Between 1924 and 1932, a series of studies were carried out in Hawthorne Works, a Western Electric factory outside Chicago. The aim was to test if workers were more productive in brighter or dimmer lighting. Over the course of the study, a pattern emerged. When the lights were raised, the workers were more productive than they were previously. The lights dimmed, and the workers were also more productive than they were previously. In fact, the only time the work rate slumped back to its average was when the workers were not being studied. Soon it became apparent that the light levels had little to do with the results, and what was motivating the workers was the fact that they were the subjects of a study. This became known as The Hawthorne Effect, or the observer effect – whereby the act of study changes elements of what is being studied.
I find it hard to understand how the more productive bloggers manage to rattle out reviews at the pace they do, or how they maintain their enthusiasm. Images of bloggers’ sample hordes just make me sad – dozens or hundreds of miniature bottles just sitting there undrunk, because once your blog starts getting traffic, you will never keep up with the influx. Obviously, I am mercifully unburdened of traffic, so mine is an open road, bar the odd sample from the neighbours at IDL, such as this:
There are two schools of thought on tasting notes – one, you taste a whiskey, and then you tell people what it tasted like in the plainest possible terms. Or two, you use the opportunity to get creative. I quite like the latter – I love the SMSW tasting notes as they are generally batshit – wild, freewheeling notes that pull you into times and places you will never be, sensations you will never have. I love the more esoteric notes, which go beyond simple descriptives and instead operate more like poetry, giving you an oblong view of the whiskey, a code to be broken, a riddle to be solved. Because while I would always say in public that, hey, it’s just a drink, in my head I always know that it’s more.
A whiskey is about time, place and memory – it’s great if you think it tastes like custard, but I’d be more engaged if you told me it reminds you of the desserts of stewed apple and rubbery custard your nan gave you, because it evokes memories unique to you. It’s that little reveal that I like, clearly because I am a nosey shit, but also because, while there may be some objective tasting notes that the majority of people could agree on, it’s the uniqueness of an individual’s notes that are most interesting. So fuck objectivity.
Blair Bowman was a student at Aberdeen University when he happened to be in Barcelona for World Gin Day. As a whisky lover – Bowman was the founder of the Aberdeen University Malt Whisky Society – he decided to find out when World Whisky Day was. There wasn’t one, so he decided there should be. Fast forward three years and Bowman sells the World Whisky Day concept for an alleged six-figure sum. He is still involved, and it goes from strength to strength, with Irish whiskey makers getting over the spelling of it to join in the (promotional) fun.
To mark World Whisky Day 2018, IDL released a 32 year old Redbreast in a 50cl, €500 bottling. All 816 bottles sold out in hours. It seemed fast – even though there 2,000 of the Mano A Lamh bottles back in 2015, the customer quotas of two per buyer meant that despite being an incredibly reasonable €65, it didn’t sell out for weeks. But Mano wasn’t that old, nor exclusive, nor did it come at a time when the Irish economy is picking up almost at the same speed as the global interest in Irish whiskey. But still – the Dream Cask sold out in hours. It wasn’t long before it became clear why.
Whiskey is many things – delightful beverage, social lubricant, chrism of the soul – but it also happens to be a relatively solid investment. The Dream Cask was an old whiskey, with an age statement, in a uniquely Irish style (single pot still), that was limited to less than 1,000 bottles. The flippers – those who buy bottles purely to sell again at a profit – were always going to swarm around an item like this. However, what must have sent them into a feeding frenzy was the realisation that, thanks to a glitch in the IDL website, customer quotas were not applied. The results were spectacular:
Now, this isn’t to suggest that all 800 bottles were sold in lots of 17 to flippers; after all, how many people would have had eight and a half grand laying about? But if you were one of those who had €500 or a grand to buy one or two, and discovered they sold out, partly thanks to some folks buying dozens, then you would be pretty unamused. Also, while harcore whiskey nerds might do bottle shares or sell you one for cost, the flippers are simply going to flip. And, as John Egan pointed out, having so many bottles in the hands of the flippers skews the value – they will be in it for a decent price, not to simply hook another whiskey pal up. They are like ticket touts, forcing the ordinary fan to fork out above normal prices for access to an exclusive event – the tasting of a very old Redbreast whiskey.
So was the Dream Cask worth €500 for 50cl? Before I get to that, here are some of the finer points:
Redbreast Dream Cask is a limited edition, 32 Year Old single pot still Irish whiskey – a single cask that was hand-selected last year by Master Blender, Billy Leighton, as his favourite Redbreast whiskey. The cask was chosen for having the perfect balance of pot still, Spanish oak and sherry flavours, which can usually only be achieved through blending – bringing to life Redbreast’s signature sherry style.
The whiskey was originally unveiled during a Facebook LIVE tasting to mark Redbreast’s World Whisky Day 2017 celebrations. Participants and viewers praised the quality and rarity of what is now the oldest Redbreast Irish whiskey ever to go on sale, with many requesting that the whiskey be made available to buy.
Redbreast Master Blender, Billy Leighton, commented: “In almost 40 years as a blender, Redbreast Dream Cask is a real highlight as I am able to select my own, personal dream Irish whiskey and share it with the world. Our inaugural tasting in 2017 was by far the largest whiskey tasting I have ever held, and the feedback we have received from the whiskey community on the liquid has been phenomenal, so it’s an honour to see it bottled to mark World Whisky Day 2018 – and watch this space for our 2019 plans.”
The Redbreast Dream Cask represents the perfect contribution of flavours through a careful maturation journey rounded out by a particularly sublime sherry butt. The original date of bonding goes back to 31st October 1985, with single pot still Irish whiskey filled into re-fill American Oak ex-Bourbon barrels. Then, on 8th March 2011, the whiskey was re-casked into a first-fill Oloroso Sherry-seasoned butt. The resulting whiskey is luxuriously smooth with wood resin notes reminiscent of well-polished antique furniture, lots of ripe fresh fruit flavours and an extremely balanced finish that slowly fades.
Redbreast Dream Cask is bottled without the use of chill-filtration at 46.5% ABV and is available in very limited quantities through Redbreast’s online private members’ club, The Birdhouse, for €500 per 50cl bottle.
Back to my musings:
Nose: The old classic quote about Redbreast returns – this is Christmas cake in a glass, but with Christmas pudding, brandy butter and some sherry trifle in there for good measure. Absolute decadence. I’ve had some heavily sherried whiskeys recently that just over-egged that cake – too sweet, too paxarette-esque – but this is just that rich, balanced sherry note that you want in a whiskey, where it never obliterates the fact that this is whiskey, not an actual sherry. Honeycomb, cappuccino, a little roasted tomato and Ballymaloe relish, that slightly tart acidity tingling the sinus. It’s the power of the scent here – not overpowering, just deep. This is what I wanted from the Bow Street Jameson 18 and the 2018 Midleton Very Rare – a nose that was a prelude to something.
Palate: All those stewed fruits from that festive dessert trolley, jam sponge, sherry, glacé cherries. Christmas pudding scorched with burning whiskey. There is a dryness here that I wasn’t expecting – but that tartness on the nose gives way to a tongue-smacking, mouth-coating, oily liquid. This whiskey reminds me of the cask we opened when I did the Irish Whiskey Academy back in 2014 – at the time I remember it was so good my ears popped. Just that wallop of flavours, and you find yourself smacking your lips for some time after. Spices, tobacco – the usual suspect, and more.
Finish: On and on and on – a mouthful of slowly dissolving hopjes, ripe banana, figs, the tail end of a Fisherman’s Friend, Lyons’s Black Treacle, peanut brittle. By now you have probably guessed that I have a sweet tooth, but there is a lot more in this whiskey – the TCP mouthwash dryness and the tart, bitter fruits built into the back end mean this is more than a shortcut to sensory diabetes. I could easily match this with some pitch dark chocolate or some patient zero level blue cheese – it operates on multiple levels.
Overall: So was it worth €500? If you bought one, then yes it was. But if you didn’t get one, and tried to, your yearning for it is probably more to do with the human condition than the actual liquid. We always want what we can’t have, and that longing gets worse the more elusive the item becomes. That said, I am one of the assholes who bought four Mano A Lamhs.
If you didn’t get a bottle of the Dream Cask, and are disgusted with how it played out, it’s worth pointing out that it is highly likely that World Whisky Day 2019 will probably see another release very much like this. This event was a first for IDL, so I’d give them a pass on the customer quota SNAFU and also on the poor packaging, as some purchasers found their tumblers smashed when they opened the box (replacements were sent). At least we can console ourselves with the mental image of the flippers opening box after box, filled with broken glass, slicing their greedy little hands open.
The Dream Cask is an incredible whiskey, but €500 for 50ml, not at cask strength, is a lot. Maybe you earn €60k+ and have no kids. Then for you it is well worth it. Even if you earn less than that and this is a real luxurious treat for yourself, then go on, spoil yourself, you’re worth it. But for me, almost no whiskey is worth more than €200. I know there are conditions that affect price, like rarity and demand, but as I said before, it is still just a drink (and also so much more).
Whiskey is about moments – I drank this sitting at a computer in my kitchen. If I had been at a whiskey festival, sharing it with friends, I would probably feel it was well worth the money. But this is part of the observer effect – I am studying this whiskey, rather than just enjoying it for what it is, and that changes the results. But I’m privileged to have tried it, especially in a generous 10cl sample, that came with a tumbler, pen, lapel pin, and coaster. If I had any sense I would have kept it closed and stuck the lot on eBay for €200. Je ne regrette rien.