Politics and religion might be common topics of conversation while having a drink, but a religious whiskey? Willy Chestnut had a good laugh when he heard that one of his co-workers at the Old Bushmills Distillery had been threatened in a bar while on vacation because he ordered a glass of his own whiskey. Chestnut thought it incredibly funny that a bartender in Boston gave the man a tongue-lashing for ordering "Protestant whiskey."
"That's the best story I have heard yet," says Chestnut, 47, in his rich Irish accent. He is a driver for Old Bushmills Distillery, located about 55 miles northwest of Belfast. "It's really laughable. It's all Irish whiskey. What's he goin' on about?"
The Old Bushmills Distillery is located in a predominantly Protestant area of Northern Ireland, in the town of Bushmill in County Antrim, but one can't honestly put a religious label on its products. Whatever the predominant religion in the area, the pedigree is Irish.
The distillery is one of two on the island and produces the malt distillate for the brands Old Bushmills, Black Bush and Bushmills Malt. All the other grain spirits in its products comes from its sister distillery, Midleton, in the Republic of Ireland, which also makes Paddy, Power and Jameson, the only other Irish whiskey sold in America today. The last two remaining whiskey distilleries in Ireland, they comprise the Irish Distillers Group, owned by the French drinks conglomerate Groupe Pernod.
The Old Bushmills Distillery received its license to distill in 1608, making it the oldest distilling facility in the world. And records indicate that spirits were produced there as long ago as the 13th century. The distillery derives its name from the nearby River Bush, whose tributary, the St. Columb's Rill, provides all the water for producing the whiskey. Although much is said about the uniqueness of the water used in Bushmills' whiskeys, it's the triple distillation of the spirit that makes the difference. With the distillation taking out many of the impurities, Bushmills' whiskeys are almost neutral compared with most Scotches. They also show more influence of the barrels used for maturation, which may be used Bourbon or Sherry casks or a combination of the two.
"An Irishman drinks his whiskey by brands," says Dennis Higgins, 43, the manager of Old Bushmills. "He knows that he is a Paddy man, a Power man, a Bushmills man or a Jameson man. There's no question about being Northern Irish or not."
Higgins is clearly a Bushmills man, after working there for about 10 years. His largest-selling brand is the standard Old Bushmills, a five- to six-year-old whiskey made almost entirely of grain spirits with only a dash of malt. A delicate and aromatic spirit, Old Bushmills shows lovely honey, vanilla and orange-peel aromas and flavors. It's good as an aperitif on the rocks with water and goes as well after a meal. In fact, some Irish-whiskey connoisseurs swear by Old Bushmills and water with smoked salmon.
About 350,000 cases a year of Old Bushmills are sold worldwide, according to Impact International, a newsletter which reports on the alcoholic beverage industry. The Irish have various nicknames for the blended whiskey, including Three Star, White Bush and Red Bush. "The less-informed person calls it Ordinary Bush, but we discourage that," quips Higgins. The distillery's Black Bush is much richer and more powerful in style with smoky, vanilla, oloroso Sherry aromas and flavors and a silky, rich texture verging on sweet. With about 80 percent malt whiskey in the blend, it's eight to nine years old and spends most of its maturation in used Sherry casks imported from Spain after one or two years of use there. It's a perfect after-dinner spirit.
Old Bushmills introduced the brand to the United States in 1984, although it had been sold in Europe for many years before. Higgins said that the company held it back from the U.S. market due to a shortage of stock, but by the mid-1980s the distillery had enough in its warehouses to introduce it to America. About 80,000 cases a year are sold worldwide, according to Impact International.
The distillery's newest entry onto the U.S. market is Bushmills Malt, which Higgins describes as a "reinvention." It is the only single malt currently made in Ireland. Last century, Bushmills sold only single malt whiskey, but followed the change in fashion at the turn of the century for blended whiskeys. Bushmills Malt is made from 100 percent malted barley at the distillery. The 10-year-old malt is aged in Bourbon casks. Those people who enjoy extremely light whiskeys should like Bushmills Malt, which shows a vanilla, grassy, almost Manzanilla Sherry character, but if you are accustomed to intense, flavorful single malts from Scotland, you'll be disappointed. It sells for $26 a bottle.
One might have thought that the new Bushmills Malt--actually sold in Europe for the past 10 years--would have been one notch above Black Bush in character, richer and fuller altogether, but Higgins said that the distillery didn't want to alienate the strong following for Black Bush. So, they decided to make a "distinctly" fine single malt.
Nonetheless, the distillery does produce something that could easily be described as a supercharged Black Bush, the 1608 Bushmills Special Reserve (called BSR at the distillery). With an average age of 12 years, the whiskey shows complex aromas and flavors of nuts, vanilla and honey with an amazing, smoky, oloroso Sherry character. The only drawback is that it's hard to find because it's available only in duty-free shops. It sells for $28 for a one-liter bottle.
Another outstanding whiskey from Bushmills is the Millennium, a 1975 vintage single malt. The whiskey is currently being sold in America by the 53-gallon barrel and will be bottled, labeled and shipped just before the turn of the century. "About four or five years ago, we were sitting around at lunch, and someone said that the oldest whiskey we had was from 1975," recalls Higgins. "Someone brought up that 25 years from the whiskey's vintage date would be the millennium. So we blocked off some casks and developed the idea of selling it by the cask. It may be more conspicuous, but it's better than just another commemorative bottling."
One warehouse at the distillery holds the 350 barrels of the vintage malt. The price is $5,000 with a guarantee of 228 bottles at 43 percent alcohol. That works out to about $21 a bottle, although Higgins believes that by the year 2000 the rare whiskey will sell for a least double that price. The offer is unique to the U.S. market, and Higgins expects many whiskey connoisseurs to band together and buy barrels. Only the states of California, Illinois and New York have approved the sale, although orders will be accepted from residents of other states.
The whiskey should be bottled in the fall of 1999 so that it will arrive at customers' doorsteps before the New Year. However, the whiskey won't actually be 25 years old until November 2000. Regardless, it is a superb whiskey with wonderful, vivid aromas and flavors of vanilla, nuts and flowers with a refreshing, clean, honeylike aftertaste. Millennium is being matured in Sherry casks, but the distillery may transfer it to Bourbon casks for added complexity before it is bottled.
Sitting next to a coal-burning fireplace on a cold winter's night in the lounge of the Bushmills Inn, a weary traveler found that a sip of Black Bush caressed the palate and warmed the heart. The news of unrest in Belfast seemed far away as many of the inn's guests enjoyed a glass of whiskey from the Old Bushmills Distillery. Maybe there was something to what Higgins had said earlier in the day about the relationship between the British and Irish. When asked why the two countries had agreed that any whiskey made in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland would simply be called Irish Whiskey, he answered: "It goes to prove that the United Kingdom and Ireland can come to an agreement when it really counts--something as important as whiskey."