Paying Homage to the World's Oldest Licensed Distillery
Alex Thomas, Old Bushmills Whiskey Master Blender
"Do something which scares you every day," advised Bushmills Master Blender Alex Thomas over dinner by the fire at The Bushmills Inn Hotel in County Antrim. It transpired Thomas first professionally applied this tenet to an inaugural public speaking engagement in North America in 2017, and then again when developing The Sexton Single Malt Irish Whiskey.
The Sexton is an approachable non-aged statement release intended for cocktails. Its squat bottle references the strikingly shaped stones of the spiritual Giant's Causeway nearby, with its name and skull motif honouring gravediggers. "Life is short, and whiskey is about marking family moments, including wakes," explained Thomas. Its morbid branding helped ensure a partnership with The Walking Dead TV series in the US.
Beyond impactful aesthetics, one of the most surprising drams was the acacia wood finished Distillery Exclusive. This I discovered at the number one warehouse, affectionately nicknamed the ‘toot room’ because of the still functioning bell which used to summon workers for their daily dram at the end of the day.
The big (47% ABV), yet balanced and nuanced whiskey had developed violet-scents, particularly over its final year in acacia, which Thomas called ‘some of the most stunning casks I’ve ever seen which are like a piece of furniture you’d want to display.’ Indeed, the distillery's own duo of third and fourth generation coopers, Alastair Cane and his son Chris, who use hereditary tools, described the premium wood as ‘nice to work with.’
The distillery, whose still room is characterised by the sweet aromas of coffee and banoffee, is fed by often organic, unpeated barley from Cork in Ireland’s south which is triple distilled to 85% here in the north using filtered water drawn from the River Bush.
Born in nearby Ballymoney, Thomas joined Bushmills in 2004, qualifying as a distiller and blender in 2012. She took over from the outgoing master blender, Helen Mulholland in November 2021 and today has over 450,000 casks at her ‘beck and call.’ She describes her journey to date as "destiny or luck".
King James I, a believer in witchcraft and target of the gunpowder plot, granted a royal licence to allow whisky to be distilled here in 1608. However, distillation likely occurred long before, with records from 1276 mentioning that early settler, Sir Robert Savage, fortified his troops with ‘a mighty drop of acqua vitae…’ Sláinte!
Bushmills 10 Year Old
An expression launched in 1983, predominantly raised in Bourbon casks resulting from an eighty year relationship with a Bourbon distillery. With honey on the nose, then milk chocolate, vanilla, almond and finally, cinnamon on the palate, this is an easy sipping benchmark, and good value. 700ml, 40% ABV, £37.25
12 year old Distillery Reserve
Raised in predominantly Oloroso casks, it features caramelised apples and pistachio cream on the nose, then cob nuts and fresh banana on the palate. Not overly complex, but very accessible, moreish and delicious. 700ml, 40% ABV, £43
Bushmills 16 Year Old
An expression launched in 1997, being a result of three woods; the spirit is independently raised in Bourbon and Oloroso casks before being re-casked in Ruby Port pipes for a year. A red hue comes through. Sweeter, sherry notes come through on the nose, with a more gras, treacle toffee imbued, yet complex palate. There is also praline and dark chocolate thickly spun into the deep, velvet finish. At every step is the malt flavour signature. 700ml, 40% ABV, £87.45
Bushmills 21 Year Old
It spent 19 years in Bourbon and sherry casks respectively before being finally married in Madeira casks for two years. Blood orange peel, Madeira and Jaffa cake on the nose, followed by toasted hazelnuts and fresh brioche on the palate with a particularly long aftertaste. 700ml, 40% ABV, £190
Bushmills Distillery Exclusive (Acacia Wood)
Raised in Bourbon and sherry casks, then more than a year in acacia. Violets on the nose, then heather honey, and on the palate, dried fruit, cherry, more honey, butterscotch and cinnamon. Despite being 47%, the alcohol content is not intrusive. Supple, it seems to thicken in the glass over time. It has seen approximately eleven years of maturation. 47%, 700ml, 47% ABV, £74
Bushmills Causeway Collection 2000 First Fill Port Cask, 2021 Release
Entirely raised in first-fill Ruby Port casks which greedily saturate the spirit with heady notes of raspberry, plum and quality strawberries on the nose, followed by Caramac bar and the merest hint of Maggi seasoning as well as apple on the delicious, unstoppably sippable palate. 700ml, 54.1%, £239.95
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