Redbreast PX Edition

REDBREAST IBERIAN SERIES: PX EDITION
Released Fall 2021

MASH BILL – blend of malted and unmalted barley

PROOF – 92

AGE – NAS

DISTILLERY – Midleton Distillery (Irish Distillers Ltd.)

PRICE – $87 (more commonly ~$100)

WORTH BUYING? – kinda yes kinda no…

Redbreast Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey is among the most renowned of the Irish whiskeys. Jameson and Bushmills may be more commonly used in bars and bought by consumers at the warehouse chains. They’re marketed in those directions and priced accordingly. They’re not bad whiskeys and get the job done well. But I’ve never found them great.

Redbreast can be great. I can still remember my first glass. It was in September 2017, after midnight, in an Irish bar in New York that seemed as old as New York itself. Rather than the soup of the day…

…I opted to warm myself that crisp Autumn night with the pricier Redbreast 12, the brand’s 80-proof entry level release. It was worth the extra few bucks. My curiosity sparked, a few weeks later in another old Irish bar I tried the Redbreast 15 and 21 back to back. Neither was so exceptional as compared to the 12 Year that I felt I needed to invest in a full bottle. But then I tried the 12 Year Cask Strength, priced between the standard 12 and 15 releases, and that was definitely worth several extra bucks—richer, creamier, with a range of lively and decadent fruit notes.

Two years later, in 2019, I happened into a couple bottles of Redbreast 14-Year Small Batch, a 1000-bottle release divided into four 250-bottle cask strength editions labelled A, B, C and D, and sold only in California and Boston. Those made a very strong impression, particularly the exceptionally creamy Batch B.

I absolutely favor the cask strength options over Redbreast’s standard, lower-proof releases. And the Redbreast 12 Year Cask Strength, or any one among those rare older small batch releases, easily top most any other Irish whiskey I’ve had, including the elusive Spots—with the notable exception of Blue Spot, which at a mere 7-years-old impressively holds its own next to Redbreast releases twice that age.

Both the Spot line and Redbreast series come from Midleton, so, one might argue they are variations on a theme distinguished most significantly by their packaging.

I’d also say the young Blue Spot is distinguished by its cask strength status, demonstrating proof to be a more decisive flavor influence than age. Redbreast of any age, proofed down into the 80s or even 90s, doesn’t make nearly the same impression as Blue Spot. Even Blue Spot’s own older sibling, the coveted Red Spot, true to its Redbreast 15-Year cousin in both age and proof (92), I thought was fine at first, improving as the bottle aired out, yet ultimately not worth $$$.

Considering all that, I wouldn’t have gone for this 92-proof, non-age-stated Redbreast PX Edition had it not received a number of raves when it first came out in Fall 2021, only for those raves to then get hit by a wave of nay-saying backlash. Not an uncommon scenario in whiskey. But I like a controversy. And given the special place Redbreast has in my partly Irish heart, my curiosity was piqued enough to dip below the cask strength line and try this extra-sherried outing.

So here we are at uncorking. Normally I give a bottle at least a week to air out before taking formal notes. But I wanted to mark St. Patrick’s Day 2022 with this one, and had only picked it up the weekend before, so, ample time in the glass had to suffice. I used the first pour to acclimate my palate. These notes were then taken a few hours later, on the second pour, which rested in a traditional Glencairn for 25 minutes before tasting.

COLOR – pale raw sienna, apricot, orange

NOSE – spiced vanilla custard, crystalizing honey, pulpy orange zest, oak tannin, plastic

TASTE – the sherry influence shows itself more readily here, adding vibrant red and purple fruit notes (especially grape) to a creamy, gooey caramel running beneath everything; a notably thick creamy texture as well, some brandied raisins, dark chocolate sauce, decadent prune/plum compote, the oak tannins almost masking that faint plastic note…

FINISH – the fruit notes, caramel, and chocolate all take the backseat to a warm, fine, prickly heat around that oak tannin edge, everything fading gently but soon…

OVERALL – Showing itself best on the taste, flanked by an okay nose and finish, this is enjoyable, though not up to its price tag for me.

The first pour earlier in the afternoon was substantially drier than this sweeter second pour. Hopefully that progression continues as the bottle airs out. The more sips I take, the more prominent the juicy, grapey notes become. They pair well with the sweet caramel and chocolate. The wood and baking spices dance nicely on these darker notes.

I can’t say this PX Edition has sold me on these lower-proof Redbreast outings. The Pedro Ximénez sherry finish contributes a lush, rich quality, adding complexity that I appreciate. But that darn plastic note, vying for attention with the oak tannins, is a subtle but effective bummer. A higher proof might obliterate such a nagging little note. No doubt the lack of chill-filtration—a factor not named on the bottle but in the press release—helps mitigate that plastic thing. Still it makes what could be genuinely luscious somehow falsely so, like a digital scenic backdrop versus shooting on location.

I will admit the tannins and plastic blur such that at times I question whether I’m getting the plastic note at all. But then on some sniff or sip, there it is. If that factor weren’t in the mix, if it were just the fruits and candy sweets and wood spices, I believe I’d have welcomed this low-proof Redbreast as a wonderful surprise. But that mainstream synthetic edge, ephemeral as it is, holds it back for me.

I’ll enjoy this whiskey as an early evening dessert pour. It might pair well with certain actual desserts as well. And it would contribute to an excellent highball, I’m sure.

Proof certainly isn’t everything. But Redbreast demonstrates that it’s definitely something. Some people think wine cask finishings are a cheat. I’m not among those people. Done well, they can be lovely. And this Redbreast PX Edition gets very near to lovely for me. I don’t have to love every whiskey, just at least enjoy them. And I’ll certainly enjoy this one fine, my curiosity piqued to follow how it evolves over the life of the bottle. Its Red Spot cousin grew on me over time. Maybe Redbreast PX will too.

Sláinte!

the fine print

Curiously, in very small print on the bottom-front of the decorative box that accompanies bottles of Redbreast PX, Irish Distillers Ltd notes this whiskey is “bottled in bond.” I know this term as the American codification established in 1897 by the U.S. government’s Bottled in Bond Act, which set quality guidelines to ensure whiskey was actually, well, whiskey!

But why add the American “bottled in bond” status to an Irish whiskey, especially when it already has its own national distinction, likewise noted on the Redbreast PX box, “single pot still whiskey,” a quintessential Irish creation? I would understand doing this for a Redbreast release that in some manner connected collaboratively to an American whiskey. But a whiskey finished in Spanish sherry casks, released as part of a series called “Iberian” in reference to the peninsula of Spain and Portugal?

Turns out my perplexity was my own ignorance. The term “bond” has a different meaning and history in Ireland. Old news, new to me! I checked other Redbreast releases and, sure enough, all of their boxes have this “bottled in bond” footnote. Similarly, references to the Spot whiskeys being “bonded” abound on the www, though the footnote does not appear on their bottles or tubes.

So I went down the rabbit hole…

In the 19th century and into the 20th, many Irish distilleries did not age or blend the whiskeys they distilled. They sold their new make to “whiskey bonders,” typically pub or mercantile store owners who would select their own casks to hold the fresh distillates they purchased, then age and blend them as they liked under their own labels. (In America today we might call them NDPs—non distiller producers.) The collapse of the Irish whiskey industry in the 1930s effectively ended this practice.

Irish Distillers Ltd, founded in 1966 when John Jameson & Son, The Cork Distillery Company and John Power & Son all merged into one, has done much to help put Irish whiskey back on the map. They established the exceedingly prolific Midleton Distillery in 1975, where Jameson, the Spot series, Powers, and Method & Madness are all made. So at first glance their claim to Irish “bottled in bond” status for Redbreast doesn’t seem to fit, given they distill. But unlike in the US, “bottled in bond” or its variants are not legally defined in Ireland.

Turns out “bottled in bond” stamped on the Redbreast box is indeed more historical reference than present accuracy. Redbreast was originally sourced, aged, and bottled by W & A Gilbey, a wine and spirits importer founded in Dublin in 1857. Jump to 1912, and “Redbreast” makes its first appearance on one of their labels in a bottling of blended prime whiskey stocks. Jump again, to 1970, and Irish Distillers Ltd., from whom Gilbey was sourcing, made a decisive change:

In 1970, Irish Distillers Ltd. (IDL) decided to phase out the sales of bulk whiskey ‘by the cask’ to the wholesalers and retailers (bonders) who bottled it themselves. Increasing export demand, and plans to increase its portfolio of brands, necessitated the retention of as much mature whiskey as possible. Gilbey’s however, managed to persuade IDL to continue supplying them pure pot still whiskey for Redbreast until the closure of Bow Street Distillery in the summer of 1971.

Gilbey continued to bottle under the Redbreast name using the stocks they’d amassed. In 1985 those stocks ran dry, and Gilbey sold the brand to Irish Distillers Ltd.

Which means that since 1985, Redbreast has not been “bottled in bond” in any Irish sense of the phrase.

A similar operation to Gilbey, Mitchell & Son Wine Merchants was established in 1805 and is still independently owned and operated by the Mitchell family. They are responsible for originally creating the Spot whiskey line, which takes its name from their using a dab of colored paint to mark a cask for one of the variants or another. As a long-standing mercantile still in operation, their claim to bonded status on the Spot line makes a bit more sense than Redbreast—again, historically…

Given Mitchell & Son now leave it to Midleton Distillery to distill, age, and bottle the Spots, is it still “bonded” whiskey? Or is it an Irish Distillers Ltd product bearing the Mitchell name? Even Mitchell & Son’s own promotional video shows the now empty cellars where they used to age and blend the Spots, noting briefly but unambiguously that Midelton now handles everything in their name.

So while Mitchell & Son don’t appear to be trying to get away with anything, they aren’t whiskey bonders anymore. Now that claim is just marketing. Curiously, the “bottled in bond” footnote that graces the Redbreast boxes doesn’t appear on the Spot bottles or tubes, where it might be justified as a nod to the brand’s history in relation to Mitchell & Son, which, unlike Gilbey, is still operational, their name printed prominently on every Spot bottle. In the narrative on the back of the Spot tubes they do name the brand as “one of the few ‘whiskey bonder brands’ to have survived to modern day,” an equivocal statement both true and false.

In any case, from all this, “bonded” would seem to remain indistinct as either a classification or selling point—which brings me back to my question: Why bother adding it to the Redbreast boxes?

Well, there’s a movement afoot to formally solidify the Irish concept of whiskey bonding. But it wouldn’t appear to be driven by Irish Distillers Ltd. J.J. Corry Irish Whiskey, a small company founded by Louise McGuane in 2015, are proud whiskey bonders, and very explicit about its meaning. Their website goes to great lengths to define the history of bonding in Ireland and to promote its specific definition—one operation purchasing un-aged distillate from a distillery and handling everything else from there.

With bonding as J.J. Corry’s defining concept, the company has an invested interest in advocating for its distinction. In a 2018 post on the company’s blog, McGuane makes a candid case for formally and legally defining the terms. I encourage you to read the full post, but here are some key points:

We [J.J. Corry] are Ireland’s First Modern Whiskey Bonder in living memory. What exactly does that mean though? Well, first off the bat it is NOT simply a marketing term. If it was I would just have rented space in a bonded warehouse and called myself a Bonder and used it exclusively as a marketing hook. That would have been way easier and cheaper. No, Bonding is a key part of the very bones and heritage of the Irish Whiskey Industry. When I decided to bring it back I genuinely felt a responsibility on my shoulders to ensure it would mean something to our industry, which is in an unprecedented resurgence. It is a clever business model and yes it does make a good and unique selling point. However for me, it is all about being open and honest about sourcing whiskey and dedicating myself to the care and production of that sourced whiskey to create something the Irish Whiskey Industry can be proud to call its own…

Back in March [2018] I went through the Airport and picked up some printed information on a brand who make pretty good whiskey but had been called out in the industry for citing work by a Master Blender and a Master Distiller whose existence or qualifications were questioned. I was really dismayed to see that the brand had now pivoted to Bonding as their new backstory. They are now claiming the heritage of Bonding and the story that I brought to the world out of the dark as a core part of their brand essence. To the best of my knowledge the brand did not mention it until AFTER they were vilified fairly publicly about false labeling. Annoying for me? Yes but it is to be expected, of course. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, it means you are on to something. What really riled me though about what I saw written down is that it seemed like for that brand “Bonding” was easy pickings. Bonding, because it did not exist for a few generations, has no definition or legal protection and I think we need protection…

I do not distill my own spirit so I better be damn sure that from the moment it comes off the still until it’s put into bottle that it’s well looked after and I have influence on it, otherwise why bother? I can just become an Independent Bottler which is TOTALLY FINE. Some of the whiskies I admire most are from Independent Bottlers in Scotland. Here is the difference though. Irish Whiskey Bonding is a part of our heritage. It is as unique as Single Pot Still and for Irish Whiskey to compete properly in the global market we need sub categories that are well defined and stand for QUALITY and uniqueness not just marketing Bumpf.

McGuane’s argument is twofold: (1) uphold a unique Irish tradition as a matter of national pride, and (2) promote it as uniquely Irish, to better compete in the ever-growing global whiskey market.

I am reminded of the place terroir has taken up in American craft whiskeys. The big old American distilleries distinguish themselves by family lineage or quaint origin stories, often difficult to verify. I’m thinking about Wild Turkey, headed by three generations of the Russell family, or Elijah Craig, named after the so-called “father of bourbon,” whom, it is said, discovered the process of charring whiskey barrels by accident due to a fire.

Craft distilleries don’t have such distinguishing marks. Young and not yet steeped in history, they tend to highlight their location and terroir—the local family farms that supply their grain (e.g. Laws Whiskey House or Home Base Spirits), the decisive impact of particular weather patterns on their whiskey (e.g. Dry Diggings Distillery), or similar conscious decisions around how location will impact the whiskey (e.g. Woodinville Whiskey Co).

Irish whiskey is the fun, lively, yet easily passed over cousin of Scotch, which enjoys far greater global renown and is considered by many whiskey drinkers, whether serious or casual, to be the very definition of “whiskey” itself—or, “whisky,” no “e” to be specific. So McGuane’s call to legitimize and legally concretize the Irish tradition of whiskey bonding makes great sense, both as a business move and a matter of cultural history and pride.

And of course I’m very curious which brand it was that took up the “bonded” angle as a solve to their scandal…!

But that’s as far down the rabbit hole as I’m going tonight.

Sláinte!

4 thoughts on “Redbreast PX Edition

  1. A great read. Thanks for the all info. You saved us from going down that rabbit hole. I also remember the first time I had Redbreast…it was a good day!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s