It was a chilly and overcast day when our tour bus pulled up at the Old Bushmills Whiskey distillery located in the far reaches of Ireland’s northern coast, but I think it’s fair to say we were happily warmed up by the time we left an entertaining hour or so later.
We were on a tour of Ireland’s oldest working distillery that has been gently creating its golden nectar here, near the small village of the same name, in the heartland of Co Antrim for over 400 years.
The distillery was first established beside St Columb’s Rill, a tributary of the River Bush where the locals discovered the alchemy of turning the waters of the river into whiskey.
The Bushmills factory in Co Antrim
It was granted a royal licence by King James 1 in April 1608 to distil and since then the locals have been focused on fine tuning the process to become the first in the world to discover the art of creating both single malt and blended whiskeys.
It is now a massive international business with barrels shipped to all four corners of the planet every year. But at heart this is a small, locally run operation with generations of the same families and friends learning the secret of hand crafting small batches of their produce to help to keep the brand on top of the best whiskey lists across the world.
A proud slogan bearing the words ‘See How We Turn Water Into Gold’ greets visitors at the front door and from there we begin our tour of the distillery to watch the process in action. This is no museum piece with dusty exhibits behind glass but a living, breathing factory where we see the massive vats slowly turning the various natural ingredients such as water and barley into the mash that will eventually become the various whiskeys.
A selection of the finest whiskeys in town!
Eventually we arrive at a massive warehouse where the end product is stored in rows and rows of barrels that stretch to the ceiling in an awe-inspiring scene similar to that at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie. Another intriguing sign at the entrance to the warehouse explains the phenomenon of the ‘Angel’s Share’, whereby at the end of the ageing process, the alcohol content drops a few percentage points through condensation.
Along the way we are introduced to the father and son team of Alastair and Chris Kane, some of the last of the coopers who still carry on the traditional craft required to create and repair the wooden barrels in which the precious whiskey is stored. When Chris, from the nearby town of Bushmills qualified in the trade last year, he became Ireland’s first home-grown cooper to do so in more than 30 years.
His achievement saw him extend a family tradition which dates back to before the start of the second World War as he learned the craft his father, grandfather and great- grandfather had learned before him.
The lads briefly show us some of the finer points of their craft and display a set of skills that is almost unique in this modern world.
Of course, no tour of a world-renowned distillery like this would be complete without a taste of the good stuff at the end and in one of the finely recreated farmhouse rooms we sit down to sample some of the best the distillery has to offer. From its original Classic Irish Blend, a blend of triple distilled malt whiskey and a light grain whisky, to the famous Black Bush aged in its Spanish Oloroso sherry-seasoned oak casks, each has its own unique flavour.
We sniffed, sipped and swallowed the golden nectar from glasses while paying close attention to our host, the ever-smiling Helen Mullholland, Master Blender, as she guided us through the various tastes of the 10 year Single Malt, fresh from its American bourbon barrels, to the 16 year Single Malt with its nutty and fruity aftertaste.
At the top of the range is the exclusive 21 year Single Malt, a top of the pile, mature blend that has won awards across the world thanks to its unique aging process that sees it transferred from its bourbon and sherry casks into Madera drums after 19 years for the last two years until bottling.
A taste of the good stuff
After the tasting we were happily bussed on to our accommodations for the night, in the well-appointed four-star Bushmills Inn back in town where we sat down for an exciting food paring in the Pine Room. Here, Colum Egan, Master Distiller and Seaneen O’Sullivan dazzled us with numerous fascinating concoctions of coconut and chocolate marshmallow and buttery banana that we washed with a number of delicious whiskeys. For me one of the most unusual highlights was a cheese toasty which ensured that the traditional midnight snack will never taste the same again.
A sumptuous meal in the restaurant that night of salt and chilli squid followed by a pan-seared fillet of Donegal cod and a late night chat over a log side fire helped ease us into a night of slumber ahead of our breakfast call the following morning. Before the trip back to Dublin it seemed amiss while we were in this beautiful part of the country not to stop off at the iconic Giants Causeway, located just a few miles up the road, to check out for ourselves one of the great wonders of the natural world.
Christy Kane (left) cooper
For me, it was a welcome opportunity to finally find out what has been attracting tourists from all over the world for centuries. As I gazed out, spellbound, over the misshapen rocks jutting out into the sea, with the far-off coast of Scotland hidden behind the mist, I wondered how it had taken me, a resident of these lands, so long to see the mesmerising natural structures that inspired some of the tales of Cu Chulainn we had learned about in school.
Our fun and entertaining guide also pointed out the series of islands on the horizon, called the Skerries that had a special significance for me as a native of the town in North County Dublin that share their name.
On our way back to Dublin we took the scenic route along the North Antrim coast before stopping off at the Ramore Wine Bar in Portrush, a handy and sunny location for a hearty fish and chips lunch to break up the journey home.