By: B.J. Fleming
St. Patrick’s day is upon us and everybody is feeling a little Irish. Well, I’m here to tell you there’s no way to feel more than a little Irish than to actually go to Ireland and actually plunge your grubby paws into the lifeblood of the Irish people: whiskey.
I’m not saying they’re lushes. Far from it. But as the Master Distiller at Bushmills, Colum Egan happily informed us: “The word whiskey actually comes from the original Irish visce beatha which meant water of life. And it’s also the only real way to spell whiskey is with an ‘e.” In fact, this might have been more bloody truth and less cute colloquialism than you may be comfortable with. Bushmill’s, of course, is the oldest distillery in the world (insofar as these things can be determined), and it’s said that a local Irish nobel, Sir Robert Savage, used the stuff to fortify his troops before sending them into battle. Astonishingly, it is this family recipe – culled from the patina in ancient bottles – that is almost the unchanged taste of Bushmills whiskey today. Appropriately and recently, American G.I.’s were even stationed under the vaulted floors of the distillery (not a bad station). Don’t tell us we never taught you anything.
Old Bushmill’s Distillery
One of the first things you see when you arrive at the distillery is, in my opinion, one of the most endearing. There is a small stream flowing directly into the heart of the distillery, and to be honest, I have seen cleaner water in my day. But, you should know that this water is responsible for 100% of the Bushmills whiskey made in the world. Ever. Of course it’s cleaned up and sanitized, but the fact that such a global brand of whiskey hangs onto its history to the degree of (probably needlessly, maybe at a cost) using the local water supply for their whiskey warms my cockles.
The other thing that warmed my cockles was the hot toddy that we had as soon as we got in the door. The hot toddies, too, were a recipe handed down from factory worker to familial factory worker over the years. They kept it a secret, but here’s a recipe with a funnier name for you. This is at something like 11 in the morning, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t one of the most-welcome drinks of the trip. It was, as winter tends to be in Ireland, appropriately and drearily grey. One can definitely see how pub culture became a social mainstay in Ireland – they were probably the warmest places in town.
And, they’re proud of their whiskey. Rightfully. Irish whiskey is a bit of a rare thing – there are only about four major distillers that make Irish whiskey since not only does the distillery have to be in Ireland, but there are a series of rigid laws governing the creation of whiskey step by step. Irish whiskey has to be aged in wooden barrels for no less than three years. Additionally, it can only be flavored by natural phenols (naturally ocurring chemicals in the ingredients) and the only additional, acceptable ingredient is caramel coloring which is added in almost insignificant amounts. The governing body has been known to visit Bushmills distillery, even, unannounced in order to keep their finger on the pulse of the oldest distillery in Ireland to make sure there’s no funny business. And they can’t exactly just minimize whatever they were doing and hope nobody saw. If an inspector shows up and points at a barrel, the Master Distiller has to be able to recount that particular whiskey’s entire lifeline up to that point. It’s serious business.
We entered the distillery proper and grabbed a bite to eat (and a Guiness) at the cafeteria. After, we jumped directly into the tour. This is the #2 warehouse, below, where we had our first proper whiskey of the trip: Black Bush. As we sipped it (Master Distiller Egan cuts his with a little water, fyi), it was explained to us that the unfinished, earthen floors were by design. The bare earth in the warehouse actually keeps it cool and damp – desirable conditions for aging the whiskey, but also pleasingly symbolic.
After that, we got into the actual guts of how Bushmills is made – from the dirt that the barley is grown in to the final product. Bushmills, as opposed to scotch whiskeys, dries their barley using air, not smoke from peat fires. This (along with more factors soon to be discussed) gives it a smoother flavor than many of its regional competition. It’s kind of like cooking with propane. Anyway, once dried, the grain is ground into a course flour in order to release the sugars inside it. These sugars are what’s ultimately going to be changed into alcohol in the following steps. They combine this flour with hot water to create a sweet sort of oatmeal-y liquid called “wort.” Yeast is then added to this, and it starts to consume the sugars and its waste product is alcohol. You are drinking yeast pee. This completely natural process takes place in fermentation tanks that are about the size of grain silos, and the wort, at this point, is just about the worst smelling thing in the universe. Here is our friend Simon just about to gag from the extremely caustic combination of CO2, alcohol, and the protein-filled mealiness that is wort.
Think about snorting a fat rail of melty plastic. That’s what wort feels like in your nose.
Mercifully, there are several remaining steps before it hits your lips. Next, the copper stills that Bushmills has hand-made in Scotland, custom for their plant. Check this coolness out: we were not allowed to take any pictures in this room because the amount of alcohol vapor in the air could potentially be ignited by the flash on a digital camera or cell phone. Hell yeah. What happens in here besides air being explosive, though, is that the wort is boiled in these giant copper stills. Each has a window in it and the distiller in the room has the job of constantly and consistently adjusting the temperature so that the mix is frothily boiling right at window height (see below). This allows the purified liquid to travel through some tubing leaving impurities behind. One thing that’s unique about Irish whiskey, and Bushmills specifically, is that it’s triple distilled. American whiskeys tend to be distilled only two times which is why Bushmills has a smoother taste.
By the end, the “whiskey” is approximately 180 proof. Distilled water is added to cut it before aging. Don’t tell anybody (we weren’t supposed to), but we were allowed to sample the 180-proof whiskey. It had a bit of a kick, but was distinctly whiskey-flavored fire. Also, even though we weren’t allowed to photograph anything, apparently the irishtimes.com was, so here are the copper stills:
After being cut with distilled (not creek) water, the whiskey still has a ways to go. To get its expected flavor and colour it must be aged at least 5 (and sometimes 10, 15, or 21) years in carefully-chosen oak barrels. Depending on the whiskey they’re attempting to make, Master Distiller Egad and his team will select barrels from existing bodegas, cooperages and distilleries that have already been used to age Spanish Sherry, port or bourbon. The combination of the aged wood and the previous spirits infuse Bushmills, over time, with the natural flavors people have come to expect from it.
The difference in the flavors is remarkable – much more pronounced, even after a few years, than I would’ve expected it to be. We were given a sort of behind-the-scenes addition to the regular tour, and we were allowed to pull samples from each of the three types of barrels. We were not allowed to photograph that area, either, but the whiskey aged in American bourbon was close to thin lemonade in color, while the port was already exhibiting deep reds and golds after just 5 years.
For several reasons, much of the whiskey is lost during the aging process. No wooden barrel is completely air tight (and if it were, it’d make the whiskey taste odd). Some whiskey leaks out, some evaporates out, and some is absorbed by the wood itself. This is unavoidable, but to mitigate these effects, Bushmills has coopers on staff to repair, reseal, and otherwise maintain the integrity of the barrels. Using the same techniques coopers have used for hundreds of years, here is one of the master coopers using organic reeds, a hammer, and his mitts to reinforce the seal of a one of their barrels.
Getting real hammered.
Since people that drink it regularly have come to expect consistent taste, this is the most delicate, and perhaps most crucial step. Once an agreeable mix has been found, the whiskey is taken to the on-site bottling plant, packaged, and prepared to ship. Luckily for them, I found out at the tasting with the Master Distiller, that although I can taste a lot and like to think I grasped most of the whiskeys we tasted, some were beyond me. But, in my defense, there were a lot:
There’s other stuff to do, too, in the area if you’re there for a weekend, if you get tired of drinking whiskey. It took us quite a while to get tired of whiskey, but when we did…
Port Rush is the harbor town closest to Bushmill’s distillery. It’s become somewhat gentrified in recent years which is actually good for you because it means the food and drinks got better. You know what else this town has? It has surfing and drinking and a castle. Seriously. The vista from the harbor is this impossibly dramatic view of sizeable, usually-overhead waves coming in past enormous volcanic breakwaters upthrust far out in the bay. Oh, and Dunsmir Castle overlooks the entire scene as if there was some kind of Swayze-esque baron of old who loved nothing more than dressing up like dead presidents, surfing, and drinking Guiness. He found the place to do it so he bought a castle there. Bam:
The reason we initially went there, though, is because it was revealed to us that “the best pint of Guiness in the area” could be had at the modest-yet-cozy Harbor Pub. You can find it on Google (sort of), but it’s literally as simple as going to The Harbor and asking for Harbor Bar. Head inside, but keep to the back annex where the sort of supplementary bar is (and usually a soccer football game). Not only was it an excellent pint of Guiness, but the staff and regulars were among the nicest people in the entire country for the duration of our stay. If you were to ask me, “did they decide to randomly regale you for about 3 hours with as many Irish folk songs as they could, as a group, remember,” I would say, “Yes.”
Though, we were unable to fit in a game, this area is home to two of the more beautiful golf courses in Europa: Royal County Down and Royal Portrush Golf Club. The former is a world-renowned course, the home to the 2010 Palmer Cup, and was described by Tom Watson as “the best nine holes I’ve ever played.” It’s located about 30 miles south of Belfast, so it’s a bit of a drive from the distillery, but it’s well worth it in terms of a view.
Also in the area is the Royal Portrush Golf Club – it’s a private club with green fees in the neighborhood of $200, but you’ll be playing up and down the emerald coast in the face of crashing waves, rolling hills, and more majesty than you can wave your wedge at (that’s a lot of majesty). Be wary on both courses, though, Americans. Irish rough is aptly named. The fairways are typically cut short and the wiry grass in the rough equate to link-style play which is difficult if you’re not used to it. If you get in trouble, try and just chip back to safety rather than swinging for a hero shot.
Some people will tell you that these ancient, fractured columns are volcanic in nature – basalt that pushed through a layer of chalk and was formed into this unique geometry as a factor of its rapid cooling. Whatever. Ask around locally and you will get the real story. The legendary Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (remembered more likely by Irish pubs named Finn McCool’s), built the causeway as a stone staircase that, at one point, reached all the way to Scotland. Why would you rend Earth and bend its fabric to your will in such a grande, masculine gesture? To kick your enemy, Benandonner’s, ass. That’s why. However, after building such a far-reaching and geometrically sound causeway, Fionn became fatigued and fell down for a nap. It was then that Benandonner decided he would attack! Fearing for her him, Fionn’s wife, Oonagh, laid a blanket over him to try and hide him. When Benandonner arrived and saw the mountain of man-meat under what he assumed was swaddling clothes, he thought it was Fionn’s baby. He thought, if that wee, sleeping babe is the size of a man, Fionn must be a demi god. He turned tale, fled, and tour the connecting land bridge up in his terrified wake. That’s a fact. Look it up on Wikipedia.
If you’re disinclined to believe that, it doesn’t necessarily take away from these towering basaltic columns. Travel just 45 minutes North of the distillery and you’ll see what is, at present, one of the 7 wonders of the natural world, and the most-visited tourist attraction in Northern Ireland. Of course, you could always just hang out a little longer at the Harbor Bar, like we did.
The Bushmills in is really the only place you ought to consider if you’re going on a Bushmills distillery mancation. It is head and shoulders above any other hotel in the region in terms of reviews, we had an excellent time there, and I was lucky enough to stay in one of their refurbished, loft-style rooms which was completely refitted with new…everything…last May. In addition to beautiful rooms, though, they have an excellent bar and a fantastic restaurant. The evening after we were surreptitiously serenaded at the Harbor Bar, we came back to the hotel for dinner, and it was excellent. I had blue crab caught in a bay 2 miles from the inn, and venison with an apricot chutney. Both of which were in stark contrast to the stereotypically bland British food that American television had suggested would be our fare throughout. Perhaps the best part about the meal, though, were the pork bellies. My god. If only we’d had some bacon vodka to marry them with. There’s also several sitting rooms available with plush, overstuffed, leather seating and appropriately dim light so that you can dramatically wield an amber tumbler of some-kind-of-nightcap at whomever your exchange pithy bon mots with.
By air you can take whatever flight you like, we flew through New York, but we definitely recommend getting at least business class if you’re not on the East Coast (if you are, it’s only a few hours in the air). Your best bet from the west is taking Virgin nonstop to London and figuring out the rest.
9 Dunluce Road, Bushmills,
Co. Antrim, N. Ireland BT57 8QG
Telephone: +44(0)28 2073 3000
To book a visit please call +44 (0) 28 207 33218
or +44 (0)28 207 33272
or email email@example.com
“Old Bushmills” Distillery
2, Distillery Road