Behind the curtains at the Old Bushmills Distillery

Part of being a whiskey enthusiast is weaving whiskey-related activities into your vacation. When I had my sister visit me recently in Dublin and said she wanted to go to Northern Ireland, I took it as she wanted to see Giant’s Causeway and swing by Bushmills on the way. The last time I was at Bushmills, they were closed for tours so it was a must this time!

There are two tours you can book online, a standard one for £15, which lasts for about 90 minutes, and a premium one for £40, which adds an hour. Personally, I prefer the premium one with the additional tasting of three blends and three single malts from their core range at the Master Distiller’s Room and a cask pull from their No2 warehouse of their 12-year-old distillery reserve. Unfortunately, the timing didn’t work for us so we booked the standard tasting.

Upon arrival at the site, it’s hard not to appreciate the architecture of the buildings you can see as you walk to the entrance from the car park. They are historic and bring you back in time. I’ve visited many distilleries and I’m always fascinated by the architecture of their buildings. In my last distillery review write-up about Roe & Co, you can see how old and new work together as they are housed in the old Guinness Power Station.

If the buildings at the front seem like a time capsule, what we covered in our tour was nothing like it. From mashing, fermentation, distilling, filling, maturation, and bottling, Bushmills’ set-up is industrial, to say the least. Photos were not allowed inside, but everything was top-grade. They now use a stainless steel mash tun, but a portion of the old copper one is still in view. They have 10 stainless steel washbacks, 10 copper pot stills which operate 24/7, 6 spirit safes, and partly automated cask-filling and bottling lines. On the warehouse front, I didn’t get to see inside one but was told on the tour that they store their casks upright and they have over 20 warehouses with plans to build 29 more. They currently have more than 400,000 casks, the core being ex-bourbon from Jim Beam, sherry from Spain, and port and Madeira from Portugal.

Before going back to the 1608 bar for our tasting, we were also given an overview of some bottles from their core range:

  • Bushmills Original – Often referred to as “White Bush” is a blend with about 60% grain whiskey from Midleton and 40% malt from Bushmills. There’s a bit of a sherry cask in it as well. An entry-level Bushmills I’ve tried plenty of times at tastings. A good blend and great value when you can get it at a discount.
  • Black Bush – 80% malt and 20% grain blend with a dominant sherry contribution, a staple in many whiskey cabinets all over. Great dram for its price and worth trying if you haven’t yet. For me, it’s an excellent introductory Irish whiskey.
  • Bushmills 10-Year-Old Single Malt – Does what it says on the tin. A 10-year-old Bush liquid matured in bourbon and sherry casks. One of my favourites when I was starting in Irish whiskey, as it’s structured with a fine balance that makes it easy to drink and enjoy. It’s currently on sale for €30 a bottle for one of the major retailers in Ireland. That to me is a no-brainer!
  • Bushmills 16-Year-Old Single Malt – Another one of my favourites! A go-to order for me when I’m in bars and they don’t have anything that piques my interest in their menu. A single malt made from 16-year-old whiskeys aged in bourbon and sherry barrels then married together to spend around 9 months in port pipes. A definite step above the 10-year-old.
  • Bushmills 21-Year-Old Single Malt – the oldest from the Bushmills core range. 19 years in bourbon and sherry barrels, then vatted together and spend 2 years in Madeira casks.

We were given some options for the free drink. Bushmills Original, Black Bush, Bushmills 10-year-old, the distillery reserve 12-year-old single malt which is the older sibling of the 10 with a higher sherry component, and for those who didn’t want a dram, a Bushmills cosmopolitan, or a hot toddy done Bushmills style. As I’ve not tried the 12-year-old before so I naturally went for that one.

It’s a treat to be in the 1608 bar as well. It’s full of memorabilia and some old bottles of Bushmills original at the bar, which sadly but understandably weren’t for sale. My sister, who’s not a whiskey drinker, went for the hot toddy, which came in a cute miniature mug. Here are my thoughts on the 12-year-old Single Malt Distillery Reserve:

Nose: Fresh cream with honey, almond, and raisins. Quite muted, but what I could smell is pleasant.

Palate: Honey and fruits at the fore. The malt comes out as you chew, a bit like barley porridge with fruits, pistachios, and honey. A hint of clove, cinnamon, and chocolate.

Finish: Medium and woody with dark chocolate and over-baked apple pie

Score: 6/10

Conclusion: It’s a good approachable dram, but I couldn’t place what makes it that special to be a distillery reserve. Its price point is good at £47 considering how other 12-year-old whiskeys (or younger) are priced right now, but it wasn’t enough to make me want to purchase it. The old-style bottle was a deterrent for me as it gave the impression that the stocks just didn’t move as much, given that the new bottle rebrand happened in late 2021. Do I regret not getting a bottle? Maybe. As for the tour, I highly recommend it if you would appreciate a production-centric tour where you’ll see how whiskey is made. It’s a bonus as well being in Bushmills, a stone’s throw away from the Giant’s Causeway and the fantastic food at the Bushmills Inn.

Copper still feature inside the 1608 bar
Coming into the gift shop / visitor entrance, you’re greeted by these row of barrels

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