Reviving Ireland’s rara avis…
The recent double-digit growth in consumption of Irish whiskey can be attributed in part to Redbreast, a single-pot-still whiskey that first appeared in the early 1900s as an independent bottling from Gilbey’s, then the producer of Jameson’s. The chairman of Gilbey’s, an amateur ornithologist, supposedly named the new offering after the robin—a songbird seemingly so loyal to Ireland that it remained in that country even during the frigid winters.
Gilbey’s bottled the last of this whiskey produced under its aegis in the 1980s, when the company sold the brand to the Irish Distillers Group (IDG). A subsidiary of Pernod Ricard, IDG resurrected Redbreast as a 12-year-old from Midleton Distillery in County Cork in the 1990s. The new owners upheld much of the whiskey’s original aging regimen, which called for both ex-bourbon barrels and oloroso-sherry casks, and this hearty pour quickly attracted a following among connoisseurs of bourbon and single-malt whiskey, whose enthusiasm stemmed as much from Redbreast’s scarcity as from its complex profile. In 2005, a limited-edition 15-year-old was unveiled to mark the 50th anniversary of the Parisian whiskey merchant la Maison du Whisky; this bottling—originally intended as a one-off release—proved so popular that it was added to the permanent line in 2010. The following year, a 115.4-proof, cask-strength 12-year-old made its well-received appearance. But neither this expression nor any of its predecessors surpasses the latest extension of the brand, the exemplary Redbreast 21 Year Old Single Pot Still Whiskey ($250).
This astonishing spirit embodies the very essence of single-pot-still Irish whiskey, a category championed by Midleton Distillery, where Redbreast is triple distilled in a copper pot using a mash of malted and unmalted barley that yields a fuller flavor and a creamy mouthfeel. Yet this venerable elixir’s true distinction is the extra years it spends in bourbon and oloroso-sherry barrels, which impart a stunning character of their own to the whiskey’s already lively strata of flavors.
Although 21 years is the highest age designation that can legally be listed on the label, whiskeys as old as 28 years lie within this spirit’s intense flavor profile of stewed fruit, marzipan, dried rose petal, and pistachio. The protracted finish—a medley of malt and citrus—has sufficient staying power to outlast a crossing of the Irish Sea. Bottled at 92 proof and non-chill-filtered to preserve its subtleties, Redbreast 21 Year Old sets the standard against which all single-pot-still Irish whiskeys must be measured.
Midleton Distillery, www.singlepotstill.com