Bushmills Whiskey(s)

What’s in a name? What’s in the smokey still out in the back yard? Well, about four fine Irish whiskeys, subtle and lighter than your Scots variety which bludgeon you with malt. Ever run through a field of barley with your mouth open? Jump over to Eire and taste the alternative. Come in from the cold and rally your toasts with our smooth and well-aged guide to Bushmills Irish Whiskey.

Good afternoon, good evening and good morning readers, and welcome to this small submission, this humble offering to the Slow Review. After much humming and hooing I’ve decided to turn my pen to the glorious world of whiskey and one of my favourite distilleries: Bushmills. I’ll admit, I’m watching Eurosport at the same time as writing this and can’t help being distracted by the sight of two rather shapely young lady tennis players. So, if the flow of this story seems somewhat disjointed then you can put it down to hormones and a span of attention that has been worn down, over the years, with the help of large doses of Bushmills.

Indeed, much like the young tennis players mentioned above, this is an article about something golden, supple, full-bodied and in the right hands, lusty. However, enough of that for the moment. Bushmill’s distillery is an Irish whiskey maker, situated in County Antrim (in the north of Ireland) and its name comes from the Irish Gaelic, Muileann na Buaise, or the mill at the rapids. It is said to be the oldest licensed distillery in the world, said license having been granted by King James I in 1608.  However, according to some sources whiskey has been produced there since the 13th century. This could well be the case. I’m guessing the situation wasn’t unique to Bushmills, either. In fact, distilleries were almost everywhere, including most people’s back gardens at the time. I’m also sure that what passed for whiskey back then had a lot in common with that classic modern beverage, anti-freeze. Fortunately though, they started when they did, and their stuff has gotten considerably better in the meantime.

The distillers got their act together fairly quickly as one source tells us that “…at the end of the 1700s Bushmills produced close to 50,000 litres of whiskey [a year, I’m guessing – EB], most of which went to the US market and to the West Indies. The distillery even owned a ship, the SS Bushmills, which transported the sought-after whiskey across the Atlantic.1”  Yes, indeed, years before the world knew anything about the Exxon Valdez, there was such a thing as a whiskey tanker. Most likely, this situation made for much happier penguins. In later years things went up and down, the distillery changing hands a few times, but thankfully never actually closing as many other Irish distilleries were forced to do. Most recently, they have been bought and sold by Irish Distillers and are now owned by that shower of booze peddling money-holics DIAGEO, who for the record would like to remind you to drink sensibly.

Bushmills make three main types of whiskey, aside from their special reserve editions which are too numerous and expensive for me to talk about here. The first of Bushmill’s whiskies is their flagship label, Bushmills Irish Whiskey, sometimes referred to as White Bush (largely by people who don’t actually drink much of the stuff but would like to let on they do) due to the colour of its label. In terms of make up, it’s a single malt, single grain whiskey. This means that when they’re grinding the grain for making the basic brew used for distilling (also called the beer), they use a mix of crushed malted barley and crushed non-barley grain. This grist is then mixed with “pure spring water” – if what they say is true. This mix is left in big vats where the initial beer is brewed up with the help of some yeast. This substance is then bunged into a still where the whole sloppy mess is distilled down a few times to boil off excess water and concentrate the alcohol. In Irish whiskies generally and indeed in Bushmills’ case this is done three times, or once more than most of our lazy Scottish neighbours care to do. The idea is that each time the mix goes through the still, more impurities are removed from the distillate, resulting in a purer, cleaner taste. Afterwards, the final liquid (not yet whiskey) is put into oak barrels to let it to age. The oak adds flavour to the alcohol and allows a degree of contact between whiskey and fresh air. Sufficient contact, indeed, that a portion of the liquid actually evaporates in the process. The liquid lost is called the Angel’s Share.

A small, but not unimportant side-note about oak: oak barrels have the characteristic of adding a vanilla flavour to liquids stored in them. This is true for wine as well as for whiskey. In addition, whiskey barrels are charred on the inside, to stabilise and likewise caramelise the natural saps present in oak wood. This helps give whiskey its golden colour. However, in order to stop this process from making the whiskey too sweet, or too dark, Irish whiskey is stored in second hand barrels; that is to say, barrels that have already seen use housing booze. A strange thing, you might think. Where would one get second hand oak barrels that will complement the flavour of Irish whiskey? Well, the answer is from the bourbon industry. Yes indeed. You can say what you like about those red-neck, rye-swilling rubes, but they produce the goods. Plus, the slight hint of bourbon more than does the tango with the cleaner taste of Irish whiskey, embellishing it with further depth and a slight sweetness.

But back to Bushmills: the end result is as good a basic Irish whiskey as you can find. Bushmills Irish Whiskey has a soft, honeyish flavour with a nice boozy kick to give it life, and a nice even burn on the finish. It’s a reasonably priced whiskey for cold winter days, preferably when it’s raining. In fact, sometimes the mere act of ordering this whiskey results in sudden inexplicable downpours, necessitating pointless remarks about the weather and more drink to ward off colds, flues and wives. Drink this with a Guinness chaser; drink it with boiled new potatoes covered in parsley; drink it with meat; drink it; just drink it you lummox!

The next whiskey on the Bushmills’ honour roll is the somewhat ominously named Black Bush. Now, before you all rush to make witty comments on this one, let me assure it got its name from — you guessed it — the pesky label again. Hmm, yes, well…at any rate, Black Bush still sounds better than White Bush, better again than W. Bush, and likewise better than Old Bushmills Special Liqueur Whiskey, the name given when it was introduced in 1934. Why they chose to sully the good name of Whiskey with something as frilly sounding as “liqueur” is beyond me. It may have been an effort to raise the image of Irish whiskey at a time when the appellation was commonly associated with bootleg moonshine in the US (this was, after all, just a few months after the end of Prohibition in the US, a huge market for whiskey2) than with the centuries-old, poet-fuelling nectar we now understand it to be. However, don’t be fooled: this is whiskey. In an age ridden with whiskey creams, whiskey alco-pops, whiskey facial rubs and (shudder) Southern Comfort, this stuff is the real deal. Black Bush is a malt whiskey matured in sherry casks with a bit of grain added in at the end. Aged for anywhere between 9 and 11 years, it’s described by various sources as “full-bodied”, “uniquely rounded” and other such foody terminology. In real terms this means that it has a slightly richer flavour than the White Bush mentioned above, a result of its more malted barley/less un-malted grain make up. In addition, this is a whiskey which, like a good landowner, has enjoyed the benefits of age and sherry (a fitting example given this is a distillery run until recently by descendants of plantation owners) from the Oloroso casks in which it is aged. At any rate, this is also a very tasty whiskey and a good last stop before plunging into the world of single malts.

The next whiskey to look out for on the Bushmills front, and in my opinion the finest of the lot, is Bushmills Single Malt 10. The ten refers not surprisingly to its age, something which shows through in the flavour-punch contained in this fine, fine drink. This is one for the straight-up, no-nonsense whiskey drinker who still likes to wear silk underwear from time to time. It’s a classy malt without pretensions. It has oak without the smoke and also honey without too much grain. Its oakishness is expressed in a mellow sweetness, which verges on the honey side of things. However, this does not mean that you will end up with a sickly sweet flavour on your tongue for the rest of the evening. Indeed, this is more like the honey in honeysuckle than the stuff you might use for, say, rubbing all over yourself to attract bees. Bushmills 10 is the flagship Irish single-malt and as such carries out her appointed duties admirably. One of these duties is to put paid to the idea that a single malt must be overpriced (read: Scotch) to be good. This is not by any means an attack on Scotch. However, it is the experience of the author that a bottle of Islay malt costing 70 to 90 Euro is easier neither on the palette nor on the wallet, especially when your wife comes home from an evening out to find you lying spatchcock on the couch with drips of the costly liquid all down the front of your favourite string vest. In such cases you may find yourself asking the question, Why did I spend so much money on a beverage made from grain and water; Why did I not buy Irish? And Where are my trousers? Bushmills 10 retails in these parts for roughly 30 Euro and is worth every drop.

Bushmills 16 is the final drink on my list today. It’s a delicious whiskey that easily takes its place on my top 15. It is a drink that’s so special it should only be drunk on select occasions. These might include birthdays, days that begin with T, Wednesdays, weekends and Mondays. As for production, Bushmills 16 matured for 15 years in two types of barrel. Half the maturation is done in casks used for making bourbon and the remaining half in sherry casks. When these have finished maturing (one of the best uses of  “mature” if ever there was one) the two liquids are mixed in a vat, or as they say in the whiskey business, they are “married” (excuse the irritating quotation marks, and feel free to insert an appropriate marriage joke). When the two have become one, they are transferred for a final maturation in Port pipes — referring to oak casks in which Port was matured. All this business of maturing and transferring and cajoling may sound like a lot of extra work for what is really just glorified moonshine, jumped-up jungle juice or the golden Gaelic gange. However, the result more than makes up for all the effort. The 16 is a smooth, easy whiskey that still manages to have depth. The sherry casks do much to temper the vanilla, Yankee sweetness of the bourbon casks, resulting in a heartening mixture with a slight suggestion of toffee. The Port pipes add a mild fruitiness to the mix but you never forget you’re drinking whiskey. No, they haven’t blended the life out of the old girl yet. All these flavours reside happily side by side, arm in arm like a group of drunken sailors stumbling in unison, singing a favourite shanty in 3/4. If I have one criticism, it’s that it lacks some of the raw punch of its younger cousins. It is almost too refined, like a wealthy farmer whose healthy appearance and ruddy complexion belie a slight gut and a tendency to gout. But still a tasty…no, very tasty drop and one which, for its quality, is still excellent value and, once again, certainly much more affordable than some of the wildly overpriced Scotches out there.

So there you have it. Game, set and match to Bushmills. As you may have gathered from my gushing tone, all of the above are great whiskies and deserve to be tried one after the other, or on separate, multiple occasions. They are in most cases reasonably priced, especially if you’re passing through the duty-free section and will be on holidays for several weeks. If this is the case, I don’t recommend drinking a full bottle of any of the above whiskeys and bumping into a group of Swiss back-packers back at the youth-hostel. However, do drink it and let me know what you think. Or, on second thoughts, spare me the drunken emails and just drink it.

Sláinte mhaith agus beannachtaí.

[1] See www.thewhiskyguide.com/Irish/Bushmills.html for more on this.
[2] During Prohibition, illegal whiskey was often called Irish Whiskey, even though it had actually been distilled in America. This fact, coupled with the enormous increase in the popularity of Scotch “whisky”, resulted in Irish whiskey becoming, let’s say, less popular.

Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor. Writer. Secret bass player.

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