A number of countries compete today to win the allegiance of the world’s whiskey drinkers. A small number of them claim a long tradition, but none of them can equal that of the Irish whiskey made in Bushmills. The story of ‘Old Bushmills’ began on April 20th, 1608, when Sir Thomas Phillips, a local businessman, was granted a licence ‘to make, drawe and distill such great quantities of aquavit, unsquabagh and aqua composite as he or his assignees shall “think fit”.
Bushmills never looked back and four centuries later it can faithfully boast of being the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery currently in production.
Distilling had taken place in Ireland long before King James gave’ Old Bushmills’ his legal blessing. The native Irish have always managed to work out how to brew themselves alcohol. Several historical sources mention the year 1276 when Sir Robert Savage, ground landlord of Bushmills, suitably ‘fortified’ his troops before battle with ‘a mighty draught of aquavit’. Around the same era, the Book of Leinster tells of a feast at Dundeabhann near Bushmills, where the guests imbibed so liberally of whatever local beverage was on offer that they left at midnight for Louth by mistake! In 1743 the Distillery was reputed to be in the hands of a band of smugglers. In 1784 old records makes reference to an output of 10,000 gallons for that year, much of this for export to America and the West Indies. The Distillery has markets in over a hundred countries, and each year thousands of people from all over the world visit ‘Old Bushmills.’
Bushmills is distinguished from all other because it is a blend of single malt and a single grain. The distillation process has evolved over the centuries. Two other contributors to the distinctive flavour are the brewing-grade barley grown locally in soil so rich with minerals. It is then specially malted to the distillery’s own specifications, and the cool and clean water, which has its own special character, comes from the swift running St.Columb’s Rill. A tributary of the River Bush which runs past the Distillery which rises in peaty ground and flows over basalt.
The distiller himself chooses the barley at harvest time. It is dried until the moisture content is constant for the whole crop. Then it is soaked in the cold, fresh water; laid on the stone flags of the long malting shed, and dried over peat fires. It comes then as grist from the old mill and, in more of the water undergoes yet another, fermenting stage towards the pure malt whiskey that it will become. Pure malt is the secret at the heart of ‘Old Bushmills’. Its final evolvement comes by a delicate, long drawn out triple distillation in the great copper stills evolved from the stills of the far-distant past. Then it is hidden away in dark, unlighted cellars, to mature for anything up to 20 years, in oak sherry casks from Spain. Here it grows into the rich, splendid spirit we know in the bottle, and takes on its rich golden colour. Part of local history is the incident of someone leaving a valve open in the distilling still. About 2,000 gallons of best Irish whiskey overflowed into the River Bush making the salmon an even tastier dish than usual.
‘Old Bushmills’ has come a long way since 1608. Today it belongs to the age of space travel and the computer, but in its essentials it remains the same. Over 400 years on, ‘Old Bushmills Whiskey remains the spirit of the age.
Ps Bushmills, in its time was the home of some legendary characteristics such as half-hung Mac Naughton and Private Robert Quigg, who was awarded a Victoria Cross for his outstanding courage at the Battle of the Somme, making eleven successive sorties into no man’s land to bring back wounded comrades.