When we think of whiskey and the United Kingdom, most of us immediately think of Scotland with its long and storied history with the spirit. But surprisingly, the UK’s oldest distillery still in operation is located on a completely different island just across the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland hosts the oldest distillery in the country and today we’re checking out Black Bush, one of their most well-regarded products.
The practice of whiskey distilling had taken place in the town of Bushmills for centuries, with one of the earliest recorded instances of whiskey drinking dating to 1276.
By the 1600s, the production of whiskey had started to be taxed and licenses were required for the commercial production of the spirit. One of the first people to be issued a license was Sir Thomas Phillips, an English knight-turned-mercenary. He obtained a license in 1608 for his distillery in Bushmills in Northern Ireland and started production.
Over the years, the distillery went into and out of business with the Bushmills Old Distillery Company founded in 1784 to handle the distillery operations.
The company was purchased in 1860 by a pair of Belfast spirit merchants named Jame McColgan and Patrick Corrigan, who invested a significant amount of time and money to make it commercially viable. A fire in 1885 destroyed all of the original facilities and buildings, but it was quickly rebuilt and only five years later a brand new steam ship named the S.S. Bushmills (funded, owned, and operated by the owners of the distillery) made its very first crossing of the Atlantic ocean to bring their whiskey to the United States, before continuing on a public relations cruise to Singapore, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
The steamship would continue operating for the merchants, eventually meeting an unfortunate fate running aground on a large rock while steaming from Liverpool to Cardiff on January 11th, 1911. Nevertheless, the ship would be the inspiration for a “steamship” line of whiskey produced by the facility.
Because of this strong focus on exporting, the United States would become a major component of Bushmills’ success and when prohibition started in 1920, it had a major impact on their business. While many other distilleries were forced to close, Bushmills limped along while their owners hedged bets that prohibition wouldn’t last very long and began stockpiling product in anticipation of that market re-opening. When that dark period of American history finally ended, Bushmills flooded the market with their product, springing to popularity and gaining a permanent foothold in the United States.
The company would eventually be sold to the Irish Distillers group in 1972, which would eventually be purchased by the French company Pernod Ricard in 1988. Pernod Ricard maintain ownership and operation of the facility to this day.
While this is a blended whiskey (as you’d expect from spirits merchants), roughly 80% of the source for this product is whiskey that was produced from malted barley. The remaining 20% of the volume comes from grain whiskey that is added and blended together.
Once the whiskey is blended, it is aged for up to seven years in a combination of previously used sherry casks and bourbon barrels to impart some of the flavors into the spirit.
While this is only a half size bottle, the full 750ml version looks pretty much identical. The bottle itself is long, slender, and rectangular, with flat sides and rounded corners. The bottle has a quick shoulder at the top, which tapers directly into the threads for the screw-on metal cap. The original date of the first Bushmills distillery (1603) is embossed into the glass near the bottom.
The label follows the shape of the bottle but it’s flat at the bottom and rounded on the top, like a stained glass window in a church. The label itself is black with white text, and the various awards and accents on the label are all printed in a reflective gold ink.
Overall, it’s a solid label design. As usual, I think it’s a little big and hides most of the whiskey from view, but it carries a certain amount of gravitas and history in that design that fits with the ancient age of the distillery itself.
The whiskey is a beautiful golden honey color, a little darker than a traditional scotch but still not quite to the level of an American bourbon. Coming off the glass, I get the aroma of apple, vanilla, and a little bit of malted barley.
Taking a sip, the spirit is buttery smooth with a good weight to it. There’s the apples coming in again, along with the vanilla, but there’s also a bit of caramel and some cinnamon spice joining the party. Once the flavors are gone there’s a bit of a tingle left behind for the aftertaste, almost like you’d expect with a rye whiskey.
It’s sweet, a little spicy, and generally pretty smooth.
This whiskey has a lot of interesting flavors when taken neat, but adding a bit of ice usually changes things. Softer flavors disappear, harsher aspects are smoothed out, and things can change pretty drastically.
In this case, the added ice causes the apple and the vanilla flavors to take a front seat while everything else is slipping to the back. It’s much more like apple juice at this point (albeit a version with a whopping alcohol content). That’s not to say it’s bad — it’s fruity and sweet, but there’s still a bit of depth there to provide an interesting experience. It’s still quite good, just not as good as it was neat.
It’s definitely on the fruitier side of the whiskey spectrum, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s plenty of other things going on here to balance out the experience and make for a really well rounded whiskey.
Honestly, I think this might be my favorite Irish whiskey I’ve tried to date. The others are good, but this has a style and a swagger all its own that really adds something to the conversation.
|Bushmills Black Bush|
Produced By: BushmillsOwned By: Pernod Ricard
Production Location: Northern Ireland, United Kingdom
Classification: Blended Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $28.99 / 750 ml
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Overall Rating: 4/5
There’s no beating around the bush about it, this is a fine whiskey.