Today is the Twelfth of July, when Northern Ireland’s unionist community celebrates William of Orange defeating the Catholic King James II, at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. This victory secured a prolonged period of Protestant dominance, and the associated commemorations have been an ongoing source of sectarian tensions.
Even now, parades organised by the Orange Order and loyalist marching bands can trigger intercommunal violence, providing a powerful symbolic reminder of the fissures that continue to influence the politics and society of Northern Ireland. For outsiders looking in, news coverage of the region typically focuses on such divisions. The ructions surrounding the Windsor Framework are an obvious recent example. However, there are also powerful symbols of unity, highlighting the common interests of all communities, and one of these is Bushmills Distillery.
The first official licence to distil along a stretch of the County Antrim’s River Bush was granted by James I in 1608. Although the company that built the Bushmills Distillery was not founded until 1784, it is widely considered to be the oldest whiskey distillery in the world. In 2008, the Bank of Ireland redesigned its banknotes to celebrate Bushmills’ “400th anniversary”, with an image of the distillery replacing Queen’s University Belfast on the reverse of the notes.
The Bank’s Governor, Richard Burrows, explained at the time why this change was appropriate: “Old Bushmills Distillery has a proud record of achievement as an exporter and has helped put Northern Ireland on the map around the world. As the main employer in Bushmills and a tourist attraction in its own right, the distillery stands out as one of Northern Ireland’s most successful export businesses. The distillery symbolises both Northern Ireland’s heritage and its business acumen. As such, its choice as the centrepiece of our notes reflects Bank of Ireland’s desire to support the growth of a globally competitive private sector.”
In the years since, Bushmills has demonstrated that the Bank of Ireland’s confidence was well-placed. In 2015, the distillery was acquired by the Mexico-based drinks giant Proximo Spirits, whose portfolio includes the world’s best-selling tequila, Jose Cuervo. Despite the difficulties posed by recent events – such as COVID, Brexit, and the war in Ukraine – Bushmills saw growth of more than 10% in 2022, with sales surpassing a million cases for the first time. Its tourist business has bounced back as well, with the visitor centre at the Old Bushmills Distillery attracting around 130,000 visitors a year.
Proximo has shown its commitment to Bushmills by investing £60 million in Irish whiskey production over the last five years. This includes £37 million for the construction of the spectacular new Causeway Distillery. The imposing stone structure has an area of more than 3,600 square metres and is located alongside the Old Bushmills Distillery. It is designed with expansion in mind, so that if growth continues on its current trajectory, it will be easy to slot in more mash tuns, fermentation vats, and pot stills.
Master Distiller Colum Eagan, was involved at all stages in the planning, and relished the opportunity to incorporate his decades of knowledge into the development of such a sizable, technologically advanced, aesthetically beautiful facility. On a tour he pointed to the bright red grist mill, a hefty piece of equipment that grinds barley and in the process creates potentially explosive clouds of dust. It sat behind a blast-proof glass wall, and he excitedly explained that in the event of an explosion, the roof had been designed to blow out, which would hopefully direct the force upwards, protecting the people and equipment in the rest of the building.
The new stills are modelled those in the Old Distillery, so that newmake from either distillery should be mutually indistinguishable – preserving Bushmill’s unique character. However, production at the Causeway Distillery is more efficient, extracting 10% more fermentable sugar from the malted barley, using 30% less energy per litre of whiskey, with heat being captured and reused, and with all of the electricity coming from green sources.
Now that both distilleries are operational, Bushmill’s production capacity has increased from 5 million to 11 million litres a year. Eagan says, “Our second distillery represents a great step forward in ensuring generations to come will enjoy our renowned signature triple-distilled single malts alongside the innovations of the future.”
The new distillery is built from the same dark grey basalt that makes up the nearby Giant’s Causeway, for which it is named. The Giant’s Causeway, is widely accepted as a unifying symbol of Northern Ireland, with around 40,000 mostly hexagonal stone columns interlocked and jutting into the sea from the Antrim coast. Its existence is most likely a consequence of an ancient volcanic fissure, but legend has it that it was built by the Irish giant Finn MacCool, so that he could fight a giant in Scotland. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986, the Giant’s Causeway featured on the controversial album cover for Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, and in 2005 a Radio Times readers’ poll named it the fourth “finest natural wonder” in Britain. Last year it attracted 422,000 visitors, and Bushmills is already planning an additional visitor experience at its Causeway Distillery, to draw in more of those tourists.
This is a great idea, because the Causeway Distillery is so accessible. Not just in the sense that it is clearly laid out, clean, modern, and uncluttered, with colour-coded sections, and carefully labelled equipment, so that should be easy for newcomers to understand the processes, but it is also spacious, with well-lit interiors that make it more accessible to people who have difficulty with mobility or vision, and even little details like the availability of free tampons in the toilets mark it out as being a different, more immediately inviting space than many older distilleries, which have grown organically over decades.
While the new distillery means that Bushmills will be able to produce even more whiskey in the future, it would be a mistake to overlook the substantial stock they already have. With around 460,000 casks of single malt currently maturing, some of it almost 50 years old, the distillery has deep reserves to draw upon. This is all the more positive in light of the Irish Whiskey Association’s 2022 international trade report, which noted that export growth is being driven by demand for higher-priced, premium Irish whiskeys and rapid market diversification.
It is a sign of confidence in the availability and quality of their whiskey that a month before the Causeway Distillery opened, Bushmills introduced two new remium single malts: a 25-year-old and a 30-year-old. But these are not special releases, they are part of the brand’s core range, and the intention is for them to be available on an ongoing basis.
The 30-year-old whiskey is the oldest expression in the core range, having been distilled in 1992. After 14 years of ageing, it spent an additional 16 years maturing in Pedro Ximénez Sherry casks. It has aromas of raisins, figs, prunes, and cloves, leading to flavours of candied almonds, orange peel, figs, dates, and buttery pastry. It is bottled at 46% ABV, without chill-filtration, (RRP £1,990 for 700ml).
The 25-year-old whiskey is also bottled non-chill filtered at 46% ABV. It spent four to six years in barrels before being transferred to ruby Port pipes for up to 21 years. It offers scents of sweet almond, caramelised cherries, plums, and blackberries, while the palate reveals notes of dark chocolate, sweet spice, honey, and damson, (RRP £790 for 700ml).
“Oak has been our infatuation for over 400 years,” says Bushmills’ Master Blender, Alex Thomas. “Over 30 years ago, we travelled all over Europe to hand-select the casks for these fabulous whiskeys. We collaborated with winemakers to specify the fortified wine recipe used to season them and create the flavours of our future Bushmills whiskey. We still engage in this process, down to the detail of cask toasting times and temperatures before we add the wine. We leave the casks to season for at least a couple of years in the hot European climate before transporting them back to Bushmills. We only ship them during colder months to keep them ‘fresher’ for the long maturation ahead.
“We’re proud of that mastery and expertise that ensures every cask is at its freshest and most flavourful to mature our Bushmills whiskey. It means our 25-year-old bursts with intense hedgerow dark fruit and a luxurious honey sweetness. It ensures our 30-year-old boasts an exquisite and enticing raisin, fig and praline richness. Even though it takes a lifetime of skill to make something great, it takes an obsession to make something legendary.”
Irish whiskey-makers face fewer restrictions than their counterparts in Scotland, and during a dinner to celebrate the opening of the Causeway Distillery, Thomas provided a sneak peek of some of her more experimental whiskeys, as yet unavailable to the public. These included the avant garde 2000 Basalt Toasted Oak, which had a piece of basalt rock suspended inside the barrel while the whiskey aged, and the potentially divisive 2002 Tricon, which marries whiskeys aged in American and European oak casks as well as the Brazilian wood, amburana, which imparts exaggerated vanilla, baking spice, tropical and artificial fruit flavours. Some will regard it as garish or gimmicky, but I thought it was stunning.
The opening of the Causeway Distillery marks a new chapter for Bushmills, solidifying its position as a trailblazer in the world of whiskey craftsmanship. With a commitment to sustainable practices, innovative technology, and the pursuit of excellence in flavour, Bushmills now has the capacity to expand its global reach, and the products to captivate hearts and palates of new generations, while continuing to provide inspiration at home.