There will be different stories behind how we started on our own whisky odysseys, although I would expect that in the majority of tales there is an individual who can be attributed to rousing an interest. For me, that individual is my dad. Now he doesn’t profess to be the worlds most avid whisky connoisseur (in fact he’s probably more likely to go for a brandy after a meal than a whisky!) but he’s always been partial to an occasional dram. Dad heralds from Ballymoney in Northern Ireland. A town not far from the beautiful Antrim Coast, the Giants Causeway, Dunluce Castle and which is only a short drive to the village of Bushmills. Our family took a trip back to Ireland over the last weekend of May and stayed just outside Bushmills on the road to the Giants Causeway, so it would have been rude not to take in tour of the distillery whilst we were there!
On a gorgeous Saturday morning, fuelled by an Ulster fry, we took a short drive down the coastal road to the Giants Causeway. It’s a stunning part of the world, truly breathtaking scenery and steeped in mythology. My two young daughters enjoyed scrambling over the interlocking basalt columns, searching in various nooks and crannies for “the Giant’s treasure”! All that walking & clambering on such a hot day works up quite a thirst, so my dad, future brother in law and I were dropped off a few miles down the road at the site of the Old Bushmills Distillery.
The Bushmills Distillery claims to be the oldest licensed distillery in the world, with the licence to distil being granted by King James 1st in 1608. The buildings on the current site date from the late 19th century onwards, with the distillery being re-built following a fire in 1885. It’s a picturesque site, with the name of the distillery standing out proudly in bold white lettering on the roof of one of the larger buildings.
Dad and I have visited the distillery on previous occasions, but this was the first time we’d been together. And for Matt, who will become my brother in law next April, this was his first trip. On my previous visit, I’d taken in the tour but didn’t have time to attend the tasting session afterwards, so this time around we had pre-booked to ensure that we could attend the tasting after the tour had finished. I was particularly looking forward to the nosing and tasting of the whiskeys Bushmills have to offer, but initially I was enjoying nosing outside the distillery itself! The sweet smell of the mash permeates through the air stronger in some areas than others… it’s a heady scent which I found quite enticing.
The tour itself takes around 45 minutes and our guide Sam took us through all aspects of the whiskey making process… from the start in the mash house (where the water sourced from St Columbs Rill (a tributary of the River Bush) is combined with malted barley) through to the distillation room (with it’s impressive copper stills and highly polished spirit safe) where the whiskey is triple distilled (as is common with Irish Whiskeys in comparison to the usual double distillation associated with the majority of Scotch whiskies). Then on to view one of the warehouses containing row after row of barrels, before moving into the bottling plant. The plant contains three production lines, of which two are specifically for Bushmills bottlings and process an impressive 180 bottles per minute each. Unfortunately the plant isn’t in action over the weekend so we didn’t get to see the production lines running, but we did learn some interesting facts. One of the last things that happens to the bottle on the production line once it has been filled, capped (or corked) and labelled, is the bottle is laser etched with a code. This code is used for quality control purposes and gives total traceability of the whiskeys life from the batch of grain that initially came through the door of the mash house to the bottle arriving on the shelf of the retailer.
It’s a good tour… informative and interesting with sight of all the processes key to the production of whiskey. At the end of the tour, you can exchange your ticket for a sample of certain whiskeys from the Bushmills range… since we had 15 minutes or so to kill before the tasting session started, it seemed rude not to warm up with a cheeky glass of the Distillery Edition 12 year old! (Don’t forget… our morning walk to the Giants Causeway had built up quite a thirst which still needed to be slaked!)
So on to the tasting session itself. The three of us were rounded up with a few other lucky souls and taken into a small, comfortable room in one of the out-buildings where tables had been set with tasting mats and five samples from the Bushmills range, as well as drams of a lightly peated scotch and a bourbon (for comparative purposes) and also a sample of the relatively new Bushmills Irish Honey. Bob, our guide for the tasting, was knowledgeable and obviously passionate about what Bushmills do and the whiskeys they produce. I made a point of trying to ignore the tasting mat that gave suggestions as to what you might pick up on the palate, preferring to make my own conclusions and scribble down some notes in my pad. I kept them quite brief as the tasting was conducted at a fair pace but I could understand why. Many of the people attending such tastings would be tourists on organised tours with pre-defined times, in fact one of the larger tables cleared out before the tasting concluded because their coach was due to leave… such a shame we thought, until we realised they’d left the majority of their drams untouched!
Here are my quick fire notes on the drams we tried:
Bushmills Original (a blend of single malts and lighter Irish grain whiskey)
Nose – Quite spirity, dry with hints of vanilla.
Palate – Some honey sweetness, warming ginger and a touch of oak leading to a dry finish.
Blackbush (another blend, this time with a higher percentage of single malt aged in Oloroso sherry & bourbon casks)
Nose – Dried fruits combined with a sherry like sweetness with a slight hint of pear drops.
Palate – Smooth sherry sweetness with some chilli and dry oakiness on the finish.
10 Year old (the first of the single malts, aged for the majority of its life in Bourbon casks)
Nose – Sweet pastry, with a hint of pear drops again and ripe tropical fruits
Palate – Milk chocolate and rich tea biscuits. A lovely, easy drinking, simple & delicate dram!
16 year old (two whiskies matured for 16 years… one in bourbon casks, the other in sherry, then married to create a rich single malt)
Nose – Rich and sweet with hints of dried fruits & nuts, not too dissimilar to Christmas pudding.
Palate – Rich dark honey with almonds and orange peel, coats the mouth and has a long satisfying finish.
21 year old (the rarest Bushmills, matured in bourbon and sherry casks before being married and finished in Madeira casks)
Nose – Not too dissimilar to the 16 year old… Christmas Pudding but with a darker, richer treacly nose.
Palate – More treacle with raisins and prunes which give way to a very, very faint hint of ‘struck matches’ (sulphur?) and a slightly spicy finish.
Irish Honey (Technically not a whiskey but a ‘spirit drink’. Bushmills Original is infused with honey and bottled at 35% as opposed to the 40% of the other whiskeys)
Nose – Hay, heather and rich honey (unsurprisingly)
Palate – Quite mellow, rich natural honey with ripe sweet apples, not as sweet as I’d have expected though which was a pleasant surprise for me (I’m not a fan of overly sweet drinks) with a subtle finish. Not exactly to my taste, but quite enjoyable!
After we’d nosed, tasted and discussed the whiskeys, we had an enjoyable half hour or so chatting with our fellow tasters (those who remained anyway!) comparing notes and generally shooting the breeze. Lubricated with the numerous whiskeys that had been left on the earlier vacated table, it was an enjoyable and convivial time! Bob had disappeared to print our taster certificates (that’s right… we are now qualified Bushmills tasters!) and returned with another sample, this time of the 12 year old Distillery Reserve. This is a lovely single malt that is only available from the Distillery gift shop. So as a final thank you and goodbye, we shared our last dram with our new friends whilst Bob recited an old Irish drinking proverb:
“When we drink we relax
When we relax we sleep
When we sleep we commit no sin
When we commit no sin we get into heaven
So let’s all drink and go to heaven!
After such an enjoyable tour and tasting, we were keen to head to the gift shop to pick up a couple of bottles for ourselves. You can get your bottle of the 12 year old Distillery Reserve personalised whilst you wait which we all took advantage of. I also managed to pick up a little gift for my wife since it was actually our seventh wedding anniversary that day! There’s true love for you – she’d sent me to the distillery with her blessing, even on our special day. I’m not sure how pleased she was with the lovely pair of Bushmills knickers I’d chosen for her though…..
We’d also picked up a bottle of the Irish Honey for the ladies as we thought it would be to their taste. Bob had recommended equal measures of the liqueur and a good quality apple juice, over ice, topped off with American Dry Ginger. It went down well! (although mum preferred it without the apple juice)
Later on that evening, the kids were in bed, and I was sat on the terrace of our cottage watching the sun set over the Antrim coast with my wife, parents, sister and (soon to be) brother in law, nursing a final whiskey, feeling pretty contented. I feel a real affinity for this part of the world. It’s where my dad hails from after all! It has a friendliness and tranquillity to it that I find soothing. I think I’ll always have a soft spot for Bushmills whiskeys too… the distillery feels embedded in the community with the staff having obvious passion and pride in what they do. I almost feel like they are part of the extended family!
I can’t wait for our next trip.
Check out our selection of Bushmills whiskeys here