Sheltering in Place

When we planned a quick visit the the states to visit family and friends between house-sits COVID was still just something happening in China. As we got on the plane in Liberia, Costa Rica, the virus had starting spreading and by the time we reached Washington DC we realized that we needed to make some major adjustments to our schedule. We cancelled visits to family who were considered at risk and headed south. After short stops in Shelbyville and Atlanta we landed in St. Pete Beach where we spent several weeks quarantining with our friends Leslie and Becky. Our next house-sit in Costa Rica cancelled, but we decided follow through with our planned trip to San Felipe, Mexico and headed to San Diego. 

After a quick conversation with Christopher and Van about where we were heading and how COVID was affecting our plans, they generously offered the San Felipe house to us for as long as we needed. Two and half months later, we’re still here….


So about San Felipe: we are staying in an amazing home on the beach called Casa Aramara, it is in a quiet gated community about 25 minutes south along the coast from the actual town of  San Felipe. The “house” consists of a main house with two bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms. Out front is a courtyard bordered by 3 guest rooms and 2 more bathrooms. Beyond that is a three car garage that houses a dune buggy and other toys such as a collection of four wheelers. The community is gated with a 24/7 guard, has two pools, a hot tub and tennis courts. Our backyard is the beach with the Sea of Cortez as the backdrop.

While we are here, George has keeping himself busy puttering around the house working on this and that. Bonnie has been experimenting with new recipes. The increasing heat during the day has slowed us both down. Daily highs of more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 C) have encouraged us to adopt the slightly slower pace typical of this region.

We can’t begin to express our gratitude to Christopher and Van and Connie and Mark for allowing us to quarantine/shelter in their beautiful home. It has been a spot of tranquillity during the craziness that has been occurring in the world – while it seems like the world is on fire, we’ve landed in paradise….how surreal.

Costa Rica

“Pura Vida” in Costa Rica

One thing we have learned in our travels is that none of our house sits are ever the same. This is very true of our last couple of sits in the enclave of Sanctuary Cove in Northern Australia when compared to the one we are on now. For the last three weeks we have been looking after a beautiful home in the Northern Highlands of Costa Rica. The house is in the very small mountain town of Tronandora. It is located on a high hill with amazing views of the local lake.

Lake Arenal is now the largest lake in Costa Rica. We say now, because previously the town of Arenal was situated in a lovely valley, the town was moved to higher ground so that the local power company (I.C.E) could flood the valley and create a lake to power it’s hydro-electric plant. The lake covers just over 89 square kilometers (33 square miles) and varies from 60-80 meters deep (200 – 250 feet) deep depending on the season. It sits at bout 2,200 feet above sea level. At the east end of the lake is an active conical volcano that is 5,480 foot high.

We are living in a very modern farm house, on a large section of very hilly property. We wake to the sounds of cows mooing and wind chimes. Given the elevation, the weather is lovely and cool, it is also extremely windy here. In addition to the two domestic dogs, the owners advised us expect visits from monkeys, armadillos, iguanas and hedgehogs. We have seen a white faced monkey and George is planning on strapping on his headlamp one evening and going in search of a hedgehog. He has been trying to find one ever since we visited Portrush, Northern Ireland.

Our charges are Emma, an 8 year old golden retriever and Mae a 5 year old foxhound. Each day we load them up in the car and set off into the hills. Once we find a convenient spot to pull off the trail (calling it a road would be a misnomer) we let the dogs out and enjoy a lovely hike. Emma wastes no time finding a suitable stick and for the whole walk, we throw and she fetches. Mae waste no time with stick fetching and would rather romp in the high grass in the fields. Worth nothing that Mae’s unusual name is a Costa Rican slang word which is equivalent to the west coast word “dude”. Emma and Mae’s humans are on a safari in Africa and have been sending us texts with wonderful photos.

As we have a car on this sit, we are able to explore the surrounding area. We have found several local restaurants including a local microbrewery, appropriately named Lake Arenal Brewery L.A.B. We have heard mixed reviews about the attached hotel, but we can report that there beer in the brewery was well made, the food delicious and the staff and customers extremely friendly.  A big should out to crew members Gabby, Dennia and Jason.

This will not be a our only house sit in Costa Rica. Once we leave here we will be heading to the USA and then Mexico for about 3 weeks visiting family and friends. Afterward, we head to the beach town of Tamarindo Costa Rica where we will spend 8 weeks looking after a dog and two cats.


Catching Up

Holy cow, how is it almost March already! We’ve been much busier then you’d think, considering we’re retired now and have “nothing” to do.

In December, while house sitting in some lovely homes with adorable pets, we spent Christmas and New Years in Sydney, Australia. George and I haven’t been here together since we left after our expat assignment in 1994. We were thrilled to be able to catch up with so many friends. We had Xmas dinner with Tom and Ya, spent time with Sally and Bryan (who we haven’t seen in about 25 years) and New Years Tom and Ya’s place in Potts Point with Jade (2 years in a row, now).

In mid-January we flew up to the Gold Coast for two more housesits. We started out in Ray and Tania’s newly remodeled manse. This is where we started our retirement and housesitting career in December of 2018. It was great to be back!

Our second sit in sanctuary Cove was with friends we met last Dec while sitting for Ray and Tania.
We moved the their place in early February and had a thoroughly enjoyable two weeks hanging out with Dougal and Ralphie, and spending time with Tania, Ray and Eddie.


With our Ozzie “vacay” over we headed off for our next housesit in Costa Rica. Let me tell you, it’s a long way from here to there! We left the Gold Coast on Feb 20 and out flights went like this:

Gold Coast > Sydney > Honolulu > Los Angeles > Minneapolis > Liberia (the city in Costa Rica, not the country in Africa). Along the way we lost a day and all track of time.

We decided to take a day out and recover from the 30 hour journey at a mountain spa. It was a lovely place, but honestly, we hardly even had a chance to explore it – we slept for 13 of the 20 hours we spent there ??‍♀️. We’re now settling in with Emma and Mae (pronounced My) in a beautiful home in a very small town in north western Costa Rica. The coffee is great and innovative views are amazing!!


The Perfect Margarita

Another installament in the Cocktails with George series.

We are thoroughly enjoying our time house sitting in Sanctuary Cove, more about this later, for now Cheers!

The Recipe: in a Boston shaker add

  • 15 mils (.5 oz) fresh lime juice
  • 15 mils Cointreau
  • 12 mils agave syrup
  • 60 mils silver agave tequila

shake and serve on the rocks, garnish with a lime slice (and salt if desired)


Year One On The Road: Lessons Learned

It’s hard to believe it has been a whole year since we (Bonnie and George) sold our home in Southern California (along with almost everything we owned) and hit the road. Since then we have traveled to 13 countries (some more than once) slept/stayed in 28 different cities and logged more than 50,000 air miles.

During that time, we have learned a few tips and tricks that we are happy to share with others. Hopefully they will come in handy whether you are a road warrior or just an occasional traveler. If you have other tips, or tricks, you’d like to share, please add them in the comments below.

Take only what you will use or can’t get easily at your destination:
Now more than ever, travel cost is affected by the number of bags you take and the weight of those bags. We have our global travel kit honed down to a total of six items. Each of us has a 20 kilo roller bag that can double as a backpack, a small backpack to carry or for day trips, and an instrument case.

We both carry a “luxury item” in our roller bags. For Bonnie it is a rolled canvas set of kitchen tools including chef’s knives, a whisk, spatula etc. Bonnie cooks nearly everywhere we go, and there is nothing more frustrating for her than a dull kitchen knife. For George it is a small foldable 120 piece tool set, with extras like duct tape and zip ties. In the last year he has rewired small appliances, replaced a kitchen faucet, repaired locks and tightened countless handles of pots and pans.

There are some travel days when we question the value of lugging our instruments in their hard travel cases, but there has never been a week during the year we have not played music.  The instruments provide us with a sense of constancy in an otherwise turbulent world. We also know from previous travel experience if George went to long with out a guitar, he would go out and buy one locally.

On the other hand; there are things we have purged along with way, like shoes, both of us are down to one pair of Suavs, everyday shoes which can be thrown in the washing machine when they need it, a pair of flip flops and a pair of beach shoes (many of the beaches around the world are made up of sharp rocks/shells or blazing hot sand).
Pro Tip: Put dryer sheets in your shoes when they are not being worn to keep them fresh

In short: if you are not positive you will use it… leave it at home.

Travel Electronics:
Electronics these days are small light and powerful. We have compiled a set of sites and apps that allow us to read books, watch movies/TV, do our banking, blog and stay in touch. at the core of our gear is an iPhone and iPad each. We also carry the obligatory chargers, earphones and cable accessories. One of the best things we have found and use constantly now is an adapter that goes from lightening to HDMI. This little goodie allows us to stream music and videos from our apple devices to any monitor that has a HDMI adapter. We streamed The Rocky Horror Picture show to a large wall-mounted TV in Transylvania, we showed karaoke style music lyrics for a sing along in England and we have watched all seven seasons of the great British Baking Show on screens around the globe.

One more hint, most travel sized devices are powered and/or charged via USB. Invest in a USB hub and you won’t need to worry about multiple power adapters for every country you are in, just one for the hub.

Low Priced Flights are Not Always Cheaper in the Long Run
We previously mentioned that we have a total of 6 bags, only two of which are typical carry-ons. In many cases we find that it can be cheaper overall to pay more for a larger carrier airline that includes a baggage allowance (usually either 20 or 23 kilos per person). But, in some cases, the cheap flights plus the extra fees for baggage are a better deal as long as you book your extra baggage online prior to arriving at the airport. Speaking of which, if you are traveling with a discount airline, always print your boarding pass and bring it with you, believe it or not, will charge for printing your pass, and many airlines charge a much higher premium for bags not booked in advance.

Credit Cards and Airline Point Programs
We cancelled all our other credit cards and got a single VISA card (many places around the world do not take American Express). We chose our Visa card very carefully to make sure it included excellent services for travelers, we use the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. It costs about $400 per year, but each year we get an annual $300 travel bonus (we get an immediate credit for the first $300 of travel related expenses). They also have an amazing point system that awards triple points for all travel related expenses, no foreign transaction fees and no ATM fees (if we are charged one anywhere in the world, Chase credits it back). It goes without saying that it is best to pay the total balance every month and avoid any finance charges or interest fees.

By having only one card and using it for everything we can (we try never to pay cash if we can help it) we rack up thousands of points each month. These can be used to book discounted flights, hotels and other services through the Chase travel program. The same holds true for Airline points programs. Leverage airline alliances to combine points whenever possible.

Be Nice to The Airline Staff
It has always boggled us to see people get huffy or be rude to the people at airline check in desks, especially given that these people have the ability impact your trip. A cheery smile, a kind word or a sympathetic comment about someone who was not nice to the attendant goes a long way. During our year, a polite rapport with airline check-in staff has saved us hundreds of dollars. Little things add up, a bag that weight just a little bit over the 20 kilo limit can be ignored. The guitar in the hard case can be checked into the hold or gate checked at no extra cost. Seat upgrades, being booked into a three seat with no one in the middle, exit row aisles or just being able to sit together are all at the discretion of the check in person or gate agent. Be nice to them, and (almost every time) they will be nice to you.

One of our other tricks is to purchase a nice box of chocolates to be presented to the member of the flight crew that greets you as you board the plane. Flight attendants work hard, get lots of hassle and very little recognition. A box of chocolates and a kind word (both of which can cost you less than ten dollars) can put a smile on the entire flight teams faces. Over the year we have really enjoyed thanks, smiles and sometime extra perks awarded to us by the flight teams

When Booking a Room, Look at Detail
Whether you are booking a hotel room, Airbnb or something else, check the details. If it is a hot area, does the place have air conditioning? Is it on the ground floor, is there an elevator (or lift as they say in England). What area of town is the place in, will you feel safe? How were the reviews from previous travelers? Does the quoted price include all extras like water, power and internet? Each one of these questions are based on lessons we learned the hard way this year.

Research Your Travel in Advance
There are so many fiddly little rules that can catch you by surprise. Just a few examples include: groups of countries and that band together and limit the amount of days you can spend in them in total (a great example is the Schengen region of Western Europe). If you want to stay more that 90 days in Thailand, you must organize a visa from within your home country. When you travel into Malaysia, you need to have proof that you have booked your tickets out of the country. If you fly to Australia to have to apply for a tourist visa online prior to your travel date.

House Sitting Works Great
House sitting is an amazing way to live like a local, get a pet fix and save a lot of money. We have been using Trusted House Sitters and are really pleased with them. We already have more than 140 nights of free stays booked in Australia, Costa Rica and Mexico for next year. That adds up to thousands of dollars in savings. Pro tip, the better your reviews, the more bookings you get. Be a great house sitter, rack up good reviews and watch how much easier it becomes to snag the choice opportunities. I know this sounds like a no-brainer but we have heard some real horror stories from home owners.

We are still ‘learning as we go’ but after a full year of travel we are feeling confident that we can handle pretty much anything the road has to throw at us.


The Miracle Baby of Miami Beach

On the 26th of December 2004, the Coast of Penang Island was hit by immense Tsunami. Locals report seeing waves in excess of 8 meters (24 feet) high. The wave, triggered by a massive earthquake in West Sumatra, took 18 lives and injured another 65 people.

None of that was on the minds of a local couple Raja and Mary Suppiah, all they could think about was their baby daughter, who was literally washed out to sea on the baby mattress she was sleeping on.

It is hard to imagine how distraught the couple was over the tragedy. Little Thulassi was only 22 days old when she was swept away in the storm.

It is equally had to imagine the joy they must have felt hours later when the same mattress, with the child unharmed, washed up, almost on the doorstep of her father’s shop.

Thulassi is now 15 years old. She goes to school during the day and waits on tables at her parent’s seaside café in the evening. She tells us that he does not remember anything about that day, and she has no fear of the sea.

So if you ever get to Miami Beach, the only part of Penang Island named after a place in America, stop by and meet the girl that is known as the Miracle Baby…



Friends, Food and Fun

We were quite excited to be headed back to Portugal. It is no secret that this country has risen to the top of our list of possible places to settle down. We were very keen to see if we enjoyed other towns in Portugal as much as we did Lagos.

What made the trip even more exciting was the fact that we got to meet up with friends while we were there. So off we set from Croatia and after a couple of flights arrived in Lisbon. We decided to stay in a hotel for the first night and arrived midday for lunch for a much-needed nap.

After a rest and a shower, we headed out to meet our good fiends, Iain and Ruth. One our many favorite things about this couple is that we are so simpatico that even though we have not seen (or spoken to) them in years, we fall right back in as if we just saw them yesterday. George worked with Ruth in the early days of BellSouth and later with Iain at T-Mobile. When they invited us to their wedding in Turkey years ago, we don’t think they really thought we would come, but we did and had a great time.

Our visit with Iain and Ruth had a bonus, we got to catch up with many members of Ruth’s family, as well as Ian’s best friend. Everyone was in town for Ruth’s brother’s birthday celebration. We had an amazing seafood dinner and a wonderful visit.

The next day we got up packed up and headed to the train station to meet our dear friends Leslie and Becky. We met up at the station and hopped on the comfort car of the train for an enjoyable 3 hour ride to Porto. Leslie and Becky have been a constant part of our lives since we met them in Atlanta 16 years ago. They live in St. Pete Beach Florida, and if you check out driver’s licenses you will find that we all share the same address. Allowing us to use their house as a home base is just one of the many things these two amazing people do to support our traveling life.

From the train station we headed to our Airbnb in Porto, a large well-appointed place where we all settled in quickly. Everyone was a bit travel weary, but we still managed to have a lovely dinner down on the river that evening.

Our first stop on the tourist route was the Livaria Lello, which is an amazing bookstore that was known to be frequented by J.K. Rowling. Once you visit it is easy to see that this location was clearly the influence for “Flourish and Blotts”  the best bookstore in Diagon Alley. The combination of NeoGothic style and amazing woodwork takes your breath away. But what really catches your eye is the hand carved wooden stairway. When you are on it, one can easily imagine that you are on the grand staircase at Hogwarts, and you can’t help but wonder if it is about to suddenly change configuration like the one in the books did.

It would be impossible to describe a trip to Porto without talking about the food. Mornings are a chance to get espresso and a Portuguese specialty called Pastel De Nata. And between the four of us, we tried a lot of them looking for the perfect creamy egg custard nestled in a flaky crust cup. Some were better than others, but most were delicious and we had a lot of fun looking for the best.

Another staple of Porto cuisine is the francesinha sandwich (Little Frenchie in Portuguese). This over-the-top sandwich contains sliced sirloin steak and Portuguese sausage, served on crunchy  sourdough bread,  smothered in a thick layer of cheese and swimming in a tomato and beer sauce. It might sounds sketchy but trust us – it is fantastic. The best ones are topped with a fried egg. Imagine if an amazing steak sandwich and a perfect French onion soup got married and had a baby….

Porto of course is known for its fortified wines or Ports. Bonnie made arrangement for us all to be picked up for a day touring the Douro River Valley, to learn about Ports and the other wines there. We toured two lovely wineries, which were very small by California standards, and enjoyed tasting a lot of different types of wine and Ports. We also enjoyed a river barge cruise down the river to see the sights.

All too soon it was time for us to pack up and leave delightful Porto. But the good news was that we still had to more days to spend with Leslie and Becky exploring Lisbon. We all hopped on the train and headed back.

One of the fun things about an Airbnb is that you really don’t know what to expect, sometimes the residences can be fun and quirky and our place in Lisbon certainly did not disappoint. Tucked into a historic building in the Alfama district of Lisbon, this apartment was beyond eclectic, right down to a combination bicycle and bulls head that adorned the wall. The location was an excellent central spot for us to use as a base for exploring. We wandered for miles, tasting more pastel de nata, and generally got to know Lisbon.

After an amazing week together, we loaded Leslie and Becky into an Uber bound for the airport and home. This next day we made the same trek on our way to Penang Malaysia.

Portugal was everything we hoped it would be, the style, the vibe, the food and friends.

We will be back!


4 Weeks in Split, Croatia

Unless your European geography is better than ours, you may not known that Croatia is a relatively small country on the Adriatic Sea bordered by Hungary and Slovenia to the North and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the South. Our travels took us to the lovely seaside tourist town of Split (43.508 N, 16.440 E).

We flew in from Dublin (after a train ride from Portrush to Belfast and then a bus to Dublin). Usually by the time we pay extra for our baggage and instruments, we’ve found that the discount airlines end up not being such a great deal. However this time it was one of those rare occasions when, even though we had baggage and instruments, Ryan Air ended up being the cheapest flights we found. In many cases by the time we add all the extra fees, it is cheaper to pay regular fare with a full-service airline.

As we arrived late, we opted to stay in a hotel for the first night. We cannot say enough great stuff about the Hotel Splendida Palace. From the moment we booked the room until the second we left (and even after we left) the owner Marinya showed us a level of care and customer service that was just amazing. They arranged a late-night pickup from the airport, which was very reasonably priced, and despite the late hour greeted us with a smile and a ‘welcome to Croatia” glass of one of the local specialty cordials. The room was lovely, and included breakfast excellent. We were a bit sad to leave, luckily our Airbnb rental was only about two blocks away so the transition was painless.

Croatia has existed since the Middle Ages and the influence of the Roman Empire can be seen throughout the country. Split, the second largest city in Croatia, centers around  Diocletian’s Palace, which is a large enclosed area that is now packed with shops, bars, restaurants and crowds of tourist ducklings following their “walking tour” guides. A significant portion of the Split economy is centered around tourism, especially during the summer months. During our stay we have been able to see the crowds dissipate to the level that it was easy to see when a cruise ship was docked and had disgorged it’s host of passengers

The Golden Gate of the Palace is guarded by a huge statue of Bishop Gregory of Nin. Legend has it that if one makes a wish while rubbing the big toe of the statue, your wish will come true. As a result, the entire bronze statue is a lovely patina except for the big toe which is polished to a bright luster. George did not pass the statue without stopping to repeat his wish.

Inside of the palace, you can tour architecture that has been standing since the palace was built for a Roman emperor in in 305 A.D. it is not surprising to know that many of the historic buildings, walkways and undergrounds areas of the palace have been used in multiple films and TV shows. Below you can see a picture of George standing in the same spot as a scene from the popular series “Game of Thrones


During our month long stay, we found plenty to keep us busy. It is a lovely walking town, with hiking trails, a pedestrian walkway along the waterfront and of course the palace to explore. Those who know us, or have read some of our other blog entries, will not be surprised to hear that we averaged around 5 miles in our daily wanderings.

Since our Airbnb had a nice kitchen we made most of our meals at home, this was made possibly by a wealth of fresh fruit and vegetables from the daily outdoor Green Market just outside the palace. We had a great time shopping for fresh produce, locally grown honey, fresh baked bread and cheeses.

On occasion we would venture out for dinner or a cocktail, we did spend on particularly lovely afternoon at a beach bar called Joe’s. Perfect weather, excellent cocktails and amazing scenery all contributed to a great time.

About halfway through the tour we were lucky enough to catch up with our dear friends Art and Jacqueline Shand, who were in Split for one night of a world wind gastronomic tour of Croatia and Italy. It was such a pleasure to see them, visit for a few hours and share a lovely dinner.

We also spent one evening on an exceptional tour of one of the local wineries. Our vino connoisseur friends might be surprised to learn the unique strain of Zinfandel grapes so long credited with origin in Northern California have been traced to right here in Split. If you get a chance to take the winemakers tour at Putalj Winery, it worth the effort.

Very soon we will say goodbye to Croatia (for now) and head to Portugal (Lisbon and Porto) to meet two of our favorite people in the world. More about that in the next post.


Northern Ireland

Portrush Northern Ireland: By The Numbers

We were lucky enough to be chosen for a house sit  in the beautiful village  of Portrush.

Here are the stats:

We enjoyed 26 days house sitting for our hosts Tim & Judy. To get there from our training class in Germany we flew into Dublin, took a bus into Belfast and after a couple of days in an Airbnb there we hopped a train up the coast to Portrush.

While we were there we looked after 2 “wee dogs”, Socks and Beau. They accompanied us pretty much everywhere we went, woke us up by jumping in bed with us in the morning and generally demanded love and attention which we were happy to give.

Although we took a couple of day trips by bus, our principle mode of transportation was walking, most often with the dogs straining at the leashes and dragging us along our route, this is kind of nice when you are going uphill. In total during our stay, we walked 96 miles which works out to an average of 3.7 miles per day.

Our favorite spot to eat out what a little bar called “Kiwi’s Brew Bar” which not surprisingly is owned by a New Zealander. During our visits we dined on some of the best Buffalo chicken wings we have ever had outside of the USA. While did not eat too many in any one sitting, we did visit often enough to consume a total of 5 dozen. If you get a chance, go for a visit and try the wings!

On the topic of food, the folks at Kiwi’s told us they got their wings from Etherson’s Family Butchers. We set out to find their shop one day only to realize that they do not sell retail out of the shop in Portrush. They sell wholesale to the bars and restaurants and stock a butcher’s counter in one of the local shops. While we stood and pondered the closed storefront of the meat processing facility in town, we struck up a conversation with one of the butchers who was out for a smoke. When we explained that we were looking for a butcher to cut us a couple of nice thick America style steaks. They were nice enough to invite us round to the “back door” and hand cut a couple of gorgeous 11 oz sirloins for us. These are the wonderful types of folks we ran into all over Portrush.

Of course we had to visit the Bushmills Distillery , and while we were there we tasted a total of 12 different variations of the delightful product. You can read all about our day at Bushmills here…

Since we are on the topic of drinks, we should mention the amazing pints of Guinness Irish Stout poured at the Harbor Bar. We are told it is the best pour our Guinness in Northern Ireland, and we believe it. While in Port Rush, between us we enjoyed a total of 12 pints.

No visit to this area of the country would be complete without a visit to the Giant’s Causeway. There are 2 stories of how this amazing set of stacks perfectly octagonal stones came to be found in Northern Ireland.

Of course there is the boring old tale of how geometric shapes where formed as a result of volcanic activity.

But a much more fun version is about an Irish Giant named Finn McCool why had a beef with a Scottish giant on the other side of the waterway, so he built a stone bridge causeway so he could go over and fight him. When Finn arrived and spied on the Scottish giant, he realized that the Scott was MUCH larger than he appeared from across the water. So, Finn hot footed it back across the causeway (loosing one shoe along the way). Finn’s clever wife dressed Finn as a baby and when the Scottish giant came across the causeway to Ireland, he took one look at Finn and decided that if the baby was that big he did not want to visit the daddy.So the Scottish giant headed back across the water destroying most of the causeway on the Scottish side, but leaving it on the Irish side.

While visited the Causeway we hiked 5.1 miles of amazing trails much of which ran atop bluffs that looked down onto amazing vistas.

We had an amazing time hanging out with Socks and Beau, thanks again to our hosts Judy and Tim Nelson.

By the way American Judy Nelson (of Deck Bar fame) says there may be some linked heritage with her and the Irish Nelsons back there someplace…

Northern Ireland

A Day at Bushmills Distillery

A Day at Bushmills Distillery

We, Bonnie and George, have both toured the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg Tennessee, so we are well versed on how Tennessee whisky is made. George continues to check the continuity of Black Label Jack Daniels around the globe, so he could report back on any irregularities he finds. So far there have been none.

This week we got the chance to tour the Bushmills distillery, which is only about 15 minutes’ drive away from the house where we are pet sitting in Portrush Northern Ireland. We opted for both a tour and then a private tasting and education session after the tour. We were quite pleased with both.

Sorry that are no photos from most of the initial tour, but we were required to turn our phones off during the tour. Since most of the distillery burned down in 1885, they are very conscious of anything that may be a danger- including the concern over a spark from the battery of a phone in the alcohol saturated air.

The first part of the process was all too familiar to us, having owned and worked at a brewery. In short, to make Irish whiskey, you start by making beer. Grain (in this case barley) is malted which means it is wet and allowed to start to grow, which created sugars. The growth process is stopped just as the barley seed begins to spout. The grain is then dried.

A note here on the drying technique: in Ireland they dry the grains using gas ovens. In Scotland the grain is dried by burning dense dried turf known as peat in the drying ovens (in addition to the gas burners). The smell of the dried peat is quite distinctive and adds a strong flavor to Scotch whiskey. The more peat that is used the stronger the flavor.

The malted grain is then cracked using a roller and placed into giant vats where hot water is stirred in and used to wash the sugar from the grain. This process called sparging produces a sugary liquid called wort. The wort is then piped into giant tanks, where yeast is added to start the fermentation process. The spent grain is sold to local farms as feed. The yeast blooms in the sugary wort and creates the by products of alcohol (methyl and ethyl), carbon dioxide and dead yeast (which looks a lot like baby poop).

As noted, up to this stage, the similarities between making beer and Irish whiskey are extremely similar, but this is where the similarities end. Instead of racking off the “green” fermented liquid and carbonating it to make beer, the liquid is distilled.

Distilling is a very interesting process in which the fermented wort is placed in a giant kettle and heated to “boil off” the alcohol. The first type of alcohol to boil off is methanol, which, while great for running a race car, is not really something you want to drink, (see note below) so Bushmills captures this and sells this for industrial use. The second type of alcohol to evaporate in ethyl alcohol which in the one that is captured and will eventually become whiskey. In the case of Bushmills, this result of the first distillation process is then run back through the process twice more to create a ‘triple distilled” liquor of extreme purity.

A note on early whiskey making in Ireland: the current process of making Irish whiskey is a science (although the blending process is still very much an art). But hundreds of years ago, this science did not exist, for instance, the methanol was not separated from the ethanol. In beer the ratio of alcohol to other liquids is low enough so you could get away with it. But when whiskey was distilled to it’s purest form, it could be quite dangerous. In fact, many people died. In some other cases people who drank early whiskeys could fall into a coma that made them appear to be dead. This of course was a problem as people mistaken for dead, were buried and later came out of the coma. Initially the answer for this was to tie a string onto the wrist of the presumed deceased and connect the string to a bell above ground. This is where we get terms “dead ringer” and “graveyard shift. However, the Catholic church frowned on this process, so a new tradition was created. The presumed dead were laid out in the coffin at the family home and for several days was surrounded by family and friends who socialized and ate and drank noisily in an attempt to “wake” the dead. If in fact it was just an alcohol induced coma, then his worked. Imagine everyone’s surprise when dead Uncle Sean sat up in his coffin an asked for a drink!

Once the now clear liquor has completed the triple distilled process it is ready for aging. It is mixed with purified water to reduce the alcohol content and placed into wooden barrels to age (pure alcohol would simply evaporate through the barrel during aging). At Bushmills they re-use barrels that aged other types of liquor to enhance the flavor of their finished whiskey. Bourbon, port and sherry barrels are used. Each wooden barrel was scorched on the inside prior to being used originally. The combination of which types of barrels are used and how long the whiskey ages in each barrel has a huge impact on the flavor of the finished whiskey.

We were extremely surprised to learn that many of the brands of Bushmills Irish whiskey use a combination of the barley mash made in Northern Ireland blended with a grain based “pot stilled” whiskey which is made in the Republic of Ireland.  Blended whiskeys are mixed according to the taste, and nose of the master distiller (who at Bushmills just happens to be a lady). Single malt whiskeys are not blended with other stuff and the taste difference comes from the types of barrels (bourbon, port or sherry) and how long they are aged. In order to be considered Irish whiskey it must be aged for a minimum of three years and 1 day. Scotch only has to be aged for three years, so the Irish must be one day longer.

There are 6 primary types of Bushmills whiskeys available today (and a few ‘reserves’ that you can only get if you visit the distillery):

  • The Blends
    • Red Bush: aged 4 years in bourbon barrels and then blended with lighter grain whiskey
    • Original White Label: aged 5 years in bourbon barrels and mixed then blended with a lower percentage of lighter grain whiskey
    • Black Bush: aged for a total of 8 years first in bourbon barrels and then in sherry barrels mixed then blended with a lower percentage of lighter grain whiskey (this one used to be Bonnie’s favorite – see below)
  • The Single Malts
    • 10 Year: aged for a total of 10 years first in bourbon barrels and then in sherry barrels. (George’s favorite)
    • 16 Year: Aged for about 15 years in a combination of sherry and bourbon barrels, and then finished for about 9 months in port wine barrels unique to making port wine.
    • 21 Year: aged for a minimum of 19 years in former sherry and bourbon-seasoned barrels, then married and transferred into Spanish (Madeira) wine casks for a further 2 years of aging and maturation. (Bonnie’s new favorite)

The basic tour comes with one glass of either the Original or Red Bush. However, you can also upgrade to a three whiskey tasting, the Steamship tasting. a single malt tasting or the premium tasting.We decided to go for the full Monty and paid for the premium tasting. After the tour our group was escorted into the bar for our complimentary tasting. We were asked to follow our guide to the private bar for our “tutored tasting”.

One closing thought, if there is any doubt that the Northern Irish are proud of the Bushmills distillery, you only need look at their money. On the back of each 5 and 10 pound note is an image of the barrel house on the distillery grounds.

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