Distillery Focus

Lost in distillation

We head to Antrim to visit Bushmills Distillery to talk distilling and crafting whiskey in small batches
By Rob Allanson
There are times when getting to the distillery can be just as much fun as looking round, and Bushmills is no exception, especially if you are on
a motorbike.

Leaving Belfast and heading up the coast the scenery is mainly arable land, leaving your mind to focus on the road. The roads round here are die straight in places, and if you know your racing lore you are in the presence of some of the most famous racing ghosts.

This is some of the best riding roads in the United Kingdom, and the route from Belfast to Bushmills takes you through Ballymoney where you can pay your respects to two of the most decorated road racers: Joey Dunlop and his brother Robert, hugely respected in the riding fraternity. This corner of the island breeds these brave men. Hardened by years of road racing. The Isle of Man TT may be famous, but the series of races here in Northern Ireland is second to none. The most well known of these is the NW200 at Port Rush.

"There is a mid-level hum to the place. It feels alive, like you are in the midst of a hive of bees"

It is worth turning to that great Victorian whisky writer and traveller Alfred Barnard before you visit the modern day distillery.
This distillery has a long and eventful history, stretching back to 1608 when Sir Thomas Phillipps was granted a royal licence to produce whiskey. The distillery has survived fire, smuggling, and the loss of the American market to prohibition in the 1920s, and continues to thrive.

A licence to distil was granted in 1608, but more formal records took a little longer to emerge; as Barnard notes: “The first record we have of this, no doubt the oldest Distillery in Ireland, is in the year 1743, when it was still in the hands of a band of smugglers; but in 1784 we find it recognised as a legitimate distillery, making about 10,000 gallons.”

As you cross from the main reception area you are faced with a massive warehouse several storeys high. This is where the distillery holds tasting events, but it was in fact there when Barnard made his journey in 1889. The rest of the distillery may have expanded, especially the warehousing since Barnard was there, but with this original warehouse you can walk in the great man’s footsteps.

That said, things were on the move then Barnard visited: “There have been continual extensions to the plant and from the present rate of progress, we expect in a year or two to see it cover a much larger area of ground. The Company have recently increased the capacity of their old Pot Stills, and erected the electric light on their premises and shows that they are alive to all modern inventions.”

Today Bushmills continues to be a fully operational distillery, producing five million litres of whiskey a year.

After you have got through the video and opening chat, the one hugely impressive thing that strikes you is walking into the stillroom. It is like some sort of Heath Robinson experiment and lab. Pipes run here, there, everywhere, copper still brood in almost every corner; and if you are there when the distillery is producing there is a mid level hum to the place. It feels alive, like you are in the midst of a hive of bees. Once you reach the spirit safe this humming intensifies, the noise seems to centre in the middle of the room; now you are talking whisky production, this is why we visit these shrines of distillation –nothing is ever the same.

At Bushmills, the 10 wash backs are large at 70,000 litres, the 10 stills are relatively small – four wash stills (each with a capacity of 15,920 litres) and six feint/spirit stills (each with a capacity of 10,456 litres).

The thing to get your head round is triple distillation. Walking it through with your guide is one of the best ways, honest it’s easy. The spirit coming off the intermediate still is cut into three. The heads go into the low wines receiver, the middle cut is take off and run into the strong feints receiver, and the reminder of the cut is sent to the low wines receiver as well to be redistilled.

The distillery then uses two stills to make the spirit run. These are charged with about 7,000 litres from the strong feints receiver.

Bushmills only takes a tiny cut from 86% ABV down to 83%, after all the copper contact this gives a delicate and light spirit. The heads and feints are of course sent back into the system to be redistilled. See, simple...

Bushmills usually have 170,000 casks of whiskey maturing at any one time and master distiller Colum Egan operates a strict casking policy, sourcing only the best sherry and Bourbon casks. The distillery also has port pipes and Maderia casks on its book; and in the past some Caribbean Rum casks have been used. The distillery recently launched a honey infused expression in the USA as well.

A word to the wise: don’t forget to head for the distillery cafe and brace yourself for some of the best home baking available at a distillery – scones to die for.

Tasting notes

New make

Notes: Clean and fresh, packed with delicate floral notes.



Though no age statement appears on the Bushmills Original, the blend includes grain whiskies between three and five years, while the malt is about five years old. The blend is between 40-50 per cent malt – the majority of which is aged in Bourbon casks.
Notes: Fresh and light with juicy apricots and light honey and malt under-tones. Water brings out some nice buttered toast, and cut grass.

Black Bush

This is one of the gems for me, Black Bush. Aged seven to 11 years, Black Bush is heavily malt, with 80 per cent of the blend being malt whiskey, most of it aged in sherry casks. The grain component is distilled in pot stills.
Notes: A field of fresh cut barley. Leather armchairs. Mulled spices, plenty of Christmas cake fruits and spices. Very well balanced with plenty of warmth and a little grain bite as well.



10 Years Old
Notes: Light and smooth with hints of vanilla and coconut. But these are followed by warming spices and fruit. A great way to open an evening.


Distillery Reserve, 10 Years Old
Notes: Loads of sherry, slightly winey, bananas and syrup waffles. Has a slightly dry edge to it with green gooseberries.


Caribbean Rum Cask
This is a 12 Years Old that was release onto the Duty Free market.
Notes: Very mellow with big notes of rum and raisin ice cream. It is very light with hints of 70s suntan lotion. Pineapple is the dominant fruit.


16 Years Old
This roughly 50 per cent Bourbon aged and 50 per cent sherry aged. After 16 years, the malt is filled into port pipes, where it matures for an additional six to nine months.
Notes: Runny honey sweet edge, juicy fruits and plenty of peppery spices. Palate is mellow, cherry cough sweets, warming all the
way down.


21 Years Old
This is 50 per cent Bourbon and 50 per cent Sherry, but is finished for an additional two years in Madeira casks.
Notes: Almond cake, dark treacle sweets with a hint of lemon zest as well. This is very moreish with its winey sweet edges. Soft and mellow.


This whiskey owes its creaminess to the crystal malt, which is given a light toasting.
Notes: Spiced apples, cinnamon buns and chocolate cream. Plenty of toffee notes here as well as a fresh oak grip.


Guided tours are available and give an insight into the fascinating process of producing Bushmills whiskey.

For more information contact:
Tel: +44 (0) 28 207 33218
Email: visitors.bushmills@diageo.com

Getting There

The nearest airport to Bushmills is Belfast International. Many airlines operate cheap flights between London and Belfast, or alternatively you can fly direct into Dublin from a variety of locations worldwide and then travel overland. The nearest train station is five miles away in Portrush (this was Barnard’s route). There are bus services passing through Bushmills with Ulsterbus. For public transport timetables and fares in Northern Ireland check out www.translink.co.uk.

However, Bushmills is best visited by car or motorbike – take the B17 road from the nearby town of Coleraine or the A2 from Portrush for a stunning coastal drive. The village sits on the beautiful North Coast of Ireland and there are a variety of world-renowned attractions nearby, including the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge.