Malted barley, yeast and water- these are the simple ingredients that make the magic elixir that George Bernard Shaw once called ‘liquid sunshine’. Irish whiskey is as old as time: Monks developed distillation techniques as far back as 600BC. Making whiskey was an Irish secret which they believe was ‘stolen’ by the Scots across the waters! Irish whisky languished because of some commercial objection to grain whisky locally and a backlash in the American market while Scotch prospered. We are at Old BushMills Whiskey distillery, in the picturesque village by the same name, a couple of hours drive from Belfast, which has been making whiskey from 1600s making it the oldest licensed distillery in the world. People on the banks of the St Columb’s Rill River have been making whiskey- uisce beatha or the water of life for more than 400 years. The water used in the distillation flows over the basalt rock that has produced the nearby Giant causeway, a surreal formation of columns. The unique thing about Bushmills is what they refer to as ‘from grain to glass’ under one roof.
Our guide on the whisky tasting trail explains that Bushmills is a mix of tradition and technology. Irish whiskey is different from Scotch with that extra ‘E’ in whiskey which the Irish say stands for excellence! Irish whiskey is distilled three times to give it that smooth flavour and drying is done in ovens unlike Scotch whiskey which is dried on peat giving it a characteristic smokiness. Bushmills was taken over in 2005, by the London based drinks giant Diageo which owns Guinness, Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker.
We are at the tasting rooms which are visited by thousands of tourists every year. Five delicate glasses of spirits and a beaker of water are waiting for us. “Some people disapprove of adding water and it’s a personal matter”, says our guide. “But a drop of water will open up the whiskey and enhance its flavour”. We splash a bit of water into our glasses, twirl and smell our first glass which contains Bushman’s Original. It’s a smooth, rich flavour which our guide calls a ‘gentle giant’. We move on to Black Bush which has sherry succulence like a fruit cake. It’s said to be good for a cold or flu served hot with a hint of clove and a teaspoon of honey! Then he invites us to taste the scotch- its smoky odour and taste is now startling. We then move on to bourbon and a smooth single malt matured for 10 years which glides down our throats like honey. Our guide talks about the importance of casks in which whiskey is stored and how it contributes greatly to its colour and taste.
From the amber liquid to a dose of history. Our pit stop for the night is the atmospheric Bushmills Inn, a re-created coaching inn with individual white washed rooms named after Irish whiskeys. There are large bedrooms with wooden king-size beds, peat fires, wood panelled lounges with book shelves, even a secret cupboard in the quaint round turret which swings forward leading to a library cum conference room! There’s a cosy, rustic ambience which is a welcome relief from the blustery day outside. The restaurant is made of wooden booths with little brass lights, in what once used to be the stables. The menu is eclectic and has large portions of delicious wheaten and soda bread with Irish Goat’s Cheese mousse on a beetroot, champ (mashed potatoes with spring onions) and a wild rocket salad for the vegetarians and Sea food chowder, beef belly and smoked salmon for the meat eaters. Whisky and good food: What’s not to love?
Published in The Exec Traveller, 2011