Distillery Focus

Home of the Black art (Bushmills)

Ireland isn't normally associated with single malts, but at Bushmills they're investing heavily in producing outstanding whiskeys. Dominic Roskrowwent there
By Dominic Roskrow
At the start of every week Colum Egan goes on the internet, looks up his list of oil suppliers, picks up the phone and plays broker for a few hours. And right now, with pressure on oil prices unlikely to ease up, Monday mornings are becoming increasingly important and significant.Colum is master distiller at Bushmills in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and while fuel costs affect most companies, they take on an even greater significance at a distillery that produces single malt requiring triple distillation.“It’s a big investment on the part of the distillery,” he says. “While most distilleries require 0.6 to 0.8 litres of fuel to produce a litre of alcohol, here it’s about one litre of fuel. That is between 25 per cent and 66 per cent more. There was a time when we could get a guaranteed price for a year but with the market as volatile as it is now that’s no longer the case, so I have to do it on a weekly basis.“We use about 60,000 litres of heavy fuel every week and so we are at the mercy of the oil markets. It’s one clear reason why it is hard to compete over price with many other whiskeys. We have higher costs.”Bushmills sits close to what is widely regarded as one of the world’s great sights, the Giant’s Causeway, some 40 minutes north of Belfast. It is a pretty, virtually self-contained distillery, and it boasts the world’s first whiskey-producing licence. It was granted in 1608 though the folk at Irish Distillers will claim that whiskey was produced on the site for some 300 years prior to that.Unsurprisingly, therefore, they get a bit miffed when their Eastern cousins dismiss their efforts as in some way inferior. Indeed, they argue, put their whiskey up with the very best and it more than holds its own.“I don’t want to be treated in a special category as an Irish single malt,’ says Colum. “I want our whiskeys to be compared with single malts from elsewhere because in my opinion they are as good as anything.”He has a point. The triple distillation guarantees that Bushmills brands tend to taste typically Irish in so much as they are smooth and rounded. They are deliberately unpeated. But the distillation process here is a complicated one, and the end product is a sparkling and lively spirit that proves categorically that ‘rounded’ and ‘smooth’ don’t necessarily mean bland.There is no cutting of corners here, and if the triple distillation process is something of a national characteristic and therefore an unavoidable investment, the decision of Irish Distillers in general and Bushmills in particular to commit to a top drawer wood policy is purely down to a commitment in quality.Not only do they pay top range prices for the best barrels, but they have experimented extensively with different woods, including some that are re-establishing a historical link between the distillery and some fairly obscure wine producing regions.While a dedicated and quality wood policy has become increasingly important to distilleries across the world in recent years, at Bushmills it’s second nature and it’s obvious at every turn in the distillery, from the way the barrels are stacked, to the dedicated way different combinations of barrel types are used in the maturation process.And there are other details that set the Irish warehouses apart, too. A specially produced longer, thinner barrel, for instance, or barrels with the bung off-centre so that the weakest part of the barrel isn’t the bit that is rolled along the ground and is therefore under the greatest pressure during loading.The standard expression in the distillery is Bushmills 10 year old, and an acceptable and pleasant enough drink it is too. But it gets exciting at Bushmills with two other products: the 16 year old Triple Wood, and the distillery’s flagship blend, Black Bush.The 16 year old is where the distillery’s dedicated wood policy, the triple distillation and the attention to subtlety and balance all come together best. It comprises a proportion of Bushmills matured in sherry casks and a proportion matured in bourbon, both for 16 years. These are married and finished in port pipes. It is exquisite.Black Bush is rightfully world-renowned and is everything a quality blend should be, its fruit and spices perfectly balanced – as good a reflection of the whiskey maker’s art as you’ll find.On the face of it Bushmills, with its charming rural setting, traditional visitor’s centre and sampling room, and its almost boutique-like qualities, is the epitome of the quaint distillery. Make no mistake, though, there is a forward-thinking and modern approach to whiskey-making here and they’re well and truly focused on the future.And if you don’t believe it, just ask the oil suppliers who have to negotiate with Colum on any Monday morning…