Saturday 2 July 2011

An oblique look at Bushmills

We have been spoiled the last few years with new releases from Irish distilleries. Amid all of this excitement it's easy to overlook that there is nothing fresh coming from our northernmost distillery, Bushmills. Their line-up has been static for some years now and we long ago sampled all of them within the Irish Whiskey Society.

They are not winding down, by any means. They were taken over by Diageo in 2005 and have since been ramping up capacity. The marketing department has been active on social media too, garnering new fans for the brand. For the serious whiskey drinker, though, this has been a quiet few years at Bushmills.

IWS committee member, Jim Clarke, reckoned it was time to shine a spotlight on this retiring distillery, and managed to put together an entire Bushmills night with no bottling from their current range. He also managed, somehow, to tell the Bushmills story without retreading familiar ground. We learned, for example, that Peter the Great once clambered over the Giant's Causeway and raved about Irish whiskey when he got home. Whiskey, presumably, made in the neighbourhood of Bushmills.

Between the interesting choice of whiskeys and the erudite exposition from Jim, it was an entirely successful night. Here's the line-up:

1. 1970s Bushmills Original

This was your entry level Bushmills back in the 1970s. I've tried a few old Irish whiskeys dating from between the 1920s and the 1970s. There is a characteristic in some of them that you just don't get today. It's often described as a heavier, "oily" texture and is attributed to the distillers of yore taking a "heavier cut" from their pot stills.

When distilling, the first and last parts of the output are ignored as too light and too heavy and it's the "centre cut" that proceeds for further distillation or maturation. This centre cut was apparently wider back in the day.

I wonder, too, how better industrial control technology has contributed to the changing flavour of whiskey. From the even, temperature-controlled heating of the stills to the automatic valves controlling the cut, consistency of output is assured. The heavy "fusel oils" in distilled spirit were always regarded as somewhat undesirable but perhaps it is only with the advent of modern technology that they have finally been minimised.

Whatever the reasons, many people like this heavier texture and that includes me. This was my favourite whiskey of the night. When the votes were cast at the evening's end, it emerged that I was alone in that opinion!

2. Bushmills 5yo Single Malt

This was something from the 1980s and '90s that was mainly sold in Italy. As Jim pointed out, this was an opportunity to examine the core distillery character - pure malt, aged for a short period in a bourbon cask.

3. Bushmills 12yo Single Malt "Caribbean Rum"

This whiskey has perhaps gained in the telling since Bushmills stopped making it. I had long wanted to try it; a vatting of bourbon- and rum-aged whiskeys sounds intriguing, right? One of the taste descriptors for this whiskey is coconut and it does remind me of food dishes drowned in coconut milk: anaemic and smelling of a mopped-down hospital corridor. My least favourite of the night. It will be no surprise to learn, therefore, that this bottle was quite well received by the room!

4. Knappogue Castle 16yo Single Malt "Twin Wood"

This was the only current bottling of the night and is a Bushmills travelling incognito. The malt spends just 9 months being finished in an ex-sherry cask but that was a bit too long, in my opinion. When a whiskey tastes more like sherry than whiskey, the finishing has gone too far.

I haven't quite figured out this sherry thing yet. I've had whiskeys aged entirely in a sherry cask and they were not swamped by sherry flavours. I also had an unreleased sherry-finished Bushmills earlier in the year at the Whiskey & Chocolate tasting which was lovely. But here, 9 months was enough to push the whiskey over the edge.

For many whiskey drinkers, the more sherry the better so if that's your thing you will like the Knappogue Castle 16yo.

5. Bushmills Single Cask CWS "Bourbon Barrel"

When I was starting to realise there was more to Irish whiskey than Jameson, Powers and Paddy, this was the first single cask I tried. The Celtic Whiskey Shop had bottled a few whiskeys from Bushmills at cask strength: this one, a rum finish and a sherry finish.

This one is 14 years old and 56.5%. I'm normally happy to sip at cask strength but this was just blowing away my tongue. I gradually watered it down, hoping to open it up but there was nothing within. Not bad, but nothing special.

6. Bushmills Millennium Malt

For the year 2000, Bushmills sold off 365 casks of whiskey. Each was aged for 24 years and bottled separately under the Millennium name. There is a lot of this whiskey around, therefore, but each cask is different so you never know what you are going to get. We tried another from this series at the IWS (bottle 142/210) but this was bottle 199 from cask 176.

It was softer than the CWS single cask but no more remarkable. Neither the best nor the worst Millennium.