Bushmills: The Other Irish Whiskey

Distillery: Old Bushmills Distilling
Location: Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Owned By: Diageo
Major Products produced: Bushmills, Black Bush, Bushmills Single Malt 10, —16, and —21
Origin: Founded in 1784. Distilling off and on since then.

[bushmills] opener

A Quick Word:

If there were a single misapprehension I could correct in the average drinker, it’s the naïve and somewhat touching belief that the most popular thing is the most popular because it is the best. It’s sweet, really, this inclination toward justice, but the world of liquor is not a meritocracy. Not even close.

I say that to say this: there is one big reason that everyone thinks Jameson is the Irish Whiskey, and everything else is just a cheap echo thereof. And while Jameson does make some tasty products, that reason has nothing to do with either the quality or the flavor of the whiskey itself.

That Reason:

[bushmills] 1608The year 1608 proudly adorns every bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, sitting like a foundation stone above the brand name itself, implicitly suggesting that Bushmills has been around since 1608. This is false — weirdly, brazenly false. While someone in Northern Ireland got a distillation license in 1608, it wasn’t Bushmills. The Bushmills company wouldn’t be even founded until 1784, a 176 years later. Just to clear that up.

(Seriously, they could’ve been founded seventy-six years earlier, and they’d still miss the 1608 date by a hundred fucking years. Once again, please ignore all historical claims from liquor companies. The ones that aren’t half-truths are outright lies, and it has no bearing whatsoever on what the liquor actually tastes like.)

Here’s the history that actually matters: in the beginning of the 20th century Irish whiskey was terrifically popular, with 20+ distilleries operating at full bore. But the twin punches of Prohibition and WWII left the industry bloodied and meager, and by the mid ’60s there were just a handful of distilleries left. To weather the times, Powers, Jameson, and Cork distilling companies merged in 1966 to form Irish Distillers, and set about consolidating resources. In 1972, they acquired Bushmills, making Irish Distillers the only whiskey company in Ireland, a total monopoly that would last some 15 years, and a near-monopoly that would last 15 more.

So why is Bushmills overlooked? Because by the time Irish Distillers scooped up Bushmills, they had already chosen their favorite son: they built a new Jameson distillery next to the old one, opened it in 1975, and put their resources behind it. Even more, once French liquor giant Pernod Ricard took over Irish Distillers in 1988, they jumped on Jameson — the lightest of the whiskies — and marketed it toward vodka drinkers. “Take it as a shot! Try it with some apple pucker!” Jameson got all the attention and popularity, and Bushmills got a black hoodie and an eating disorder.

In 2005, Pernod Ricard unloaded Bushmills on their archnemesis Diageo, who haven’t pushed it much. But apparently, they’re beginning to start, because they recently sent a couple guys to San Diego to talk to us about it.

[bushmills] event snaps

Irish Whiskey:

People who love Irish whiskey call it “smooth” and “mild.” People who don’t call it “boring” and “effete.” And they’re both right, because they’re describing precisely the same thing. Generally, people who like their barley-based spirits lighter will go Irish. Heavier, they’ll go scotch.

Bushmills aims to bridge that gap, by offering higher malt, fuller flavored whiskeys that still retain their essential Irish smoothness. All their products are distilled three times in pot stills, ultimately to between 58.5%-60.5%, and all are aged in some mixture of used bourbon and used Olorosso sherry casks (the mixture varies for each product).

Bushmills Original || Aged 5 years minimum. 

Light and fruity at first. A little buttery with spice. There’s an essential grainy lightness that is distractingly light/mild. Like there should be something there. A pear flavor takes over toward the end, a long-ish finish of spiced pear.

Overall: not bad at all, if mild for my taste. The fruit could use some richness to back it up.

Black Bush || Aged 7 years minimum. Unusually high percentage of malt whiskeys(80% malt, 20% grain.)

[bushmills] black bushThis fills in nicely that hole I tasted in the Bushmills Original. This is the product they’re pushing hard, and you can taste why — a one-time favorite of mine, back when I used to drink more Irish whiskey. More sherry influence, with apricot and apple backed up by a slight — slight — richness.

Overall: this is one of the better Irish whiskies out there, especially for the price. As a malt/grain blend, I’d put this at a respectable 2nd place behind Redbreast.

Bushmills 10 Pure Malt || Aged 10 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey. 

Here’s where we start getting to Bushmills real strength, their 100% malt whiskey. This has no light grain blended in, and it shows — it’s got the same essential flavors, just more robust. Cooked apples. Honey. Melon. Tingly spice. My notes say “apple-y as fuck.” Pear. That fruit really comes through.

Overall: this is my favorite of the lot, and the one that best showcases the strength of this particular distillery. Recommended.

Bushmills 16 Pure Malt || Aged 16 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey. 6-9 months in Port wine casks.

The port shows itself here, along with more alcohol heat. Raisins & honey, oak and heat were the dominant flavors. These are rich flavors but without much richness in the whiskey itself, it didn’t land for me. “Not much force,” I wrote.

Overall: a different set of flavors to be sure, but this one missed the mark for me… though I should say that it was the favorite of many at the tasting, so take that for what it’s worth.

The difference a little bit in a port cask makes.

Bushmills 21 Pure Malt || Aged 21 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey.

Finally, here we have some richness, more from the wood I’m sure than the malt. That same signature fruit/spice is familiar, but with much more presence. Darker, richer, and more textured. Honey, almond, spice. The sherry influence itself is surprisingly subtle, perhaps muted by the wood. Cinnamon redhots finish (light).

Overall: tasty to be sure, a great choice for Irish whiskey fans who also happen to be hedge-fund managers. For the rest of us, it’s hard to imagine spending $120 on this. Good though.

The 24 Whiskeys of Christmas

*** Fair warning: this is going to almost aggressively boring to those of you who aren’t into whiskey. And I mean, seriously into whiskey. ***

In the middle of December, the angelic Daniel Wootton sent a friend and me an advent calendar. One that was a bit more geared toward our particular interests.

[24] advent calendar

It was a gift to both of us, so my friend and I had to drink them together. The problem is that I don’t see him everyday… so instead of a half-ounce each of whiskey for 24 days, we did something like 4 ounces of whiskey in three successive rounds. Once we started approaching palate exhaustion — once the tasting notes became laborious and the camera started filling up with cute pictures of his dog Zygo (which happened all three times) — we’d retire and go again later.

Why share this? Why not? I mean, all these pictures and all these notes, n’ here somebody here gon’ post?


1. Scapa 16yr old — 40%

Color of light gold. Smells sweet and a little fruity. Like fruitcake. Color doesn’t suggest Sherry but flavor might. No smoke or peat. Honey a little. Tastes big and heavy. Sweet entry, full bodied. Candied fruit. Raisins. Rich and complex for an unpeated whiskey.

Wondering how I’d never heard of this. It’s delicious.

2. Glenfarclas 20 year — 60%

Quite a bit more earthy. Sherry entry. Dried fruit. Burnt gold color. Drier than the Scapa. Smells like dry hay. Water makes the flavors cascade, but it’s still a bit sharp on the finish. Tiny hint of peat.  

I expected to like this a lot more. Glenfarclas usually does such good work. Oh well.

3. Johnny Walker Gold — 40%

Color is… well… gold. Maybe they don’t caramel color this one. Nose has a hint of peat, but not much. Tastes of brown sugar. Caramel. Some peat. Flat at the end. 

Blended scotch is for peasants. Yes, I’m a snob.

4. Bowmore 15 year “Darkest” — 40%

BBQ smoky nose. A pulse of peat smoke. Tastes way smokier than it smells. Sam calls out a Mesquite BBQ taste, which is right on. Big beautiful sweet smoke. Chewy smoke. Caramel.

“Darkest” is a silly name for whiskey. Regardless, this is unexpectedly wonderful. I want a bottle.

1-4: The Dawning

5. Yamazaki 12 — 43%

Malty graininess. Hint of smoke and honey.Medium bodied, well balanced with a nice faint current of smoke throughout.

Fantastic, but I already knew that. Like all high quality Japanese flavors, delicate and complex. An old favorite.

6. Talisker 2000 Amoroso Finish Distiller’s Edition — 43%

Sea saltiness. Brinyness. Peat and smoke. Take all the normal Talisker loveliness and add a sherry cask finish. Candied fruit and caramel. Peppery finish.

Not necessarily better than the standard Talisker 10, but still good. Quite sweet, but with a lot of personality. Not unlike myself.

7. Tobermory 15 year — 46.3%

Bready nose. Grainy. Smells thin & peaty. Heat initially. Numbing prickliness.  Big empty peatiness leads into a honey sweet finish. Unbalanced.

Feels like it was sloppily distilled, but maybe I’ve been drinking. Then, maybe not. I hesitate to call it bad, but let’s say it’s unburdened by greatness. I won’t be back.

8. Four roses Single Barrel 2012 — 54.7%

Big caramel richness. Tropical fruits. Banana. It’s weird to spike all this malt with bourbon’s corn muscularity. Like bringing a linebacker onto a soccer field. All the same, long sweet finish. Woody spice. Intense grainy heat. Lingering woodiness. Creme Brûlée. Charcoal. Faint banana finish.

Four Roses makes damn good whiskey.

5-8: Even Whiskeyer


9. Glenlivet Nadurra 16 – 0512T — 53%

Color is light straw. Like well-hydrated urine. On the nose, bruised yellow apples. Otherwise, I don’t smell a fucking thing. Sam blew past the nose and just started drinking. Taste is more present: yellow apples. Caramel. Peat finish. Lemon zest. Long finish. Full bodied. Bittersweet – oak dryness mixed with sweet finish.

Better than I expect from Glenlivet. Maybe because of the high proof. Cool.

10. Wasmund’s Single Malt — 48%

Gold. Shimmery. This one is from Copper Fox distillery in Virginia. Googling tells me it may have been aged for as long as 42 months. The notes for this one are best presented as quoted:


Vikki: A garden.
Sam: A newly painted and remodeled kitchen.
Jason: Topsoil.
Vikki: Disturbingly chemical.


Sam: I just licked the floor of that kitchen.
Vikki: It tastes like I just ate a flower.
Jason: Mulch. Heavy mulch. Kava.
Vikki: Moss. Peaches.

11. Caol Ila 12 — 43%

Very light in color. Equal parts sweet and salty and oily and peaty. Long finish. Medium bodied. Touch of sweetness. Perfectly balanced.

“Cool Eye-la.” As delicious as it is fun to say. One of my longtime favorites.

The Triumphant Return

12. Aultmore 5 year single cask — 66.8%

Smells funky. Like armagnac. Young and green. Still smells like it came from a carbon-based life form. Youth + proof = hot hot heat.  Watering down leads to some softer notes, but it’s still green.

Definitely needs more age. Doesn’t yet have its shit together.

13. Glendronach 15 revival — 46%

Now that’s age. Smells like old whiskey is supposed to smell. Taste is rich and dark. A little sherry influence? A little malt bitterness. Brief finish. What age does to scotch.

Slightly incomplex, though the sherry helps. All the same, this is a pretty good whiskey.

14. Hibiki 17 — 43%

Smells of brown sugar and plums. Hibiki is partially aged in old plum wine casks, more evident here than in the 12 year, which is a kind of obvious thing to say. Taste: restrained. How Japanese. Light with grain whiskey (it’s a blend i.e. not all malt). Glint of peat. Caramel brown sugar front palate.

Sam: “its a great dessert whiskey.” Agreed. I wouldn’t pay $100 for it, but I’d gladly accept if offered.

15. Jameson — 40%

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

16. Edradour 10 year — 40%

Solid. Sweet all the way though. Barley sweet, grainy, molasses like. Faint echo of peat – or is that heather? A plains flower.

This tastes like a plains flower, growing wild on the grassy, wind-swept Scottish plains. Probably trampled by sheep. Maybe we should stop for the night.

#12-#16: Things start to get a bit loopy


17. Auchentoshan three wood — 43%

Very woody and surprisingly grainy. Grain overwhelms nose. Sip, and grain continues. You could sell me on this being a rye. Nice sweetness from barley develops at the end. A bit woody and very grain forward. I’m supposed to be getting sherry, but I’m not. Strange.

This one makes me wonder if a mistake could be made in filling these little 3cl bottles.

18. Lagavulin 16 — 43%

Full bodied. Oily even. Peat bomb. Smells like dried craft paint. To quote Brian Cox: “works like a depth charge.”

An epic whiskey. Not for the faint of heart. One of my favorites.

19. Compass Box Hedonism — 43%

Very pale. Watery yellowish. To me, it smells like nothing. Then faint bacon(?). But mostly nothing. Tastes extremely light. Unrelenting sweetness that endures front to back. I don’t know if it’s blended, but it tastes like it is. Lightly peaty. Kinda gross.

The connection between this whiskey and the concept of hedonism remains utterly opaque.

20. Aberlour 12 double cask — 43%

Unpeated. Light fruit. Honey sweetness. Tastes light and sweet. Same as the nose, lightly fruity and a bit of heather. Licorice notes. Light sherry leads to sweetness.

It’s certainly not bad, just not terribly interesting. Reminds me of the Balvenie Doublewood, except less engaging.

17-20: Baroque decadence, and the beginning of the end.

21. Dalwhinnie 15 — 43%

Nose is rich honey, spiked with faint agricultural graininess. Every once in a while, whiskey reminds you that it’s essentially an agricultural product. Very faint here, but still cool. That note vanishes for me in the actual palate… very light entry, then builds in flavor and heat to a full, honeyed, slightly hot mid palate explosion.

Like a sneeze, only better. I forgot about this one. I like this one.

22. Wild Turkey Rye — 50.5%

Sam: “now that’s rye.” Oh yes. Taste is big, kicking sweetness. Rye grain. Muscular. Peppery. After the last three honey sweet malts, this is a jolt.

Higher proof and bigger balls than anything we’ve had. USA! USA!

23. Glenfarclas 30 — 43%

Nose is subtle but expressive. Raisins. A bit of fruitiness. Definitely sherried. This is already better than that Glenfarclas 20 year back in #2. Taste: up front, peat and sherry and honey malt all at once. Then the flavors extend out, dropping off individually to highlight the others. Almost unbelievably long finish.

This is what you’d hope a 30 year old whiskey would be. The best one we’ve tried yet. Amazing.

24. Master of Malt 50 year old Speyside 3rd Edition —43%

50 fucking years? Wow. Color is light gold with curious tints of green. Smells of apples, raisins, and cinnamon spice. Basically, like a snack. These are mostly confirmed on the taste: raisins and spice and cinnamon, in that order. Super long finish as well.  Oak dryness to finish, despite the light color. Dried fruit. Honey. A little blunting on the finish, actually. I feel like you taste some tails in there.

I actually prefer #23, but still… phenomenal.

21-24: My only friend, the end.

What an incredible gift. This was a lot of fun.

We're gonna need a montage.

Thanks, Dan. You’re the best.