“A Robin Redbreast in a cage puts all Heaven in a rage.”
Every year I take great pleasure in thinking about which whisk(e)y I will select for Christmas duties. Usually, it’s a stylistic decision. Some whiskies – Bunnahabhain springs to mind – seem to have been created specifically for the season.
Occasionally, the choice is more abstract and, frankly, crowbarred into some tenuous form of Christmas wrapping. Last year, Lidl’s peaty Ben Bracken 19 release won me over. The idea of an “incognito” whisky evoked notes of Kate Bush and the wintery – some might say Christmassy – quality of her distinctly surreal, dramatic soprano and folksy storytelling seemed to fit the festive mood. Imagine having had the misfortune of listening to that nonsense as you were poured a whisky you’d accepted mainly out of politeness, as my guests (read wife) did last year.
This year I’ve pushed Kate to one side and played Christmas with a firm, straight bat. I consulted the “special cupboard” and selected a bottle entirely on the strength of its name. In a move sure to have warmed the heart of William Blake – and, presumably, God – I have de-caged a Redbreast, that most Christmas of birds.
It’s not immediately clear why robins are synonymous with Christmas but it turns out – as with most traditions in the UK – it’s down to the Victorians. It was during Victorian times that the convention of sending Christmas cards started and, at the time, Royal Mail postmen wore bright red uniforms, earning them the nickname of “robins.” There’s also a story about a bird getting burnt on the breast at the birth of Jesus, but I suspect it’s the humble postie that’s most responsible for the robin-adorned Christmas cards, mugs and biscuit tins that make an appearance every December.
Coincidentally, it turns out that today (21st December) is also National Robin Day in the UK, which I’ve taken as a good omen.
Clearly, Redbreast whiskey is named after the robin (the bird, not Victorian postmen). However – in news that will cut deep for Irish readers – the brand’s roots are firmly planted in Victorian England. Founded in London in 1857, W&A Gibley was an independent wine and spirits merchant that later spread its wings to Dublin and began buying distillate from Jameson’s Bow Street Distillery to mature in spent sherry casks. Bottles of Gibley’s Castle “JJ Liqueur” – as it was then called – were highly sought after, particularly amongst the clergy… or so legend has it.
It wasn’t until 1912 that the first official bottle of “Redbreast” was released. Gibley’s Chairman at the time – a keen twitcher – was so fond of the little songbird that he decided to name a whiskey after it.
It was in the 1980s that Irish Distillers – producers of Jameson – purchased the brand, which is now the largest single pot still Irish whiskey in the world. Pot still whiskey (for those like me who are a little hazy on the details) – is made from a mixed mash of malted and unmalted barley and distilled in – you guessed it – a pot still. If it comes from a single distillery, it’s a single pot still whiskey.
As is often pointed out, it’s the use of unmalted barley in the mash that gives Irish pot still whiskey its distinct bold and complex style. However, given that unmalted barley can’t produce alcohol – due to science – it’s a wonder that it was ever used at all. Character and flavour are certainly part of the origins story, but tax – or the avoidance thereof – was probably the main driver. Using unmalted barley in the mash meant that canny Irish distillers reduced the duty levied on malt.
So there we have it. The story of Redbreast whiskey is one of Anglo-Irish ingenuity, Victorian mercantilism, bird fancying, and tax avoidance… which all sounds very Dickensian and very Christmassy.
Redbreast 12 Cask Strength Batch B1-22 – Review
Matured in a combination of ex-bourbon and oloroso sherry casks and bottled at a natural cask strength of 58.1% ABV. £79.95 from Master of Malt.
On the nose: Fruity and winey. The fruit starts fresh and citrussy – orange peel – then develops into raisins, figs and mince pies. The sherry notes work through, along with candied sweetness, and there’s a hint of clove spice.
In the mouth: Fiery to start, but really calms down after a short time in the glass. It’s incredibly creamy and textured. The citrus fruits are more prominent and the spiciness is dialed up a notch, but balances well with the vanilla and toasted fruitcake. It’s incredibly complex and evolves through the palate.
An incredible whiskey. Albeit based on a small sample size, this is easily the best Irish Whiskey I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking. One of those whiskies that you can’t believe you waited this long to try. Not one to force on polite guests, I shall be savouring this little beauty of a songbird over the festive period with joy… and then re-stocking it.
My whisk(e)y of the year? Certainly close.
Happy National Robin Day, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!