Bushmills Irish whiskey from a sleepy, peripheral Celtic brand to a formidable and exciting player in the US Irish whiskey category.If his dying wish were to come about, the newly risen David could wander down to the pier at Ardbeg or the basalt Causeway of Antrim, gaze across the North Channel of the Irish Sea and glimpse the rolling landscape of his alternative heavenly still. A mere 25 miles or so of sea
separates Islay and Ardbeg from the glens and coastline of County Antrim, home of Bushmills Distillery, and Celts and seafarers have been criss-crossing this sea road for thousands of years. Nomadic boatpeople, Finn McCool and Fingal (the ancient warrior heroes of Celtic mythology), missionaries of the old Celtic Church, slave-trading Norsemen and medieval Lords of the Isles are some of the characters who have made that journey. In 1300, the Lordship brought over from County Derry a family of Beatons, skilled in the art of distilling aqua vitae (the water of life), and they would remain hereditary doctors and distillers to their MacDonald Lords for 300 years. All have left their imprint along the windswept, breathtaking coastline and inland glens of Antrim in the North of Ireland.Most had the good sense to pick a clear day for their journeys. I did not. My ‘economy’ rental car, no bigger than a cowskin curragh and far less stable, was being buffeted by a banshee-inspired gale as I headed for Bushmills Distillery along the ancient coastal road. Out of my window catch glimpses of golden, sandy beaches and the championship golf links at Portrush and Portstewart. A herd of bedraggled but very fat Galloway cattle blocks the road just before Dunluce Castle, the former stronghold of the proudly Gaelic O’Donnell clan. Somewhere along this ancient Celtic chariot-way, legend tells of a mysterious vanishing loch, Loughareema, that draws horses and riders to a watery grave. And perhaps rental cars too, I think as I round a corner and find myself in the tidy village of Bushmills, a sodden community amid a tapestry of barley fields and emerald green farms.Settled by English-speaking Scottish Lowlanders in the early 1600s, Bushmills was a plantation village established by James I of England (James VI of Scotland) in his bid to drive a wedge between the Gaelic cultures of the Scottish Highlands and Northern Ireland. It is named after the River Bush, a fine salmon river that powered the textile mills of the Scottish settlers who lined the pockets of the British plantation investors. Today, Bushmills is a large whiskey village with the distillery employing 120 people and catering for 100,000 visitors who come here to sample the whiskey, visit the nearby Giant’s Causeway, play on magnificent links golf courses or simply enjoy the unspoiled beauty and history of the Causeway Coast.I was here to sample the whiskey and learn about the ‘world’s oldest whiskey distiller’. “You didn’t drive here in that?” exclaimed David Quinn, Bushmills Master Distiller, as he greeted me by staring at my leprechaun-sized rental car in disbelief. “Barely,” I respond. “Well, you’ll be in need of a restorative,” he says rhetorically and we head into the distillery’s handsome 1608 Bar. He pours me a dram of 12-year-old Bushmills Distillery Reserve, a whiskey that is sold only at Bushmills, and my journey from hell is transformed into a pilgrimage. Mahogany coloured, smooth and seamless, it was a whiskey that seemed to epitomise the distillery – a perfect foundation for discovering the story of Bushmills.Dave Quinn is a good man to tell that story. He’s at the forefront of a new breed of distiller: young and personable, with an academic background – biochemistry in Dave’s case. He began his career in the lab at Midleton, Bushmill’s sister distillery in Cork, down south. He was there for 14 years before moving into production and then taking the Bushmills position in 1986. He’s also
quintessentially Irish: born in County Longford in the heartland of Ireland, Dave is charming, bright and pleasantly outspoken. Unlike some of the new breed of Scottish distillery managers, who run several distilleries, Dave’s sole project is Bushmills and he loves to talk whiskey.I ask him why every bottle of his whiskey carries the date, 1608. “On April 20th of that year,” Dave informs me, “Sir Thomas Phillips, the Deputy for the plantation of Ulster, was granted a licence by James I of England to make and distill aquavite, usquabagh and aqua composita in the county of Coleraine and the territory called the Rowte (Route) in County Antrim. The 1608 licence relates to this site,” he continues, “but it was in 1784 that the company became incorporated.”We head out for a distillery tour, with Dave stopping every 20 minutes or so to sign bottles of Bushmills for waterlogged visitors. He takes me to the reservoir that overlooks the distillery – a busy, working landscape of stone buildings, greyslate roofs and two white-washed cottages that now serve as distillery shops selling Bushmills merchandise. Wood trim is painted a deep red and a pair of silent malt kilns topped with elegant pagodas, not unlike those at Ardbeg, give the scene a distinctly Scottish character. Most of the buildings date back to the late 1880s, when the distillery was rebuilt after a fire in 1885.“The water in the reservoir is from a small stream called St Colum’s Rill,” explains Dave (Colum is Columba, a lad o’ pairts from
neighbouring Derry). “It’s a tributary of the River Bush and flows over hard basalt rock which gives the water a distinctive ionic composition. Our malt comes from Cork and Kildare and is totally unpeated. We use hot air to dry the malt, so there’s no smoke whatever. I don’t think the Irish have a palate for smoky whiskey,” he adds.I’m intrigued about the triple distillation method at Bushmills and Dave informs me it’s fairly complicated and best understood over another restorative dram. So we head back to the 1608 Bar and I sip a delicious Bushmills 16-year-old ‘Three Wood’ as Dave explains the process. “We have a total of nine stills in the stillhouse. Four of these stills are wash stills and are dedicated to the first distillation. The other five stills are spirit stills, three of which perform the second distillation while the final two perform the third distillation. We receive the wash at 8% alcohol. One washback will charge three wash distillations.“The wash distillation step produces Low Wines at 20% alcohol by volume. These Low Wines, in combination with recycled weak feints, are distilled in the second distillation to produce strong feints at approximately 70% alcohol and weak feints. There is also a heads cut in this
distillation. The heads and weak feints (tails) are recycled back into the Low Wines.“In a normal double distillation process our strong feints would be the final spirit (as in Scotland) and get filled into oak casks for maturation. Two stage distillation can mask the fruity character of a whiskey because there’s too much higher alcohols. At Bushmills, we distill these strong feints a third time. After a heads cut is taken a spirit is distilled at around 80% alcohol, which is held in its own spirit receiver. The distillation proceeds to regenerate both strong and weak feints, each of which are recycled back to the third and second distillations respectively. The final spirit is collected and sent to the filling store and reduced to 63% alcohol before being filled into oak casks.”Reasonably confused, I ask him what the third distillation does for his whiskey. “Effectively, the third distillation gives a more fragrant and sweeter distillate,” he tells me, “because it leaves more of the higher alcohols (fusel oils) behind in the still. It gives our whiskey a spicy charm and also produces a smoother tasting spirit which gives Bushmills its unique character. The third distillation shifts the whisky into a lighter, fruity, floral, fragrant style, leaving the higher alcohols and heavier flavours behind. It makes the whiskey very easy to drink.”I could not agree more and I ask Dave about Black Bush and Bushmills 16-year-old, two drams I find particularly pleasant to drink. “Black Bush is a premium blended Irish whiskey,” he explains, “with 80% of our single malt in it. There’s a high proportion of sherry casks, 8-10 years old, and it’s blended with grain whiskey from Midleton Distillery, made specifically for Black Bush. Everything just seems to hang together in Black Bush, combined with good flavour and drinkability. We have eight stone warehouses at the distillery,” he continues, “each one housing 20,000 casks racked 18 high. I suppose if we had a distillery theme it would be sweet and spicy. We have a strict cask policy. Our American oak is first-fill casks and we use them a maximum of three times. For sherry and port casks, we visit our cooperages in Jerez and Oporto every year and supervise the two-year seasoning of the sherry and port in the oak. In the 16-year-old ‘Three Wood’, we age the spirit for 15 years in 50% bourbon and 50% sherry casks. These are married in vat and re-casked into port pipes for a year.”As dusk descends on Antrim, Dave suggests dinner in the splendid Bushmills Inn down in the village. It was a perfect ending and I went to bed glowing with the spirit of Bushmills. The next day, with the rain still pouring down, I drive my curragh on wheels the mile to the Giant’s
Causeway. This honeycomb of 40,000 hexagonal, basalt columns was formed 60 million years ago by volcanic eruptions. Yet the locals will tell you it was the giant Ulster warrior, Finn McCool himself, who built these stepping stones. He had fallen in love with a giant lass from Staffa, next to the island of Mull in the Scottish Hebrides. Finn built them to bring her back to Ulster.I was the only visitor on the Causeway as I sipped a contemplative dram of the 12-year-old. Within ten minutes, the rain ceased and the skies miraculously cleared. I could just see the outline of Islay across the Irish Sea. Ardbeg distillery was no doubt puffing away and I toasted David Dorsey and his heavenly wish. When I leave this world I'll take the distillery he doesn't want.