Bushmills whiskey distillery in the village of Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, is a popular place to visit. An AV presentation, a tour of the distillery, and a taste of the whiskey in its restaurant/bar are offered. It’s the oldest licensed distillery in the world, its license granted by King James I to Sir Thomas Phillips.
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But even before the distillery’s official status, locally distilled whiskey was available. In 1170 the troops of King Henry II of England made the first of several visits to Ireland. They grew to love "Uisce Beatha", but unable to get their tongues around the Gaelic words, they shortened "uisce beatha" to "fuisce" and then finally to "whiskey". In 1276 Sir Robert Savage, Ground Landlord of Bushmills, fortified his troops with whiskey before battle. In the Book of Leinster there is the story about a feast at Dundabheann, near Bushmills. Some of the guests imbibed the local distillation so freely that on leaving at midnight they started out for Louth on the east coast but end up in Kerry in the south-west.
Bushmills is an hour north of Belfast and near the scenic north coast. It is named for the river Bush that runs through the village. Local barley and turf for fires and the clean water of the river contributed to the distilling being established at this location. Shortly after the whiskey went on the market it became a hit with London society. In 1784 the distillery became an officially registered company, and most of the whiskey made at the distillery was exported, mainly to America and the West Indies.
Markets expanded for the next 100 years until a fire on November 25, 1885 destroyed most of the existing buildings. Damage was estimated at £6000. However, three years later, the distillery was once again in business, complete with tall chimney. The Distillery prospered during the first world war under the auspices of the Boyd family, with headquarters in Belfast. Wilson Boyd took over the company from his father in 1932 and went to America to help revitalize the market for Bushmills Irish whiskey following the end of prohibition. He also helped the company to prosper during the second world war .
After the war the company changed hands. It was bought in 1947 by Isaac Wolfson of Great Universal Stores. Seventeen years later it was acquired by the Seagram Company Ltd. of Montreal, Canada, the world's largest producer of distilled spirits and wines. In 1976 the Seagram Company obtained a 20% holding in Irish Distillers and, as part of an agreement, shortly afterwards the Old Bushmills Distillery itself became a wholly owned subsidiary of Irish Distillers Group. In 1988 the Pernod Ricard Groupe of France, supported by Irish Distillers, purchased the company and its subsidiary Old Bushmills Distillery.
Today little has changed at the distillery. It is one of the few locations where distilling, blending and bottling are combined under one roof. The Bushmills Distillery is a blend between the old and the new. Modern technology and machinery are coupled with craft and skill. Outside, the Bushmills yard has hardly changed with large areas of wood painted red and walls brightly whitewashed. Towering over all and unchanged for the greater part of the 20th century are the twin pagoda towers, a famous landmark.
There are several differences between Irish and Scottish whiskeys. Scotch whiskey’s malted barley is dried over peat fires and thus the smoke from the peat penetrates the barley. Resultant Scotch whiskeys have a smoky flavour. Irish malted barley is dried in closed ovens, called kilns. The barley does not come in contact with smoke, thus the smokiness associated with Scotch is absent from all Bushmills whiskeys.
All Bushmills Irish whiskeys are distilled three times while Scotch whiskeys are usually distilled only twice. In Scotland the blender distills 30-40 whiskeys from different distilleries to achieve his final product. In Scotland the art of whiskey production is considered to be in the blending. In Ireland, however, the art of whiskey making lies in the distilling. The basic raw materials for making Bushmills whiskey are Irish barley and pure Irish water.
The tour of the distillery shows the steps in making the whiskey. They are:
1. Malting: Barley is dried in closed ovens, called kilns. This "sprouted-and-then-dried barley" is called malted barley. If 100% malted barley is used, the resultant whiskey is called a malt whiskey.
2. Brewing—or mashing as it is called in Ireland: The barley is ground into coarse flour called grist. The grist is then mixed with warm water in a huge vessel, the mash tun, in the malthouse. As it is stirred, the enzyme from the malt transforms the starch from the barley into fermentable sugars. After three hours of mashing, all of the starches, in the form of liquid sugars, are dissolved. This sugary liquid, known as "wort" is pumped from the malthouse to the next process.
3. Fermentation: This occurs naturally when sugar and yeast come in contact with each other. The wort, arriving from the malthouse is pumped into a vessel called a "washback". As soon as the wort comes into contact with the yeast, fermentation begins. The fermentation process takes about two days, and, when all the sugars have been converted, this remaining liquid, now called "wash" is pumped into the still house for distillation. At this stage the wash has an alcoholic strength of about 8.5%.
4. Distillation: Separates the alcohol from the water. Bushmills Irish Whiskey is distilled three times. The condensed product from the first distillation is called low wines, the second feints, and the third, spirit. In Ireland the original instrument for making whiskey is the pot still, a giant copper kettle. This is filled with "wash" and brought to the boil. Gradually the alcohol steam is created and rises in the neck of the still and passes to condensers where they are condensed into liquid, then passed back again into the next pot still for the next stage of distillation.
5. Maturation: the spirit is put into oak casks and matured for years in a dark warehouse before being bottled. In Ireland three types of casks are used: sherry butts, American bourbon barrels, and port pipes. The sherry or bourbon leaches out the stronger tannins and oak extracts leaving the wood in perfect condition for the maturation of Bushmills Irish whiskey. These casks may be used up to three times, depending on the style of whiskey being produced. By law, all Bushmills whiskey must be matured in an oak barrel for a minimum of three years. In practice this is much longer, with Black Bush maturing for between 8-10 years, and Bushmills Malt for a minimum of 10 years, although often much more.
6. Bottling: Barrels of mature component whiskeys are taken from the warehouse, disgorged of their spirit, and pumped into vats. Precise quantities of different component whiskeys from different types of casks are assembled and allowed to marry for several weeks. This is called vatting. The final whiskey is reduced with deionized water and then bottled.
Note: Tours of the distillery are timed, so arrive early to get a ticket. During busy times of the year you may have to wait an hour or so. Details of the tour times and days vary depending on the season of the year. Check out the listing in our Attractions: Ireland: Other section.
Tel. 028 2073 1521; 028 2073 3218
For accommodation we recommend Bushmills Inn Hotel
All photos courtesy Bushmills Distillery