Bird On A Wire

I got the Irish whiskey industry to get pot still going, because that was dead. It’s the old campaigning journalist in me – if you believe in something, you go out and fight your campaign. 

On September 20, 2020, the drinks writer Becky Paskin started a lengthy thread drawing attention to some of the language used by fellow drinks writer Jim Murray in his annual Whisky Bible. Reaction was swift – condemnation of Murray’s words, multiple attacks on Paskin’s credibility, and a rolling conversation about sexism in what is largely male dominated industry and community. Up until Paskin’s thread, few whisky writers had the level of power Murray did – the unveiling of his annual top three whiskies in the Whisky Bible was a significant event in the annual drinks calendar. Firms would send out press releases about their placing in the top three as soon as the list was announced, as though they had been anointed from on high. But in the aftermath, a nod from Murray was seen as a mild embarrassment, at best. Paskin closed out her thread by stating: “Any brand celebrating their placement in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible should be ashamed.”

Two days later edits started being made to the Wikipedia pages of Irish Distillers Limited’s Green Spot and Redbreast whiskeys. The user was scrubbing all mention of Jim Murray’s various accolades for both whiskeys, removing all trace of what had been previously celebrated as a badge of honour. A Wikipedia moderator named Jacob Gott reversed the edits – at 10.42am on September 23 he told the user their edits to the Green Spot page were undone ‘because they did not appear constructive’. At 10.43am Gott told the same user their edits to the Redbreast page were reversed and that they appeared to constitute vandalism. Gott gave a lengthy explanation that the user making the edits appeared to have an undisclosed financial interest in the brand page, although the user had reached out to Gotts and revealed that they worked for both brands, saying “We are trying to clean up and update both pages in reference to the most recent information in the spirits world.” 

The edits were eventually made, and all trace of Murray’s praise heaped upon Green Spot and Redbreast – which he had championed on multiple occasions – disappeared from the pages. 

All this came at a crucial time for Redbreast – it was next in line for the big IDL push, which had started in earnest in 2018 with new campaigns, social channels, and more cheerful sláinte’s being tweeted than you could shake a stick at. A couple of weeks after the cleansing of Wikipedia, a new Redbreast campaign was launched, with a cheerful animated robin voiced by Cork actor, author, and comedian Tadhg Hickey. The following year, Irish actor Chris O’Dowd joined the campaign

None of this comes cheap – high-end creative agencies, social media teams, VO talent, celebrity appearances, all cost a lot of money. It would appear it was money well spent. Shanken ran a piece in July of this year which highlighted the fact that Redbreast sales rose 13% to 63,000 cases in the US last year. Speaking about the surge, Simon Fay, business acceleration director at Irish Distillers Ltd, said the volume growth of 26% in the first six months of the financial year for Midleton’s prestige whiskeys was driven by the Redbreast family, which was up 20%. The little bird had come a long way from ‘find out what all the hush is about’. 

Along with the marketing drive came several new releases – aside from the core 12-year-old, its cask-strength sibling, the 15, and the 21, there was the new 27 year old addition, as well as the Lustau, the first of what was loftily titled the Iberian series, and the Kentucky Oak edition. There were the annual Dream Cask releases, snapped up via ballot. There is a full list of releases on the (Murray-free) Redbreast Wikipedia page, although they sadly seem to have forgotten the Redbreast blend Irish Distillers created in the 1990s, which was bottled by Edward Dillon. Peter Mulryan, writing in the early edition of his Whiskeys of Ireland book, had this to say about that particular ugly cousin: 

“Just how this mess is meant to be ‘an introduction to the more full-flavoured single pot still expression’ is beyond me. This whiskey has as much in common with its namesake as whiskey writer Michael Jackson has with his. Whoever had the bright idea of extending the Redbreast family should be locked in a padded cell before they can do any more damage. I mean, can you imagine Ferrari putting their name to a Tribant? Even blind this whiskey is pretty awful, but as it bears the Redbreast name, it is an utter disgrace.” 

The Redbreast family continues to expand, and the prices being asked continue to rise. Back when they released the NAS Redbreast Mano A Lámh bottling, its RRP was €65. That seems like a distant memory as more recent releases of a similar stature are around the €100 mark. A limited edition, cask strength 10 year old released in 2021 went for €100, while the new ‘distillery edition’ of same at a lower strength costs €120, or €125 if you want your name inscribed on it. This particular bottle is being sold in both Midleton – where all the IDL whiskey is made – and their historic home in Bow Street, where no whiskey is made. Curious about why the decision was made to release the same bottle in both places (given one has not been a distillery for decades), I asked, and this is what a spokesperson for IDL said: 

“The Jameson Distillery on Bow Street in Dublin was a distillery for almost 200 years. While it is no longer operational, like the newly refurbished Midleton Distillery Experience, visitors from around the world visit the old distillery to understand the craft of producing Irish whiskey. Through these two world-class experiences, located on the grounds of Irish whiskey distilling history, we proudly share our history and craft with hundreds of thousands of people visiting Cork and Dublin each year. 

“The new Redbreast 10 Year Old Distillery Edition was launched to celebrate the reopening of the Midleton Distillery Experience at the end of September, and is an exciting extension of our visitor offering at both visitor attractions and retail spaces, in what were once operational but are now decommissioned distilleries.”  

As an aside: Midleton Distillery deserves more than this. It’s where the stuff is made, and has been made for decades now. It is the beating heart of Irish whiskey and without it, without Jameson, there would be no renaissance. The least they could do to honour that is release a distillery edition at cask strength in Cork and a heritage edition at lower ABV in Dublin, but I’m sure the folks at IDL HQ in the leafy suburbs of Dublin know better than I, a simple Corkman.

The considerable might of IDL’s marketing has been thrown behind the new Tawny Port Redbreast as well, with a select audience of writers, influencers, and thought leaders being flown out to Portugal for the main launch, and then a selection of platelickers being invited to the afters of the wedding back home in dear old Dublin. I know some of us bristle when we see who gets invited to these things, thinking to ourselves, they aren’t real whiskey lovers. Of course they aren’t, that’s why they have massive followings, because they are slick content creators who don’t spend all day arguing about historic mashbills. Influencers have reach – they are human billboards.

One of the influencers flown out to Portugal has a whopping 1.2 million followers on TikTok and, uncannily, the exact same number of followers on Instagram. What is even more remarkable is that he says his Insta following went from 40k to more than a million in less than 90 days. I would never have heard of him were it not for the fact he was at the Redbreast launch, nor would I have taken an interest in his stats, but this is the price of profile – it brings scrutiny.

It may have taken a couple of decades, but scrutiny was Jim Murray’s undoing (along with writing whisky reviews that sounded like the monologues of Swiss Toni from The Fast Show). The saddest part of the unravelling of his Whisky Bible, aside from how lonely all the innuendo and smut made the author sound, was that nobody had apparently sat down and read the thing in some time. He credited himself with getting single pot still restarted as a category, and championed it many times in his reviews. But like a digital Ozymandias, all that remains of that legacy is the sterilised landscapes of the Redbreast and Green Spot Wikipedia pages, stretching like the lone and level sands far away.

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