Bushmill's Distillery & Irish Whiskey

A trip to the Emerald Isle reveals what makes their whiskey great.

An Irish legend says that the troops of King Henry II of England loved the Irish whiskey they encountered, but couldn't pronounce "Uisce Beatha" (ISH-keh BA-ha—"Water of Life" in Gaelic). They shortened it to "Uisce," and this became whiskey.

The Bushmills Story & Irish Whiskey

Located in the town of Bushmills in County Antrim, Bushmills is the world's oldest licensed whiskey distillery. In 1608 James I of England granted Sir Thomas Philips a license to distill whiskey there, although historical documents indicate that whiskey may have been produced in the area as early as 1276. Bushmills became a fully registered company in 1784. Around that time its whiskey was not only hugely popular in London, but also in the U.S. and the West Indies—so much so that the distiller owned its own ship, the SS Bushmills, for export across the Atlantic. Today, The Old Bushmills Distillery is a major tourist attraction, situated close to the Giant's Causeway, Ireland's "8th Wonder of the World." Next year, Bushmills celebrates its 400th anniversary.

 Bushmill pot still

 Pot still

What's the difference? Irish and Scottish

In 1799, there were 1,200 distilleries on the Emerald Isle, most unlicensed. Today, only three remain: Bushmills in Northern Ireland and two in the Republic. The Irish spell whiskey the way we do in the U.S., with an "e" before the final "y." The Scots and Canadians drop the "e." But there's a more important difference between Irish and Scotch whiskey. For most of the last century and perhaps longer, the Irish haven't dried the grains used to make their whiskey over an open fire of peat, which the Scots employ, thus producing the "traditional" Irish style of whiskey, which has a smoother, sweeter flavor than Scotch. The smoky, earthy flavors and aromas in Scotch are usually absent in Irish whiskey.

There is also a difference in distillation methods. Most Irish whiskey is distilled three times. Scotch is distilled twice and American bourbon (also a whiskey), just once.

Bushmills, alone in Ireland, specializes in producing single malt whiskey, as opposed to two other commonly available types of Irish whiskey, pure pot still and blended whiskey. Single malt whiskey is made from 100% malted barley, distilled in a pot still. Pure pot still whiskey is made from 100% barley, both malted and unmalted, distilled in a traditional pot still. Unmalted barley (also called "green" barley) imparts a spicy flavor. Blends are usually a marriage of single malt whiskey and grain whiskey. This last type is usually lighter in flavor and more neutral than the other types.

Bushmills Today

 Bushmills Master Distiller Colum Egan

 Bushmills' master distiller Colum Egan

The current Bushmills distillery is modern on the inside, but many of the buildings from the last two centuries remain, showcasing the old stone, tile and wood. The sight from across the nearby fields and pond is a lovely one to behold. And beheld it is by 120,000 visitors each year. Bushmills uses only Irish barley, which is dried in closed kilns (absent of smoky flavors) in Irish malteries. The water comes from St. Columb's Rill, located on the distillery property, which rises to the surface through peaty earth and flows over basalt rock. Bushmills is one of the few distilleries in world where distilling, aging, blending and bottling are combined in one place, producing 3.5 million liters a year. Three shifts work five days a week, 48 weeks a year.

Colum Egan, Bushmills Master Distiller, said, "It's not because the distillery is old that the whiskey is good. It's because the whiskey is good that the distillery is old."

Click here for tasting notes on Bushmills whiskeys

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