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 125 years ago, Ireland had 28 whiskey distilleries in what was a great industry. Today, the Irish distilling industry is undergoing a revival, and several new distilleries are set to open in the coming years. Presently, there are only a handful of working ones—at Bushmills in Antrim, Midleton in Cork, Kilbeggan in Westmeath, Cooley in Louth, Tullamore in Offaly, and Dingle in Kerry—although a new generation of distillers is beginning to make some noise. For some, Bushmills is the best, literally, and has the titles to prove it. And to celebrate its 400th anniversary in 2008, it was selected as the icon of Northern Ireland, and was featured on Bank of Ireland notes. Where does the whiskey drinker start? 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.

Old Bushmills

2 Distillery Rd., Bushmills, Co. Antrim 028/2073–3218 www.bushmills.com £7.50 Tours Apr.–Oct., Mon.–Sat. 9:15–5, Sun. noon–5; Nov.–Mar., weekdays 9:30–3:30, weekends 12:30–3:30.

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 higgledy-piggledy collection of redbrick and whitewashed buildings that include 11 warehouses brimming with 187,000 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). Tours run every half hour and cost £7.50. If you're in the mood to splurge, take the two-hour deluxe Bush Experience tour, which explores eight varieties of whiskey and costs £70 (reservations required, with a minimum of six). Tasting sessions all take place in the 1608 pub where American troops were once billeted during World War II.

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