[Originally published August, 2012 at Manarchy Magazine]
The first time I tried Rebreast’s 12 year was back in August of 2010 at Kells Irish Restaurant and Pub in downtown Portland. Still finding my footing in the world of whiskey and scotch, I was more than happy when the waiter made some personal recommendations that turned out to be spot on.
Fast forward a day and a half to the flight back home, and for the life of me I couldn’t remember the name of the whiskey which had made such an impression on me. There had been so many new things on the short visit (including quite a few Voo-Doo Donuts) that it had all blurred together. Without photographic proof, I’d be hard pressed to remember half of the three day weekend.
About a year later, I was on the lookout to expand my bar, trying to decide between a handful of bourbons I’d been meaning to try when the sales guy asked me if I was into single malt whiskey. Lo and behold, the first thing he recommends is this Redbreast 12 year.
The penny dropped before I even saw the bottle. That name echoed around my memory and for a split second I was transported back to that Irish pub in Portland, enjoying Redbreast for the first time.
I set down a bottle of Bulleit (pronounced like “bullet”, a bourdon I later discovered is worth dodging) and walked anxiously to the counter. Even more encouraging, when I opened the box there was a placard slung around the neck of the bottle which stated Redbreast was 2010’s Irish Whiskey of the Year.
Now it’s worth pointing out that I’ve tried award winning wines and high priced champagnes and felt nothing if not taken, like dropping 130 bucks on a bottle of Dom Perignon. What a scam! But when it comes to whiskey, I’ve yet to come across something above 90 points that I can gripe about, and if it’s not clear by now, griping is one of my specialties.
So let’s get down to business.
Redbreast 12 Year
This whiskey has a nice amber color, which tends to make it look a bit younger than I’d expect, possibly due to the pure pot still process. However, this is nothing to worry about.
The nose is amazing and complex with undertones of citrus and fruit that serve to balance a wide range of tobacco, leather, vanilla and black tea.
The palette is even bigger, dominated by layers of spice and ginger, clover honey and anise. Ice will unlock more sweet notes, not quite vanilla, more like cream soda with the sugar under control, and hints of sherry.
Unlike younger whiskies or poorly done blends that dwell on the pepper and spice, as if manly men only drink things that make you produce phlegm so you have an excuse to stomp around grunting and clearing your throat; Redbreast urges your palette toward a tantalizing, somewhat oily finish with a subtle, toffee-like sweetness that lingers alongside the spice. And this finish lasts for days, which has become one of my favorite aspects of this whiskey.
Some whiskeys disappear and leave you feeling ripped off. Others are more inclined to loiter about on your palette without anything good to say, and you keep sipping again and again to get that spice/medicine/sticky sweet/boring finish out of your mouth. Such is not the case with Redbreast. With so much more to enjoy between sips, a good three fingers can keep me happily imbibed for an hour or more.
Overall, this whiskey is brilliant.
Redbreast 15 Year
So what happens when you take something completely awesome, age it for three more years and bottle it a slightly higher proof? (12 year is 80 proof; 15 year is 96) Quite a lot, but sadly, some of these changes feel more like trade-offs than improvements.
The color is a touch more caramel than amber when compared to the 12 year, clearly due to the aging and slightly higher proof. However, the nose seems a but more one-dimensional, something like chocolate cake served on a copper plate, with a few spicey, leathery notes underneath. The charm of the 12 year was that notes similar to these were balanced out with more fruit; there was something for everyone. Here, the fruit is not entirely absent, but it’s too overwhelmed to really speak of more specifically than to point out, there is something slightly fruit-like going on. Bad form.
On the palette it’s heavier, oilier, spicier than its younger brother, but there are red fruit notes creeping up alongside an unexpected creaminess. This moves on to some nice oak notes, but the slightly higher alcohol seems to be at odds with the more delicate notes at play throughout this process. It bites too much to suit the nuances at play.
The finish is what redeems this one, as it lingers nicely, just like the 12 year, and the notes that linger are quite nice; the spice has become subdued, the red fruit note has moved forward and this is all supported with a subtle cocoa note, like baker’s chocolate.
Over ice, as usual, the mellower notes of vanilla and oak open up nicely and this becomes a lot more drinkable, but since the proof is higher, the intensity of the spice and alcohol sort of get in the way until it’s much more watered down and you begin to lose the softer notes.
Putting these two blends head to head, I’d have to choose the 12 year for many reasons. It feels like it’s got nothing to prove, it responds to ice in a more well-rounded manner than its older brother, and let’s be honest, it was the 2010 Irish Whiskey of the Year. For the extra 10-20 bucks a bottle that the higher proof, slightly less refined 15 year commands, I’d rather buy the 40 dollar 12 year and spend the extra dough on a bottle of Bushmills or Jack Daniel’s for those friends who have yet to graduate past well shots or Jack and Coke. I bet you already know which of your friends won’t get it.
It’s like the movie Sideways, where Paul Giamatti takes Thomas Haden Church wine tasting the week before his wedding and to Church, everything “tastes pretty good”. Then, at one particular winery, Paul Giamatti asks, exasperated, “Are you chewing gum?” Yeah. That guy.
On the other hand, if you’re feeling like a philanthropist, this is one case where you can afford to broaden your friends’ horizons, since Redbreast is a steal at just under 40 bucks a bottle. Think about it. The 2010 Irish Whiskey of the Year goes for less than a tank of gas.
Your homework this month is to head out, pick up this bottle and something else around the same price range ($35-$40) and compare the two side by side. My hope is that you’ll see the massive deal Redbreast is over just about anything else in that price range. And if not, then you’ll have tried 2010’s whiskey of the year, and found something you like better.
I call that a win/win.