Ireland and Iberia: Kindred Spirits – An Interview with Irish Distillers’ Billy Leighton

Ireland and Iberia: Kindred Spirits – An Interview with Irish Distillers’ Billy Leighton

Quick geography lesson for those who slept through it in school. The Iberian Peninsula is a region of southwestern Europe that includes most of Spain and Portugal, a tiny bit of southern France, and Gibraltar. Like Scotch, Irish whiskey has a long tradition of aging in ex-sherry casks that hail from this part of the world. The ex-bourbon, American oak backbone of so many Irish and Scotch whiskeys today really didn’t become the norm until the 1960s. Before that, it was often wine cask-aged, with sherry from Spain leading the way. In Ireland, no brand has embraced this original Iberian influence more than Redbreast. Each whiskey in their core range includes a portion of single pot still whiskey aged in ex-oloroso sherry, and their recent lux offerings like Dream Cask have all included some mix of sherry or Port finishing.

In 2021, Redbreast doubled down on this heritage when they launched the Iberian Series, a limited-edition line of non-age-stated Redbreast single pot still whiskeys finished in wine casks from the Iberian Peninsula. That year’s release, PX Edition finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry, joined the 2016 release of Lustau Edition, finished in a sherry butt from Bodegas Lustau. Late last year, a third installment joined the Iberian Series lineup, Tawny Port Cask Edition, finished for a minimum of nine months in specially seasoned Tawny Port casks from Portugal.

Billy Leighton spent 20 years of his nearly 50-year career as Master Blender at Redbreast’s parent company, Irish Distillers, overseeing the blending of not just Redbreast but Jameson, Powers, the Spot range, and every other whiskey in their massive portfolio. At the end of November, he stepped aside to become Master Blender Emeritus, taking a well-deserved retirement that will still see him lending his expertise to special projects like the Iberian Series. We caught up with him just before the announcement to discuss Redbreast’s sherried beginnings, the origins of the Iberian Series, and where the line might go from here. We hope he’s reading this on a beach somewhere.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability. 

Drinkhacker: When and how did Redbreast get its start? Has it always been partially matured in sherry casks?

Billy: Redbreast as a brand is first mentioned over 100 years ago in 1912. The liquid existed before that under another name, but certain business opinions at the time led to a name change. Previously, it was called something like Castle Grand Liqueur from John Jameson and Son. It was what we would refer to as a bonder’s brand. A separate company, a third party named W & A Gilby were wine importers in the UK and Ireland. Back in the day, the wine would have been imported in casks. Sherry was very popular at the time, as well as Port and Madeira, but sherry was the most abundant. The natural thing for Gilby to do was to take their empty sherry casks and fill it with Jameson distillate. They took the casks back to their warehouses and matured it there and it eventually became Redbreast.

Drinkhacker: And where did the name come from?

Billy: Apparently, one of the directors of W & A Gilby was a keen ornithologist, and that’s where the name came about, from Robin Redbreast. There was a whiskey called Yellow Hammer and one called Merlin. All birds. Redbreast was the one that stuck.

Drinkhacker: How much sherry cask-aged whiskey is in the modern blend of Redbreast?

Billy: It’s a question we’re always asked, and we’re always a bit evasive in giving a straight answer. It’s not that it’s any particular secret, but we don’t like to quote a number and be held to it. In the whiskey world and the art of the blender, we like to keep a little bit of flexibility…with a view to keeping a constant flavor profile. The sherry casks, they can vary significantly enough from cask to cask. We say about one quarter is ex-oloroso sherry and three quarters coming from ex-bourbon casks. You would expect the bourbon influence to be dominant, but the sherry influence punches a lot more than the bourbon. That 25% is bringing about all the fruitiness and the nuttiness that we recognize as being the signature of Redbreast 12-years-old.

Drinkhacker: In 2016, Redbreast launched Lustau Edition and began to really highlight the influence of Iberian wine casks on their whiskey. Was that the start of the Iberian Series?

Billy: I think you can safely say the Iberian Series hadn’t even been thought about at that stage. The Lustau Edition came about really as our way of giving credit to the sherry industry for being there and making the casks available. It was us recognizing Bodegas Lustau in particular, but it had a bigger message than that. It was the Irish whiskey industry giving a bit of credit to the sherry industry. Without the sherry industry having done what they’ve been doing for a long time, brands like Redbreast probably wouldn’t exist in their present form. That got us thinking that we should be calling out the appreciation that we have for the industry.

Drinkhacker: Was the Iberian Series an extension of that?

Billy: Yes, it was. We started looking around at other cask types around the region. We had for a long time been having casks seasoned with Port and Malaga wine, different types of fortified wine. It could have been any series, but I think because the anchor was the oloroso sherry it brought us to focus on the Iberian Peninsula area and see what other cask types might work.

Drinkhacker: How did you go about testing the compatibility of different Iberian wine casks for finishing Redbreast whiskey?

Billy: We release the Redbreast Dream Cask every year. I believe the second release was a PX sherry, so that was one avenue that we could look at that would automatically fall into the Redbreast style. Port was another option. We’d been putting down Port casks, but we hadn’t used it in Redbreast at all until the 27-year-old and the Dream Cask. Both of those were Ruby Port. We used the Dream Cask expressions kind of as a testing ground for these different cask types. And thankfully everything has worked fabulously.

Drinkhacker: But the latest installment to the Iberian Series is finished in Tawny Port. Why not Ruby since you were already incorporating that into other expressions?
 
Billy: Last year’s Dream Cask was the Port-to-Port edition which has ex-bourbon [-aged whiskey], Ruby Port [-aged whiskey], and then both of those finished in Tawny Port. We’d been getting a few of the Tawny casks over the years, and it worked pretty well in the Dream Cask. That gave us the confidence to add an expression to the Iberian Series.

Drinkhacker: From a blender’s standpoint, how does whiskey finished in Tawny Port compare to Ruby Port?

Billy: Tawny was a little bit different to work with compared to the Ruby port. Ruby port is very giving. Its flavor profile is luscious fruit and ripe fruit, which combines very well with the fruitiness of the oloroso sherry. You see that obviously in Redbreast 27. With Tawny Port, it’s a little bit different. It was very giving as well, but it’s a different type of fruity character. Tawny is aged in oak where the Ruby Port wouldn’t necessarily be. It’s more of an earthy profile, sweet baked goods like Danish pastry, cinnamon, and clove, quite a bit of nuttiness, as well. It wasn’t just a straightforward Tawny finish. We started off with our bourbon and sherry [-aged Redbreast] and then did a two-stage finish on the Tawny. That was the way we as blenders worked on getting a balance on the Tawny influence. With the Ruby Port, we already had experience with it, but with the Tawny, we didn’t. We let some of the whiskey finish for 24 months, quite a long time, and another portion we let finish for 14 months. Having that little bit of variability there we were able to manage the influence of the Port cask.

Drinkhacker: When planning for a new expression in the Iberian Series, how important is cask management?

Billy: One thing that we do across the board is that we’re very much on top of the quality of our casks. These weren’t just Tawny casks that we found for sale on the market. These casks go back to about 2009. We have a long-standing relationship with suppliers in Portugal. We’d been getting Ruby Port for a while already, and they suggested that we try these particular Tawny casks. But once we decided that we’d try Tawny, we went to the cooperage and gave them our specifications for the casks. They made the casks for us, and those casks were handed over to a consultant wine maker who managed the seasoning for us. It’s not a random selection of casks. These are casks that we’ve decided to use, and we’ve done it properly right from the start. We could have taken two or maybe three years off the timeline by speculating on casks in the marketplace, but whenever you do that, you have no guarantee [of the quality].

Drinkhacker: What’s your favorite Iberian Series release?

Billy: It’s a difficult question. There’s a little bit of my soul in all of them. Usually, the response is always the latest one. And that’s true to a point. You just want to take care of it and make sure that it’s still delivering the flavors and the profile that was in your head only a few months ago. I’m definitely sitting on the fence. I loved the PX sherry, and one of my favorite trips each year is to Jerez. I have a sentimental attachment to Lustau because I worked closely with their winemaker, Manolo Salado. We had discussed how we could bring the flavor of Lustau to the top of the whiskey, and we had made some adjustments to the cask profile and the age profile of the whiskey in order to allow the Lustau character to come through. We made our adjustments and had set a launch date for 30 September 2016, but just a few months before that I got the call that Manolo had passed away very suddenly. I have a very, very sentimental attachment to it. He was a good friend who wasn’t able to be at the launch of something that we had worked on together.

Drinkhacker: How do you see the Iberian Series evolving? Are additional releases planned?

Billy: I think I can say yes. Our marketing folks said that because we did the PX Edition in 2021 and now we’ve launched the Tawny Port Edition in 2023, that means every two years we’re going to launch a new one, right? And I told them if we can do it every two years, we’ll do it, but we’ll not be held to have something ready unless we’re happy with it. To that end, Redbreast is a very old brand. We could call it a traditional brand. The 12-year expression is referred to as the quintessential Irish single pot still whiskey, but that brings with it a legacy. The heritage of the brand I feel is quite restrictive in what new things we can do with it. We’ve proved with the Ruby Port, and PX sherry, and Tawny Port that there are some new variables that we can bring in there with it. We don’t necessarily have to restrict ourselves to fortified wines. To answer your question, there will be further iterations of the Iberian Series. When I couldn’t say, but you can rest assured we’re looking at as many options as we can get our hands on right now. The cream always comes to the top, so it’ll be whichever one stands out whenever that may be.

Drew Beard is assistant editor for Drinkhacker and winner of several booze-related merit badges, including Certified Specialist in Spirits and Executive Bourbon Steward. A former federal employee turned hotelier and spirits journalist, he looks forward to his next midlife crisis.

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