Our trip brings us to the Giant’s Causeway: a collection of basalt columns cutting into the sea.
Volcanic activity forced them up 50 million years ago. Then rapid cooling cracked them like dry mud into over 40,000 hexagonal pillars.
A day’s hike around the Causeway and cliffs wears us out. The next day, we skip its multi-million dollar visitor center. Instead, we follow the cliffs west and find a lovely bay:
We climb the ancient, eirie, Lissanduff Earthworks that overlook the bay. Dating to post-2000 BCE, these provided a lookout, fort, temple, or water basin for rituals. Probably. Muddied and confused, we head inland.
At the edge of suburbia we spot the distillery towers:
We tour it with a handful of others (a fraction of the 120,000 annual visitors). No photos are allowed inside. So imagine a massive complex. A city of Whiskey. The Diageo empire has more than doubled production since taking over in 2005 to a million cases a year. Our visits to GlenDronach and Glen Garioch look quaint by comparison. Much has changed since James I licensed it in 1608.
Our young, bearded guide leads us from gaping barn to barn. Huge new lauter mash tuns lead to a room latticed above and below with a rainbow of pipes. More bearded men buzz about. Four wash stills, and five spirit still tanks surround us, feeding clear, colorless spirit into the windowed safe. Mr Master Distiller sits next to the gurgling safe, in his office chair, checking computer screens.
With the sun out we head to the cavernous, new, barrel warehouse. Stacks of black barrels loom three stories above us. We smell a musty range of used and new Bourbon and Sherry barrels. You pay more for this oak time.
Then we walk through the gleaming steel levels of the bottling warehouse. It clinks and churns with precision. All Bushmills gets made and bottled here, in addition to Diageo’s many other spirited products.
These bearded, well-oiled operations never stop. Diageo runs Bushmills seven days a week.
With the overwhelming over, our guide drops us off in another warehouse, marginally disguised as an Irish pub.
We head to the bar.
And settle down to taste.
Youth before experience:
BUSHMILLS‘ 10 YEAR:
It shows off a translucent, pale gold. Aromas of vanilla, orange and lemon rind, and pale honey present themselves casually. The body is very round, with a creamy texture thanks to Irish Whiskey‘s tradition of triple distillation (one more than Scotch), which cuts out volatility.
Enjoyably soft flavors of fresh orange, cardamon, mild honey come up front and carry through the slight salted, bitter cigarette, and vegetal finish. The length is average. Bushmills’ 10 Year is an easy dram, with some complexity, little intensity, and balance. I rank it a well made, if simple, good (3 of 5).
BUSHMILLS 12 YEAR:
A richer amber gold color here. Mellow aromas of figs, caramel, toffeed apple. Not much acidity or tannin, but an extra tick of alcohol (at 46%) makes this weightier and more viscous.
Flavors are expectedly more assertive, with figs, turkish delight, dried raisin again, and slight salty, cracked pepper finish, which last for medium plus length. You pay more you get more. Very good (4 out of 5).
Bushmills’ 10 and 12 feel extremely smooth because of the Irish penchant for distilling an extra time than the Scots. However, their Whiskey loses its primary flavors (beer, barley, yeast) -that complexity in Scotch- and has to compensate with oak. Bushmills’ 10 suffers because of this. It tastes bland, whereas the 12’s extra two years of barrel time make a notable difference.
We leave Diageo’s Whisky empire. It is getting late. We realize we have at least an hour hike to our hostel on the Causeway. An impromptu dinner of bramble berries commences as we walk along the lazy River Bush: source of the distillery’s greatness.
In sum: Bushmills’s giant and Laphroaig’s peat monster are wholly different drinks. Although only separated by a sea, their styles and goals differ immensely. This diversity makes Whisk(e)y more than a mixer, but something to explore.
- Bushmills was the toast of the G8 Summit (newsletter.co.uk)
- Day 19 – Derry to Belfast via The Giants Causeway and Bushmill Distillery (emeraldislestour2013.wordpress.com)