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.