All About Irish Whiskeys

Located on the Antrim coast, the small town of Bushmills lays claim to the world's oldest distillery. Today, its name is synonymous with the best in whiskey. Taste one drop and you may never drink Jim Beam or Jack Daniels again.

Some 135 years ago, Ireland had 28 whiskey distilleries in what was a great industry. Today, the Irish distilling industry is undergoing a revival with a rapid growth in new distilleries. A young generation of whiskey makers is operating, and there are now more than 40 new or proposed distilleries throughout Ireland. Four of the newest are on the Powerscourt estate in County Wicklow, on the Slane Castle estate in County Meath, the Liberties distillery in Dublin, and Echlinville in County Down–-the first new distillery in the North in over 125 years. The Irish boxer Conor McGregor has even launched his own celebrity brand whiskey label, Proper No. Twelve, a triple-distilled premium spirit. For some, Bushmills is the best, literally, and has the titles to prove it. It is also the only distillery in Ireland to make triple-distilled single malt whiskey.

Old Bushmills

2 Distillery Rd., Bushmills, Co. Antrim 028/2073–3218 www.bushmills.com £8 Tours Apr.–Oct., Mon.–Sat. 9:15–5, Sun. noon–5; Nov.–Mar., weekdays 9:30–3:30, weekends 12:30–3:30.

What to Drink?

Some prefer the classic melt-in-the-mouth Black Bush (drunk neat) to the more expensive malt. Other delights include the limited-edition 1608, the Original, and four single malts: aged 10 years, 12 years, 16 years, and 21 years.

The "Water of Life"

Whiskey is a word that comes from the Irish uisce beatha, meaning "water of life." Water is a major factor influencing the flavor of any whiskey. For Bushmills, it flows from the crystal clear St. Columb's Rill, taking its character from the basalt and turf bed of the River Bush. Another key ingredient is malted barley, which is here ground into grist in the mash house and added to boiling water in vats to become wort. Yeast is then added to the mix, and the fermentation turns the sugars to alcohol. The wash goes into a copper pot and is distilled three times, each distillation making the alcohol purer. By comparison, American whiskey is distilled only once. The spirit is diluted, then matured in oak casks, and seasoned by sherry, bourbon, or port. A small portion, about 2% of the distillate, evaporates and is affectionately known as the "angels' share." Remember to first try Bushmills neat and then add water in teaspoonful increments, as a soupçon of water unlocks the flavor while knocking a little fire out of the whiskey—there's a crucial tipping point, so don't dilute too much!

What's Irish about Whiskey?

First off, it is spelled with an "e," to distinguish it from Scotch whisky. "Irish" has a characteristic flavor that distinguishes it from Scotch, bourbon, or rye; try it straight or with water, as it is best without a mixer. And don't go chasing after poitín (pronounced "potcheen"), the famed Irish moonshine. Any attempts by a "stranger" to procure it results either in meeting a brick wall or a wild goose chase. Just as well: it produces one of the worst hangovers known to man or woman.

Touring the Distillery

Set in an area of natural beauty a short distance from the Giant's Causeway, Bushmills was granted its first license in 1608, although records refer as far back as 1276. Visitors to the distillery are shown around a jumbled collection of redbrick and whitewashed buildings that include 20 warehouses brimming with 350,000 barrels of whiskey. Look out for the long rows of Oloroso sherry casks, where the drink is aged in some instances for more than 25 years (they favor a generous gestation here). A one-hour tasting session takes place in the 1608 pub where American troops were once billeted during World War II and costs £30; with a tour it is £37. A deluxe package tour with premium tasting and a personalized bottle of 12-year-old Bushmills costs £150 and leaves at midday.

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