Tuesday 1 January 2008

Bushmills and 400 years of Ulster whiskey

Happy New Year to all Irish whiskey drinkers!

Before we entirely abandon 2007, let's recall the 400th anniversary of the Flight of the Earls in 1607 (there is whiskey in this story so bear with me). This was a pivotal moment in Irish history as the Gaelic nobility of Ulster departed Ireland to seek assistance against the English. They never returned.

This left the English crown, under James I, free to proceed with the Plantation of Ulster, a scheme intended to replace Catholic landowners and tenants with loyal English and Scots Protestants.

This population transplant had a longstanding effect on Irish politics. When Ireland gained independence in 1922, Northern Ireland, still largely Protestant and loyal to the Crown, remained part of the United Kingdom.

One of the King's military adventurers in Ireland, Sir Thomas Phillips, was among those hoping for the grant of a sizeable parcel of land formerly owned by the Irish rulers he had helped to expel.

He got his wish in 1610 when he received the O'Cahan castle and lands at Limavady. Even before this, however, he was operating various enterprises in Northern Ireland under licence from the Crown - a market in Coleraine and river ferries, for example.

Of most interest to us was his licence to distill "aquavitae" (i.e. whiskey) granted "on the 20th of April, 1608, for the next seven years, within the county of Coleraine, otherwise called O'Cahan's country, and within the territory called the Rowte, in Co. Antrim."

This territory may well include today's town of Bushmills, though I haven't been able to confirm that. Regardless, the Bushmills distillery seized upon the date as Year Zero of its Origin Story.

There is documentary evidence of distillation occuring in the area much earlier than 1608 and it's also the case that the Bushmills company itself was not established until 1784. Nevertheless, at some point in the last few decades, Bushmills replaced the date "1784" on their bottles with "1608".

And so it is that in 2008 Bushmills is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the "license to distil".

To mark the occasion, they are producing a new, limited edition whiskey called Bushmills 1608.It's a blend but with an interesting twist: the use of "crystal" (or "caramel") malt. Quoting from the fact sheet and press release:
Bushmills 1608 is a premium blended Irish whiskey. The heart of the blend is made of Bushmills malt whiskey distilled with crystal malt. This special type of malted barley is obtained by gently roasting the germinated barleycorns while still moist, which partly crystallizes the grains and enhances the natural sweetness of the malt. When carefully distilled and matured, crystal malt delivers exceptional smoothness as well as distinct toffee and chocolaty note

This crystal malt whiskey is carefully blended with classic Bushmills malt whiskey matured in a combination of American oak casks and Spanish Oloroso Sherry casks, lending notes of vanilla and honey, dried fruit and nuts to the final blend. There is also a small proportion of aged Irish grain whiskey contributing a sweet, fresh crisp note to Bushmills 1608.

Bushmills 1608 is bottled at the slightly higher than normal strength of 46% ABV for optimum flavour development.

Bushmills 1608 will only be available in the United States from February through December 2008, with a suggested retail price of $100. In subsequent years, due to the limited quantities available, Bushmills 1608 will only be available at the Bushmills Distillery Shop in Bushmills, Ireland and in Travel Retail.