from the start"
"A new twist on Redbreast thanks to an old friendship."
Successful from the start
W & A Gilbey was founded in 1857 and began in small basement cellars at the corner of Oxford Street and Berwick Street in London. Gilbeys benefitted greatly from the introduction of the off-licence system introduced in 1860 and a commercial agreement between Britain and France in 1861, following which, the British Prime Minister Gladstone reduced duty on French wines from 12 shillings to 2 shillings. Gilbeys were successful from the start and, within a couple of years, had branches in Dublin, Belfast and Edinburgh.
Wine importers and distillers
By 1861 Gilbeys had premises at 31 Upper Sackville Street in Dublin (now called O’Connell Street), and were described as wine importers and distillers. They carried stocks of over 140 different wines and held between 700 and 1,000 wine casks under bond.
A distinctive brand
In 1866, the company moved to new offices and stores at 46 & 47 Upper Sackville Street in the centre of Dublin (now O’Connell Street), which contained their own vaults. The buildings were previously the premises of Sneyd, French and Barton. The premises had its own tasting room and a small still for determining the alcoholic strength of wines and spirits. Gilbeys had their own patented bottle cases which could be easily stacked, a state of the art bottle washing machine and by this time, wax seals were replaced with their patented capsule seal. Gilbeys sold all their wines and spirits directly to consumers under their own distinctive brand.
300,000 gallons in bond
Initially famous for their wines, spirits were becoming a greater part of Gilbey’s business. By 1874, Gilbeys held a stock in bond of over 300,000 gallons of whiskey sourced from “the most celebrated Dublin Distilleries”. The proprietary brand at this time was Gilbey’s Castle Whiskey. They sold three main brands Castle U P Irish Whiskey 33% under proof (u.p.), Castle U V Irish Whiskey 17% u.p. and Castle D O Irish Whiskey at full proof strength.
996,000 bottles a year
At this point Gilbey’s held the largest stocks of Irish whiskey, outside of the distilleries themselves, of any company in the world. In 1875 they were selling 83,000 cases of Irish whiskey compared with only 38,000 of Scotch, a reflection of the pre-eminence of Irish Whiskey at the time.
An alliance with Jameson
By 1887 W & A Gilbey were marketing John Jameson & Son’s ‘sole make’ pure and unblended Irish whiskey. Every bottle of Castle Grand Whiskey had a label certifying that it was Jameson’s and upwards of 6 years old. At the turn of the century, the company held a stock of over 700,000 gallons of John Jameson & Son’s whiskey which was “especially reserved for their celebrated brands”. The casks filled by Jameson were supplied directly by Gilbey’s who, as importers of sherry, had access to an ample supply of casks. Once filled, the casks were stored in Gilbey’s cavernous vaults in their Harcourt Street bonded warehouse.
The precursor to Redbreast
In 1903, Gilbey’s whiskey brands included Castle Grand JJ Six Years Old and Castle Liqueur JJ Ten Years Old (JJ standing for John Jameson), both bearing the signature of John Jameson & Son. The following year, John Jameson & Son’s Castle “JJ Liqueur” Whiskey 12 Years Old, was being marketed at 4 shillings and 6 pence in a bottle, similar in shape, and bearing the red and white label seen on Redbreast bottlings up until the 1960s. Gilbey’s sold whiskey under the ‘Castle’ brand until at least the late 1930s.
The first official reference to the brand name 'Redbreast' appears in August 1912, when Gilbeys were selling "Redbreast" J.J. Liqueur Whiskey 12 Years Old, described as one of their "famous" brands. The fact that Redbreast was already a famous brand suggests that this may have been the nickname for Gilbey's Castle "JJ Liqueur" Whiskey 12 Years Old. The name 'Redbreast' itself refers to the bird, Robin Redbreast, and is attributed to the then Chairman of Gilbey's, who was an avid bird-fancier.
"The Priest's Bottle"
1920's Ireland was a time of political turmoil and economic uncertainty. Money was tight and money for fine whiskeys would have been a luxury beyond the means of most. Yet the country’s clergy enjoyed a life of considerable status and comfort so much so that Redbreast became affectionately known as '"The Priest's Bottle" after finding its way into many a church presbytery in Ireland. Clearly, individuals of both spiritual and gastronomic enlightenment.
A staunch friend
An advertisement in 1933 reads: “Redbreast Liqueur Whiskey at your service. You could not wish for a stauncher truer friend. Always ready to help. Refreshing you through the sultry, thirst making, days of summer, shielding you from the piercing winds and driving rains of winter, and in every season proving itself a most welcome and peace-bringing nightcap.” They don't make advertising like they used to.
Moving and changing
In the mid 1960s, Redbreast was being bottled annually in batches of approximately 4,000 gallons (18,000 litres) to satisfy a steady demand for the brand. Minor changes to the bottle occurred throughout the 1960s including, from 1964, an age statement appeared on the foil cap seal. The familiar Redbreast white label with red writing remained largely unchanged until at least 1972.
"A special partnership"
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. Gilbeys 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.
Over the life of the brand, the label has gone through various iterations. By 1978, the label had changed to a pale matt brown colour with a large stylised No.12 in white overprinted on which was the Redbreast name. In late 1980 the glossy label was ochre in colour with a smaller 12 in the background. Throughout the years however, other than the brand’s ill-fated dalliance with a blended version, the distinctive dumpy, rum bottle shape has been a constant.
The last of Gilbey's
The last bottling of Redbreast under the Gilbey's banner occurred in 1985. In 1986 Gilbey's, who had long since stopped maturing Redbreast in their vaults in Harcourt Street, entered into an agreement to sell the brand name to Irish Distillers.
Hallelujah! Redbreast re-launched
In December 1991, Redbreast was re-introduced by Irish Distillers Limited, after an absence of almost 10 years. The veritable pot still whiskey was given a thorough makeover and benefitted from Irish Distiller's revamped wood programme. The flawless pot still distillate from Midleton Distillery was now maturing in only the finest sherry and bourbon casks. Whiskey writer Michael Jackson said "IDG relaunched Redbreast as a 12 year old. This is traditional Irish pot-still at its richest: well matured and with a generous slug of sherry. For some lovers of this style, Redbreast approaches perfection."
We all make mistakes....
As a gesture to a local distributor of long-standing, Edward Dillon & Co, Irish Distillers supplied an exclusive bottling of a Redbreast pot-still and grain whiskey blend. Suffice it to say that the experiment didn’t quite work out. Let’s just leave it at that.
Redbreast 15 launched
In 2005, the seminal Redbreast 15 is released. This bottling was produced for long-time champion and French distributor of Redbreast, La Maison du Whiskey, Paris, as part of their 50th Anniversary celebrations. The whiskey, which is comprised of a slightly different formulation to the venerable 12 year old, was bottled at 46% abv (alcohol by volume) and was non chill filtered. The whiskey is an instant hit and in the following year, was chosen by Jim Murray as the Whisky Bible 'Irish Whiskey of the Year'.
IRISH WHISKEY AWARDS
If the ship was going down within sight of a desert island my flailing left hand would make a grab for a bottle of Redbreast.
Dave Broom, August 2011, Edinburgh
Redbreast 12. Very elegant, complex and stylish. Honeyed and silky in texture, with toffee, toasted marshmallow, nougat, maple syrup, banana bread and a hint of toasted coconut. Bright fruit and golden raisin blend in nicely with the layers of sweetness. Impeccable balance and very approachable.
Have you seen a Cirque du Soleil performance? This is the whiskey equivalent - so much going on you have to try it all again. Awesome.
This is, without doubt, one of the world's finest whiskeys.
Redbreast 12 Year Old
12 year old
Full of aroma and flavour, Redbreast 12 Year Old benefits from a strong contribution from distillates which have matured in Oloroso sherry casks, giving it its trademark Christmas cake character.
A complex spicy and fruity aroma with toasted wood notes evident.
Full flavoured and complex; a harmonious balance of spicy, creamy, fruity, sherry and toasted notes.
Satisfyingly long, the complex flavours linger on the palate.