redbreasts have been very good. With the promising tasting notes, we might just give this bottle a try if it becomes available to the general public.