2013 Spirit of the Year: Bushmills

After more than 400 years, the world’s oldest licensed whiskey producer is now more relevant than ever.

Colum Egan

Located in the town of Bushmills in Northern Ireland, Bushmills is the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery, more than 400 years old.

There’s something amazing about a brand with such longevity continuing to stake a claim in the spirits world, where what’s new and hot often elbows out venerable names in terms of shelf space and mindshare. 

But the fast-ascending Irish whiskey category is a remarkable breed, full of history and ancient names. It’s a category that has managed to reinvent itself without losing sight of its roots. 

Tracing its lineage in Northern Ireland as far back as 1608 (although the distillery was officially registered in 1784), Old Bushmills is the oldest of the Irish distilleries. 

Now owned by Diageo, Bushmills is known for producing complex, fruity single malts and blends, as well as Bushmills Irish Honey.

“Within the world of whiskey, the additional layer of approachability is what makes Irish whiskey appealing,” says Yvonne Briese, vice president of brand marketing for whisky at Diageo North America, a sentiment that has been widely echoed among mixologists. 

And within the world of Irish whiskey, what distinguishes Bushmills, she says, is “camaraderie and craftsmanship.”

By camaraderie, she notes the centuries-long heritage of the distillery. In the town of Bushmills, she says, “Everyone works there or knows someone who works there. It’s a small town. It’s so interconnected and everyone comes together around this distillery—that is the town.”

But the craftsmanship is also notable. In an age where locavore farm-to-flask artisan spirits are prized, Bushmills might arguably be considered an originator of the concept. Colum Egan, master distiller at Bushmills, has long described the whiskey as a “grain to glass” product.

“It’s unusual to have everything under one roof,” Briese says. “We get our water from nearby. The malting of the grain, the distilling, the maturing in the barrels, the blending all is done on premise. Colum Egan oversees all of that. Even the bottling is done under one roof.”

Lauded products made at Bushmills include the rich, flavorful Black Bush; the lighter Bushmills 10-year-old single malt, a particular favorite among the bartender set; and the rare Bushmills 21-year-old. 

The 21-year-old is matured in barrels that previously held oloroso Sherry and Bourbon, and then finished in a former Madeira cask.

As Egan has famously 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.”

For its remarkable longevity and emphasis on craftsmanship, Bushmills is the recipient of Wine Enthusiast’s 2013 Spirit of the Year award. 

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