Thursday, February 15, 2018

Distillery Visit - Bushmills

The Bushmills distillery is located in the town of the same name in Northern Ireland. It sits up near the coast in Co. Antrim, close to the famous World Heritage Site of Giant's Causeway. During a recent long weekend over in Belfast, we decided to drive up and pay a visit to one of the oldest distilleries in the world.

It was a crisp and cold day in early January and we set off out of Belfast, deciding to take the scenic route rather than the more direct route along the motorway. The A2 is renowned to be one of the UK's best drives and it did not disappoint. The road hugs the coast line from Belfast to Londonderry and goes through a series of towns and picturesque villages.

Cushenden, just off the A2 and our stop for lunch.

On such a clear day the views were stunning and Scotland - the Campbeltown peninsula and Islay in particular - were easily visible. The journey took longer than expected due to numerous photo stops along the way. The bracing and stiff wind kept these brief. At times you are so close to the sea that it would crash against the sea wall and over on to the road. If the A2 is not on the Best Drives In The World Top 10, then it should be.

As we pulled in to the village of Bushmills, we were starting to worry that we may have missed the last tour of the day. We found the distillery bathed in late afternoon winter sun and headed for the visitor centre. The good sign was that some people were waiting and we were soon confirmed on the last tour. Even better than that we received a welcome Irish Toddy - a mix of Bushmills whiskey, honey and hot water - that helped warm us up on a bitterly cold day.

A shot of Irish Toddy warmed us up.

As with most public distillery tours, no photographs were allowed within the production areas. We are often spoiled on the press trips that we attend and the 'access all areas' privileges that we are granted. Therefore, old habits die hard and a few sneaky photos were taken as we walked around so as to show you the inside of the distillery.

The origin and early history of Bushmills is a little sketchy. Bottle labels and marketing refer to the date 1608 and the fact that the distillery is the oldest licensed producer in the world. But this date was when a local land owner, Sir James Phillips, was granted a license to distil whiskey by King James I, not when the current distillery was built.

That did not happen until 1784 when Hugh Anderson formed the Bushmills Old Distillery Company, built the facilities and began production on the current site. The distillery has had numerous owners since, most recently Diageo. They sold Bushmills to the current owners Casa Cuervo in 2014 as part of an exchange deal for the Don Julio tequila brand.

Our tour began in the former mashtun room and the malting of barley was explained by our guide. Here we also saw a first - the old mash tun in cross-section to demonstrate each part of the interior. This included the mesh floor that allows the sugary wort to drain through but retain the solid parts from the grist, and the stirring arms that keep the liquid moving within the tun. This also made us realise the immense size of the vessel when standing next to it.

The modern mashtun.

We were then moved through to where the current mash tun is located and here the mashing process was explained. The mashtun is in the modern stainless steel style and we had the opportunity to take a look inside and see some mashing in action through the viewing window. Each mash takes around six hours and the capacity of the tun is 48,000 litres.

Next stop was the room housing the fermentation washbacks. There are ten in total and they are also made from stainless steel. Each holds one batch of wort from the mash tun (ie: 48,000 litres) and then brewers yeast is added. The fermentation time at Bushmills is approximately 50 hours and the result is a wash that has a strength of 7.5% ABV.

The washbacks.

At Bushmills they follow the traditional Irish practice of triple distillation. This makes their final spirit lighter, purer and of higher strength than spirit that is distilled twice. The first distillation goes through the larger wash stills, while the second and third distillations go through two different sets of spirit stills. Ten stills are crammed in to a slightly claustrophobic room that had an impressive glass-sided booth in the middle that housed the spirit safes.

The stills.

The total production of new make spirit at Bushmills is 4.5 million litres per year. This is all matured on site and you can see warehouses stretching away from the distillery and up the hill as you leave the still house. Everything that is released as Bushmills is also bottled on the site in a purpose built facility. The final part of the tour took us through this, before ending up in the visitor's bar/cafe area.

Our tour guide then presented us with a glass of the Bushmills Original, which was light and delicate with a lovely combination of sweetness and grassiness. We then had a choice of a second whisky to sample and we went for the Bushmills 12 years old Distillery Exclusive, which can only be purchased in the visitor centre shop and a couple of local bars. It was richer with notes of apple, golden syrup, vanilla, wood spice and a hint of tropical fruit and dried grass.

The tour took around forty minutes and was relaxed, welcoming, informative and enjoyable. Bushmills receives over 100,000 visitors a year and is the second biggest distillery in Ireland, after Midleton in Co. Cork. The history and heritage oozes out of the place and creates an interesting juxtaposition with the modern equipment. Bushmills is well worth a visit if you are ever in that part of the world. If you are, then please make sure that you drive the A2 road as well.

Visitor information
  • Open all year around - Winter Hours (Jan, Feb, Nov & Dec) Mon - Sat 10:00 - 16:45, Sun 12:00 - 16:45. Summer Hours (March - Oct) Mon - Sat 9:15 - 16:45, Sun 12:00 - 16:45.
  • Distillery Closed on July 12 and Dec 23 - Jan 1 inclusive.
  • Ticket price for tour - £8.
  • More information available via


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