Nigel John Dermot Neill was born in Omagh in Northern Ireland in 1947. His father, a New Zealander whose family originated in Belfast, was stationed there with the Royal Irish Fusiliers, but the family moved to New Zealand in 1954. There, the young boy opted to change his name, deciding that Nigel was a tad ‘effete’ for the Kiwi playground. So he changed it to Sam.
I had always assumed Sam Neill was an Aussie. Then, after The Hunt For The Wilderpeople, I learned he was a Kiwi. Then, after samples of the new single pot still whiskey from Gelston’s arrived into my letterbox, I learned that Sam is a Nordie (he actually identifies as British, Irish and Kiwi). So many plot twists.
I’ll let the press release take it from here:
The new release is the result of collaboration between Gelston’s owner, Johnny Neill and Sam, who is based in New Zealand. It sees the cousins bringing together the two sides of the family, whilst also merging the brilliant flavours and aromas of the two hemispheres.
The liquid has been triple distilled and matured for 19 months in ex-bourbon casks, before spending a further 21 months maturing in Sam’s French oak casks, which had previously held his prestigious Central Otago Pinot Noir.
It is malty on the nose with hints of strawberry, nutmeg and tropical fruit. On the palate it is big, rich and sweet, with a hint of dryness, a note of blackcurrant and dash of spice – all with sweet, jammy notes on the finish.
Johnny Neill, owner of Samuel Gelston’s Irish Whisky, said; “The Neill family have been making quality spirits for generations. My Great, Great Grandfather Harry Neill set up the successful McCallum Neill & Co in Australia in 1851, and Percival, one of his younger brothers set up Messrs Neill & Co in Dunedin in 1882 – Percival was Sam Neill’s Great Grandfather.
“Sam and I have continued this legacy in our respective sides of the world – I’ve been focused on the creation of artisanal spirits using local ingredients, whereas he has dedicated nigh on 30 years winegrowing super premium pinot noir. For the first time in 150 years, we’re bringing together the expertise from both sides of the family – the result being an incredibly exciting sweet, honeyed and very inviting Single Pot Still Whiskey”.
Samuel Gelston’s Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey finished in Pinot Casks (40% ABV, 70cl) has an RRP of €44.99, is currently available in L. Mulligans, Celtic Whiskey Shop and all good whiskey shops.
So what’s it like? Bit hot on the nose, as you’d expect from a three-and-a-half whiskey, although not as caustic as some young spirits. I’m assuming it’s from Great Northern, who have shown you can make excellent young whiskey and lots of it. Not much going on on the nose, but the palate brings a blast of aniseed, cloves, roasted tomatoes, cough mixture, like a kind of ouzo without the cloying elements. A short finish, but a smooth and approachable whiskey bottled at 40%, and with a price that isn’t a national embarrassment. And if that hasn’t sold you, how about this blast of wanton flattery from Mr Neill:
I was in a taxi on my way to the TV3 studios. It was 5am on a cold November morning in 2014, and I was about to appear on the channel’s breakfast TV show, Ireland AM. The driver and I were laughing about the fact that I was about to go on live television to discuss getting a vasectomy, and how completely ridiculous it was. As we neared the industrial estate in Walkinstown where TV3 have their studios, he offered his final thought on vasectomies; a friend of his got one a few years before, and when word got out, all the women in the office were after him. That said, he added, his friend worked in the public sector, and sher ‘they’re all at it in there’. “Must be the boredom,” he concluded.
It’s a fairly common trope – that there is some sort of dolce vita to be had in the public sector, where they laze about all day enjoying bacchanalian orgies to kill some time until their enormous pensions kick in. I never really thought about the taxi driver’s comments until 12 months later, when I found myself working in the public sector, specifically in a very large, very busy hospital. My work in both the emergency department and the outpatients department was a pedal to the metal, full throttle affair. After three years working in the Irish health service, I can say this with absolute certainty – if there is an easy job to be found anywhere in the public sector, it definitely isn’t in the HSE.
I would advocate anyone to consider a career in the public sector – you work hard, and if you come in at the bottom level of the lowest grade, your pay is a not-too-impressive 21.5kPA. But it goes up in annual increments, as it does across all grades, and you have a stability and security that you will rarely find in any job. In my previous work with the newspaper, I was lacking much of what I found in the HSE – security, meaning, and an opportunity to progress. And lo, progress is exactly what I did this year, and I am now a B2B communications professional. Outta my goddam way, world.
Of course, whiskey was central to all this – it was writing about whiskey that landed me all the freelance work I currently do, which in turn enabled me to go into an interview and tell them I write a weekly column for one of the biggest papers in the country. So my career is starting to look a little bit more like a career, thanks to booze. I’m also pleased to announce that despite repeatedly telling the world that I know absolutely nothing about whiskey, I have done some brand consultancy work for the distilling industry, and have even enjoyed the piquant irony of signing a non-disclosure agreement, which I believe legally allows me to falsely claim that I own a distillery.
Aside from all this humblebragging, I also did some market research for an unnamed drinks firm, and for my troubles, I got a bottle of Redbreast 21. So good luck guessing what drinks firm it was.
Redbreast 21 features regularly on this blog as being one of the greats of Irish whiskey. Yes it’s expensive, but now that I have a big fancy office with my name on the door and some obvious delusions of grandeur, I believe that I am worth it. So to mark one month in the job, I cracked open the Redbreast 21 and toasted my good fortune. It was great to go back to this whiskey after not having it over the last few lean years, and to remind myself how good it is. On the nose there are lots of raisins, madeira cake, that creamy bite of rich tomato soup, molasses, cappuccino. Some real savoury notes – Oxo cubes, caramelized onions, passata, hoisin sauce. Lots to work through in this russet-gold liquid. I would absolutely kill this in a cask-strength version.
It has that smooth, oiled glide across the palate, opening up to reveal bergamot, dark chocolate, winter fruits – my usual suspects, pear drops, Tia Maria, glögi, white Russians, those are all alcoholic beverages so it seems like cheating to compare this to them but you get the idea – creamy alcohol and lots of flavour. Leather and tobacco, salted caramel, pineapple chunks, buttery apple crumble, and once again I am going to say creme brulee as I appear to taste that in every drink ever. It’s the snap, crackle and pop of pot still style that this has – it’s oily, mouth-coating properties dissolve in the face of a wave of tingling dryness.
As for the finish: It’s like those old videos of the Trinity nuclear test – one massive mushroom cloud, then waves of oomph. I love Redbreast 21, and spend a lot of time on this blog eulogising it, with good cause. It rolls – with dried fruit, peanut butter, figs, plums, honey, and some of that bergamot from the nose. Beautiful.
It seems odd to me that such a great whiskey has only been on the shelves for five years now. Flashback:
Billy Leighton, master blender at Midleton Distillery, said the process of launching Redbreast 21 Year Old took three years, as finding the right aged casks for blending was challenging.
“We’ve done a lot of work on Redbreast 21 Year Old. We decided in 2010 we wanted to extend the Redbreast family and it just had to be an age to continue the Redbreast style – we’ve always been an age statement brand. Luckily my predecessors had the foresight to squirrel away a few casks but it wasn’t what I thought we could call Redbreast. But as more stock became available over the past year to use in a 21-year-old blend, we managed to put the expression together”.
“Once my team and I tasted the 21 Year Old whiskey, there was never any question about whether we should release a younger expression – the older whiskey showed such stunning levels of depth, flavour and taste, we just had to bring it out for the growing army of Redbreast and single pot still Irish whiskey fans around the world.”
I know a lot of folks who say the 15 is better value – and, to be fair, they are probably right, given that is it under a hundred euro – but the 21 is opulence itself, that silken Redbreast profile taken to the nth degree, smooth, delectable whiskey that, in a category that is pushing up prices, is actually worth the price. That said, do bear in mind that I didn’t pay for the bottle I reviewed here, and am basically now an official organ of the industry since I have done paid work for them. So I’m even less trustworthy than your average bribe unit. But you’re just going to have to trust me when I say that, to me, this is one of the greats – in fact, release this in a cask-strength version and you would easily have the match of the Dream Cask.
So what now for Redbreast? It is the ideal next step for anyone looking to explore the wide, wide world of Irish whiskey. It is a straightforward proposition – a core range that work like a ladder, 12, 12CS, 15, 21. The Spot whiskeys are too few, the Powers too many, Method & Madness too esoteric. If I was looking to show someone what Irish whiskey can be, it would be Redbreast. I still think a world-beating single malt would be a great boon, but until then it helps to have a uniquely Irish whiskey style that also happens to simply be a great whiskey. Of course, all this is just the idle speculation of someone who really doesn’t know anything about whiskey – a position that I sometimes think is a boon; no obsessing about history, or legacy, just the cold eye of an average consumer. I revel in my own ignorance. A few years back, I would have killed for a job in the whiskey business, until I realised in more recent times that whiskey is my Narnia. If I took a job there, the joy would go out of it pretty fast. What I have found is balance – a day job that is challenging and rewarding, a second job where I get paid to write whatever I want, and a hobby that brings me joy and the odd bottle of free booze. It doesn’t get better than that really.