In my first review for WOL, I wrote about a single cask 6.5-year old Bushmills whiskey matured in bourbon, so I think it’s just fitting to follow that up with what could have happened if that whiskey leant itself to a bit more complex maturation and expert blending.
Bushmills is no stranger in the whiskey world. Dubbed as the “World’s oldest licensed Whiskey Distillery”, Bushmills has its share of fans all over the world. They are one of the very few legacy distilleries in Ireland that survived the turn of the century – or in their case, centuries – as they’ve been in continuous operations since 1885. In more recent history, Bushmills was owned by Irish Distillers from 1972 until Pernod Ricard took over them in 1988. In 2005, Bushmills was sold to Diageo and in 2014, changed hands again to its current owners, Becle (Cuervo).
Despite these ownership changes, Bushmills kept its control of production and now has over €150 million worth of distillate and whiskey maturing, the majority of which are aged over one year and some, of course, being way older. They have also invested in building 29 new maturation sites in Co. Antrim over the last four years. Their sales have taken a hit in 2020 with Covid restrictions and reduction of travel, but are now recovering.
Considered by a lot of enthusiasts as ‘the sleeping giant’ of Irish whiskey, Bushmills tapped into their massive reserves and released the first Causeway Collection in October 2020. In their press release, they claimed ‘The Causeway Collection represents a return to premium Single Malt Irish whiskey with a bold statement, one that is as bold and intense as their spirit, with a complexity and subtlety that defies their cask strength spirit.’ People rejoiced. After all, one of Bushmills’ biggest criticisms is that they only release their whiskeys at 40% ABV. Drinkers, collectors, and flippers lapped it up. Along with the other exclusive releases in different markets, they quickly sold out, with auction prices sky-rocketing. It was a big win for Bushmills. I was able to try their Irish-exclusives 1995 Malaga and 2008 Muscatel, and they were easily in my top 5 whiskeys of 2020.
After the success of the 2020 collection, with people clamouring for more, you’d think 2021 will be received with the same enthusiasm. Whether it’s their Master Blender Helen Mulholland leaving the company, the prices increasing from last year, or the greater number of bottles released this time around, consumers had a colder reception. The Irish exclusives, 1995 Marsala and 2011 Sauternes, are still available in major retailers at €410 and €110 respectively. Whatever the reason, I hope that the 2021 collection is still considered a win for Bushmills because we want more of these. As a whiskey consumer, I appreciate that these whiskeys are still available for many others to try and hopefully with the general availability, people open their bottles instead.
I bought the 2011 Sauternes Cask as it’s the one within my price range and immediately opened it. It’s bottled at 56.3% from whiskeys that matured first is oloroso sherry and bourbon for seven years then were married together and further matured in sauternes wine casks for two years.
Nose: Vanilla, apricots, nutty and earthy with wet oak undertones
Palate: Toffee apple (yes, it does what it says on the tin), honey, apricot jam, cinnamon and ginger spice
Finish: Warming fruity finish
This is a great whiskey. There’s not a lot of Irish whiskeys influenced by sauternes casks, so this is also unique. The sweetness and fruitiness from sauternes compliments what the bourbon and oloroso malt components bring; it doesn’t overpower them which is probably attributable to great blending.
As for some of the criticisms of the 2021 Causeway Collection, I have mixed feelings. I agree that there’s probably too many too soon: maybe the world just needed a limited release Bushmills 16yo cask strength and a 12 year old cask strength finished in different casks every year? With the addition of the 2021 releases, it’s gotten to a point where you can’t even recognise which Causeway release is which. On going overboard with the pricing, the 1995 Marsala (25 years old) at €410 is steep for most consumers but it’s within striking distance of other similarly-aged Irish whiskeys. For the 2011 Sauternes, yes, it probably could have been cheaper, and perhaps it could’ve sold more. On the different signatures on the bottle labels, schedule of the releases, and which market gets what, are people just over-thinking it?
Bottom line, the liquid is great and there’s more of it in their warehouses. How they pivot from 2021 will determine how much of the growth in the industry they can capture. Is the recent rebranding just a start and the Causeway Collection a preview? Bushmills is still one to watch – I think the sleeping giant hasn’t woken up fully yet.