The year 1608. Shakespeare had already written Macbeth. The explorer John Smith became president of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. It was an era of Milton and Galileo. And it was the year that Bushmills distillery was granted a license to distill whiskey. Today, 389 years later, the Bushmills distillery is still producing whiskey. It is now the oldest operating licensed distillery in the world.
A Look Back
Records actually show that whiskey was distilled, and consumed, at the site much earlier than 1608. Sir Robert Savage, ground landlord of the town of Bushmills, was known to have fortified his troops with “aqua vitae” (whiskey) in 1276. And the Book of Leinster mentions a feast in the town of Bushmills back in 1490 where the local spirit helped to “down the food.”
It is quite remarkable that anything lasts nearly four centuries, let alone a distillery. Throughout the years it has endured fires, wars, U.S . Prohibition, and multiple owners-from families such as Phillips, Corrigan, and Boyd, to corporations that included Bass Charrington, Seagram, Irish Distillers Group, and Pernot Ricard. Not only is Bushmills the world’s oldest licensed distillery, it is also the only operating whiskey distillery in Northern Ireland. With more than a dozen active distilleries in the early 1900s, the amount was reduced to three by the mid 1900s. The Comber distillery would close in 1953, and the Coleraine distillery would stop making malt whiskey in the mid-1960s, and close down completely in 1978.
Giants of Legend
The Bushmills distillery is located on the edge of the town of Bushmills in Country Antrim, about an hour’s drive north from Belfast and a short distance from the coast. The town itself is small and quaint, with two streets connecting in the center of the town to form a ‘T’. There you’ll find a small war memorial, a clock tower, and several small shops. The distillery is two miles from the Giant’s Causeway, described as the eighth natural wonder of the world. Its impressive vista of regular shaped stone outcrops of black basalt formed nearly 60 million years ago from the slow cooling of volcanic lava. Mythical legend describes the causeway as a passage across the Channel to Scotland so that the Irish giant Finn McCool could cross the water without getting his feet wet. Also near the distillery is Portrush, a highly acclaimed championship golf course, and Dunluce Castle, which sits along the coastline impressively perched on a rock outcrop since around the year 1300.
The distillery itself is very picturesque, with its stone buildings and twin pagoda-shaped roofs, reminders of the floor maltings that were once conducted at the distillery. The distillery uses water from Saint Columb’s Rill to make its whiskey. It is clear and pure, flowing over basalt rock before it reaches the distillery. The distilling process at Bushmills Distillery, which employs about 100 workers, is very similar to malt whisky distilleries of Scotland. They use only 100% malted barley which is mashed in one huge cast iron mash tun to produce wort, a liquid which contains the sugars that are extracted from the malted barley. The wort is fermented by distiller’s yeast in stainless steel washbacks (fermenters) to produce wash (essentially beer without hops). The wash passes through pot stills which concentrates the alcohol and certain flavor components before being placed into barrels for maturation. The whiskey is matured in one of several warehouses. Some of the warehouses are quite modern, while others are more traditional with their low ceilings and earthen floors. However, there are some distinct differences at Bushmills which contrast sharply from most malt whisky distilleries in Scotland. The malted barley is completely unpeated, whereas most Scotch malt whisky has at least a hint of peat. At Bushmills, the whiskey is triple-distilled (i.e . it passes through three pot stills). Most malt whisky distilleries in Scotland are distilled only twice. No doubt this extra distillation enhances the purity of the whiskey produced at Bushmills. The Bushmills distillery is also one of the few distilleries in the world to distill, blend, and bottle the whiskey under the same roof. As I walked the grounds of Bushmills, I was sadly reminded of the lost distilleries of Northern Ireland-Coleraine, Comber, and the rest. Fortunately, this great distilling heritage remains alive in Bushmills, the oldest operating licensed distillery in the world.
The first three different expressions of Bushmills whiskey described below can be purchased in the U.S. The ones after that are available in select locations in Europe. Let’s take a look at them.
Also known as White Bush. According to Dr. Barry Walsh, Chief Blender, Bushmills Original is a blend of approximately 1/3 malt whiskey to 2/3 grain whiskey. The malt whiskey is matured for up to seven years, while the grain whiskey is aged for about five years. The whiskey is matured primarily in ex-bourbon barrels. It is a light, balanced, clean whiskey that is unassuming. The high proportion of grain in the whiskey is evident. I use this one as a mixer.
Incidentally, the grain whiskey used in the Bushmills blends come from its sister distillery in Middleton, County Cork. At one time, the grain whiskey came from the now extinct Coleraine distillery near Bushmills, and it was comprised mostly of barley (something which is unusual for a grain whiskey, which is usually produced with maize or wheat). There is still a hefty proportion of barley in the Bushmills grain whiskey.
The most sherried of the lot, and one sip tells you that this whiskey has a very high malt content. Black Bush contains 70-80% malt whiskey that is 8-9 years old. The grain whiskey is only slightly younger. Approximately 20-30% of the whiskey is matured in ex-sherry casks.
Black Bush is a must try for lovers of sherried whiskeys. Having said this, I still feel it is not overly sherried. Its rich maltiness, grain softness, and a hint of oak, all share the limelight, both in aroma and flavor. I save this whiskey for after dinner in a snifter, or perhaps with a fine cigar.
The age statement on the label is 10 yrs., but Barry Walsh informs me that the lion’s share of the whiskey is 10-12 yrs. old. Introduced in 1984, it has only been available in the U.S. since 1993. Ironically, it is less sherried than Black Bush, but the sherry character is still evident in the delicate fruitiness expressed by the whiskey. Combining with this fruit character is a clean rounded maltiness which is gently sweet and pleasant, with a hint of vanilla. Bushmills Malt is very accommodating to any mood or occasion and universally enjoyable.
Bushmills 1608 Special Reserve
Available only at select Duty Free outlets. It’s worth the trip to Europe just to buy a bottle of this gem. Matured for a minimum of 12 yrs., this whiskey is still a blend, but it contains more malt than Black Bush (80-90%). It appears more sherried than Bushmills Malt, but less than Black Bush. Barry Walsh describes it as “more of everything” referring to its richness of flavor and impeccable balance. All the flavors dovetail nicely, combining the richness of the malt, fruitiness of the sherry, and roundness of the oak. A complex, subtle spiciness also emerges now and then. A splendid whiskey!
Bushmills Distillery Reserve
Only recently has the distillery made this beautiful whiskey available. I’m afraid you’ll have to visit the distillery to get your fingers on this one, since it’s the only place where this expression is sold. It is a single malt Irish whiskey that is matured a few years longer than the standard Bushmills Malt, resulting in a whiskey that is a tad richer, with an incremental increase in sherried fruit, and a drier finish with gentle notes of oak. A nice contrast to the standard Bushmills Malt, and worthy of even the most discriminating drinks cabinet.
In 1975, a few hundred barrels were filled with whiskey that still have not been bottled. Named “Bushmills Millennium,” the whiskey was only sold by the cask and will not be bottled until 1999, just in time for the new Millennium. At that time it will be a single malt Irish whiskey of nearly 25 years of age.
When I first learned of the Millennium offer, I was a bit hesitant. I was concerned that such a delicate, soft whiskey would not be able to stand up to 25 years on the wood.
I was wrong. A sampling of the whiskey in 1995 offered a glimpse of something most unique and mature that I have never before experienced in an Irish whiskey. Sure, there is more than a hint of oak, but this influence is entirely a positive one. Its contribution to the roundness and depth of flavor is astonishing, without smothering the whiskey. Sherried fruit, malty richness, subtle spiciness, eminent drinkability Ð nothing is missing or out of proportion! The last few years of its life will be spent in ex-bourbon barrels, after many years in ex-sherry barrels, with the hopes that any additional changes to the whiskey will be subtle.
Sadly, the entire lot of Millennium malt casks have been sold, and they won’t be available in restaurants or liquor stores. Start making friends with those that have purchased a cask, and when the Millennium comes to a close, perhaps you will be among the fortunate few to appreciate this wonderful whiskey.
At the distillery, I was fortunate enough to sample a new Bushmills whiskey that has not yet been bottled at the time of this writing, but should be by the time you read this. It is a 16+ yr. old malt whiskey that was first matured in ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks, before being finished in port pipes prior to bottling. The port influence contributes a richness and fullness to the whiskey in a manner similar to what port has done to the Glenmorangie Port Wood Finish.
As I sip and savor a Bushmills whiskey, I am reminded of the lost distilleries of Northern Ireland Ð Coleraine, Comber, and the rest. Fortunately, this great distilling heritage remains alive in Bushmills, the oldest operating licensed distillery in the world.