June 2011

Irish Whiskey Regains its Title

By: Richard Carleton Hacker

According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), sales of Irish whiskey in 2010 increased by 22 percent. So mixologists, bar managers and others looking to stir new excitement into their drinks menu with a long-neglected category poised for growth, take note: The Redbreast is coming! The Redbreast is coming!

Yes, this sought-after triple-distilled pot still Irish whiskey from Pernod Ricard is making a comeback.
Another San Francisco World Spirits Competition Double Gold Medal winner, Redbreast 15 debuted in 2005 as a limited edition but in 2010 became a regular part of the Irish Distillers Group portfolio.

But in a not-so-closely-guarded secret (some of our European brethren and duty-free shoppers knew about it before we did), not only is the coveted Redbreast 12 Year Old being jump-started, the ultra- elusive 15 Year Old is being relaunched as well.

This unique cast iron water wheel at the Old Midleton Distillery was built in 1852 and was used to power the stirring rake inside the mash tuns. The wheel is still turning, although in 1975 whiskey production moved to the New Midleton Distillery, literally right next door.
Return of the Redbreast

Redbreast began life in 1939 (some say as early as 1903) as an independent bottling by Jameson for Gibley Vintners. The merchant—whose hobby was ornithology—named his whiskey after the robin redbreast, a songbird so loyal to Ireland that it refuses to leave even during the frigid winter months.

Redbreast was reintroduced in the 1990s as a 12 Year Old pot still whiskey, with an original formula of two-thirds bourbon barrels to one-third sherry casks. It was a hearty pour and quickly gained a cross-over following among connoisseurs favoring single malt scotch and small batch bourbon, their enthusiasm heightened by Redbreast’s limited availability.

Then in 2005—the same year Redbreast 12 Year Old won a Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition—Redbreast 15 Year Old came out as a one-off bottling to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Parisian whiskey specialist La Maison du Whisky. Primarily available in France, a few bottles also appeared in Ireland, Germany and London. Demand quickly exceeded supply. Eventually, enough was found to release additional bottlings in 2006 and 2008. Finally yielding to consumer pressure, Redbreast 15 Year Old was added to the line in 2010 and is now making its way to America.

As their flagship brand and leader of the Irish whiskey revival, Jameson has a long and illustrious history going back almost two centuries. 
The Resurrection of Single Pot Irish Whiskey

Redbreast is distilled at Midleton Distillery, the mother lode of Irish whiskeys and the very soul of Pernod Ricard’s Irish Distillers Group (IDG). It is home to some of Ireland’s most celebrated brands, including Jameson, Midleton and Powers. Fittingly, it was here that the inspiration for Irish whiskey’s renaissance, led by Redbreast in the U.S., was born.

“The theme of what we’re doing today is ‘the rise and fall and rise again’ of single pot still Irish whiskey,” said Alex Ricard, Chairman & CEO of Irish Distillers Group at a May 5 pre-launch dinner at the historic Old Midleton Distillery. “Our goal, and the vision of Irish Distillers over the last two decades, has been to get the world to rediscover Irish whiskey. Jameson has been our number one priority in this goal. It is our flagship brand, and is enjoying a marvelous success today. So the time has come to prepare for the comeback of not only Irish whiskey, but of whiskey itself. Single pot still Irish whiskey is a new category, and although the story is starting today, there is a 22-year planning program. For the next 22 years at least, I can guarantee that every year we will have new releases and innovations based upon people’s passions and tastes.”

Led by Pernod Ricard’s super premium super-hero, Jameson—which currently claims 70% of the world’s Irish whiskey market and which just celebrated its three millionth case—Redbreast is the heavyweight that can enable Irish whiskey to regain the title it once held. There could be no better contender to win this championship. It is unique, one of only two Irish whiskeys made in copper pot stills (the other is Green Spot, also from Midleton Distillery but not currently imported).

The Georgian architecture of the Old Midleton Distillery
is preserved as a museum and visitor center.

Four Stills, Three Distillations

Equally noteworthy is the method of distillation. Although Ireland’s traditional three distillations contribute to Redbreast’s character, the Midleton distillery actually uses four pot stills: two wash stills, a smaller spirit still, and a feint still. This combination enables Midleton to produce a wide range of whiskeys, and thus maintain Redbreast’s historical flavor. In addition, both malted and unmalted barley are used in the mashbill, in this case roughly a 50-50 mixture. The result in a spicy-creamy mouthfeel heightened by fruit and toasted oak.

The 12 Year Old is chill-filtered and bottled at 80 proof. Redbreast 15 Year Old is non-chill-filtered and bottled at 92 proof. Both are best enjoyed neat, although cocktails—especially with the 12 Year Old—offer creative possibilities (Bird in the Hand, anyone?). Redbreast used to be called “pure pot still,” but new packaging repositions it as a “single pot still whiskey,” a somewhat confusing nomenclature, as more than one pot still is employed, but one that nonetheless identifies the brand as coming from a single distillery.

Conor Conor McQuade (left), Commerical Director International for IDG and Alexandre Ricard, Chairman & CEO of IDG, are ready to help America discover single pot still Irish whiskey.

“While the volume of sales will most likely be skewed towards specialist whiskey and fine spirit retailers,” said Conor McQuaid, Commercial Director International for IDG, “we anticipate on-premise will play a key role in giving consumers an opportunity to sample prior to purchasing a bottle. Additionally, Redbreast already has a loyal following among the bartender community.”
Not surprisingly, this year Redbreast 12 and Redbreast 15 both garnered Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. As Conor told me at the dinner in Ireland, realizing I was one of the judges, “Those in the know, know Redbreast.”   

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