The Old Bushmills Distillery
FolkWorld Issue 37 11/2008; Article by Walkin' T:-)M

The Sound of Whiskey
400 Years of Bushmills Distillery

Freedom an' whisky gang thegither, according to Scotland's national bard Robert Burns. Whisky and song go together, according to both Scotsmen and Irishmen. There is an argument which nation invented the Water of Life a thousand years ago. At least, Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim in the North of Ireland may claim being the oldest licensed distillery still in existence. Going strong since 1608!

The nine Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland are an officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Glens were Gaelic-speaking until the early 20th century.
Far across yonder blue lies a true fairy land
With the sea rippling over the shingle and sand
Where the gay honeysuckle is luring the bee
And the Green Glens of Antrim are calling to me
One of the best known ballads in the Gaelic language, "Airde Cuan," had been written by Sean Mac Ambrois of Cushendun in the middle of the 19th century. His song tells of a man sensing the Antrim hills in the distance, longing for to see the Cuckoo Glen (i.e. Glendun) again and to play hurling at Christmas on the white strand of Cushendun (-> FW#36).

Because of their remoteness traditional culture survived well, and there are many notable singers and musicians associated with this area.

Uisce Beatha - Water of Life

The word whisk(e)y is an anglicisation of the Gaelic term uisce beatha, which translates as water of life, which itself derives from the Latin aqua vitae. Distilling is believed to be dating to the Middle Ages. Barley-based spirits first appear in Irish records in 1556.

Once almost every town in Ireland had a distillery. By the end of the 18th century there were over 2,000 stills in operation. In the late 19th century over 400 brands of Irish whiskey were sold in the United States. However, when prohibition closed off Ireland's largest export market, many distilleries had to close. Today, Ireland has only three distilleries left: Bushmills, Midleton and Cooley.

Traditionally, Irish whiskey was distilled from a mash of mixed malted and unmalted grains (referred to as pure pot still), whereas Scotch is distilled from malted grain (single malt) or unmalted grain (mixed with malt whisky to create blended whisky). Today, most Irish whiskey is blended from a mixture of pot still whiskey and cheaper grain whiskey. Most Irish whiskey is distilled three times. Peat is almost never used in the malting process, so smoky overtones common to Scotch are not present.

Once upon a time, whisky was generally spelled without the extra e. In the 1870s, the Irish and American distilleries adopted the spelling whiskey to distinguish their higher quality product from cheaper Scottish spirits produced with the column still.

Mickey McIlhatton

The excise officer Sam Henry (1870-1952) collected some 800 songs of the people in the vicinity of Coleraine and published them in the Northern Constitution newspaper between 1923 and 1939. A large number were songs of English or Scottish origin, brought to Northern Ireland by Scots settlers in the 17th century.

James Stoddard Moore (1844-1939) of Cushendall was a sailor, a goldminer and a soldier. When he returned to Ireland, he became a tramp. He was called "Dusty Rhodes," wandered the local roads, and would give poems to farmers in return for board and lodgings.

The birds sang loud
The leaves were green
In Airdi Cuan's glade
The snow-white daisies spangled
The sunny braes of Layde
The hawthorn spray was hoary
With all its bloom still
Ah! wreathed in golden glory
Was Crosslieve's bonny hill

Dusty Rhodes

His best known song is "The Smith of Tiveragh".

Fiddler Frank McCollam of Ballycastle composed the well-known hornpipe "The Home Ruler" in the 1960s. Many people assume it was named with politics in mind, dedicated to a hero of Irish self-determination. However, Frank, a one-time master of the Ballycastle Orange Lodge, named the tune after his wife, Sally.

When the A and B parts of "The Home Ruler" are reversed, the tune is sometimes called "The Hangman's Noose." The title refers to John McNaughton of Bushmills, who was found guilty in 1761 of murdering his lover. McNaughton was convicted and sentenced to be publicly hanged. However, when they carried out the sentence the rope snapped. He was offered a pardon, but refused it, saying that he was not going to be known as Half-hanged McNaughton for the rest of his life (-> FW#23).

The rope it broke, not once but twice
By the laws of man you can’t hang thrice
The people cried, “Let him go free
Don’t hang him high on the gallows tree”

He placed the rope around his neck
A rope so strong it would not break
“Half-hanged now I ne’er will be
So hang me high on the gallows tree”

In Glenravel's Glen there lives a man
Whom some would call a god
For he could cure your shakes
With a bottle of his stuff
Would cost you thirty bob
Come winter, summer, frost all over,
A jiggin' spring on the breeze
In the dead of night a man steps by,
"McIlhatton, if you please"

McIlhatton you blurt we need you,
Cry a million shaking men
Where are your sacks of barley,
Will your likes be seen again?
Heres a jig to the man
And a reel to the drop
And a swing to the girl he loves
May your fiddle play and poitín cure
Your company up above

Theres a wisp of smoke
To the south of the Glen
And the poitín is on the air
The birds in the burrows
And the rabbits in the sky
And there's drunkards everywhere
At Skerries Rock the fox is out
And begod he's chasing the hounds
And the only thing in decent shape
Is buried beneath the ground

McIlhatton you blurt we need you...

At McIlhatton's house
The fairies are out
And dancing on the hobs
The goat's collapsed
And the dog has run away
And there's salmon down the bogs
He has a million gallons of wash
And the peelers are on the Glen
But they'll never catch that hackler
Cos he's not comin' home again

McIlhatton you blurt we need you...

Today, traditional music sessions are held in venues such as McCarroll's Bar in Ballycastle and the Skerry Inn in Newtown Crommelin. The Traditional Singers' Club with its no guitars policy meets on the last Friday of each month during the winter in McCollam's Bar in Cushendall. Every June, the annual Fleadh Amhrán agus Rince, a festival of traditional singing and dancing, and the County Antrim Fleadh Cheoil are hosted somewhere in the area.

Bushmills is a small village on the north coast of Antrim. It is close to the famous Giant's Causeway, carved by the sea from the basalt rock, but legend tells us that a giant had built a path of stones across the sea so that he could walk to Scotland. Perhaps to bring whiskey to the Scottish, or vice versa.

The town is best known as the location of the Old Bushmills Distillery, which lays claim to being the oldest licenced distillery in the world! The claim is based on the fact that in 1608 a licence was granted to Sir Thomas Phillipps, Deputy for the Plantation of Ulster, for the next seaven yeres, within the countie of Colrane, otherwise called the Rowte, in Co. Antrim, by himselfe or his servauntes, to make, drawe, and distil such and soe great quantities of aquavite, usquabagh and aqua composita, as he or his assignes shall thinke fitt; and the same to sell, vent, and dispose of to any persons, yeeldinge yerelie the somme 13s 4d ...

Food for marketing people. However, when Alfred Barnard visited Bushmills on his tour around Britain's distilleries in 1885, Bushmills did not even make pure malt whiskey. It made pure pot still, and when in 1891 the company launched their new pure malt whiskey, Old Glynn Bush, they proudly displayed 1784 as their year of establishment. That makes Bushmills still the oldest distillery in Ireland.

We shall never know for sure. Records that survived the great fire of 1885 and had been moved to headquarters in Belfast were destroyed during the numerous raids of the German Luftwaffe in 1941. Fact is, Bushmills marketed the first Irish single malt whiskey for many decades, and the only one until the foundations of Cooley Distilleries in 1989.

Certainly whiskey had been made in the area before 1608, and the imposition of an excise tax as early as 1661 didn't stop farmers to produce their wee still. Before the building of the coast road from Glenarm to Ballycastle, especially the Glens had been a place apart and the centre of producing illegal private distillation whiskey, in Ireland called poitín or poteen (meaning pot) or the craythur (from created).

A locally much admired poitín maker was Mickey McIlhatton, the King of the Glens. He went into the hills day and night for 50 years, he also was a fiddler and a shepherd, probably in this order. His first charge was withdrawn, after assuring the judge that the fiddle would sound much sweeter if rubbed with poitín. Mickey eventually was made famous by a song written by Bobby Sands (-> FW#23) and sung by Christy Moore (-> FW#2).

"The Bushmills Song" and "Dear Old Bushmills" are the names of two traditionals songs mentioned, however, I couldn't uncover the lyrics.
Buy me a Becks beer or pass me a bong,
Gimmie some Bushmills, I’ll sing you this song
Bushmills whiskey is mentioned only in a song by the Californian punk band NOFX. Another punk rock band from Seattle, that only plays Pogues songs (-> FW#22, FW#30), adopted the name Saint Bushmill's Choir.

Today the Old Bushmills Distillery belongs to the Paris-based Pernod-Ricard group, and the site is a major tourist attraction, with around 110,000 visitors per year. Its twin pagodas, built in the early 19th century to ventilate the maltings, are the town's dominant feature. The late Irish writer John McGuffin, author of "In Praise of Poteen," was particularily fond of the real thing, i.e. home-made production, but when it had to be licensed spirits, he exclaimed: Bushmills ten years old single malt is undoubtedly the best whiskey in the world.

Tasting Notes: Bushmills Malt Whiskey

Tasting logoBushmills 10 Years Old (Single Malt): Matured in American bourbon barrels for at least 10 years. Nose: Initially very delicate, with developing floral and plum notes. Palate: Straightforward, with eating apples, cream, and a hint of honey. Finish: The cream from the palate persists as acceptable oakiness develops. Comment: Pleasant enough, but straightforward! [Gavin Smith]

Tasting logoBushmills 12 Years Old Distillery Reserve (Single Malt): A special edition sold only at the Bushmills distillery, matured mostly in sherry casks. Nose: The sherry is light and clean and gives way to a lovely hint of orange and sweet nuts. Impressively stylish and assured. Palate: A highly developed and confusingly complex middle tends to nudge back towards sherry dominance. Finish: Dries as the richer sherry notes fade and the oak takes hold. Comment: Cleaner than of old but no less characterful. Quite a cerebral whisky. [Jim Murray]

Tasting logoBushmills 16 Years Old (Single Malt): Matured for 16 years or more in a combination of American bourbon barrels, Spanish Oloroso sherry butts and Port pipes. Nose: Distinctly nutty, but also with those linseedy Irish flavours. some soft, perfumy, spiciness. Palate: Toasted almonds, raisin, slightly burnt toffee. Finish: Delicate, elusive, flavours. Long, soft, soothing. Comment: All the woods are influential, especially the port in the finish. A dextrous balancing act. [Michael Jackson]

Tasting logoBushmills 21 Years Old (Single Malt): A limited number of 21 year bottles are made each year, matured for 19 years firstly in American bourbon barrels and secondly in Spanish Oloroso sherry casks, thirdly in Madeira drums for a further 2 years until bottling. Nose: Big and generous. Shifting into coffee cake with butter icing. Water makes it reminiscent of a bodega then comes mint, citrus zest and in time tanned leather. Grist-like sweetness. Palate: Better grip, some substance and a dried fruit edge along with red liquorice. Finish: Firm, nutty and clean. Comment: Good flow, balance and grip. A powerhouse. [Dave Broom]

Tasting logoBushmills Millennium (Single Malt): An exclusive 25 year old whiskey bottled in the new millennium. Only a limited number of casks were produced. Nose: That leathery, saddlery, Irish note. Linseedy, nutty, grassy. Soft but wonderfully scenty. Palate: Fresh. Lightly creamy. Develops nuts and marzipan. Finish Faintly spicy. Orange zest. Dessert apple. Comment Tightly combined flavours. Delicate. Elegant. [Michael Jackson]

Tasting logoBushmills Black Bush (Blended): A blend comprised mostly of single malt. Selected Spanish Oloroso sherry-seasoned oak casks mature the malt, before it is blended with delicate sweet single grain whiskey. Developed in 1934, it was originally called “Old Bushmills Special Old Liqueur Whiskey”. Nose: Baked apples and spicy malt. A pleasingly mature character to it. Palate: Big bodied, slightly oily, with nutmeg and red wine. Sophisticated and assured. Finish: Notably long, drying with dark syrup and liquorice notes. Comment: A confident whiskey that feels as though it has some age to it. [Gavin Smith]

Tasting logoBushmills Original (Blended): Blend of single malt Irish whiskey and Irish grain whiskey — sometimes called White Bush or Bushmills White Label. Nose: Green grain, fresh fruit and acetone. Palate: Clean, slightly spirity, simplistic. Finish: Short and spicy, with a fresh oak feel. Comment: Gives the impression of needing time to grow into itself. [Gavin Smith]

Tasting logoBushmills 1608 Reserve (Blended): A special 400th Anniversary whiskey. A blend containing 95% malt and 5% grain whiskey made with 30% crystal malt for exceptional smoothness. One of approximately 300 bottles. Nose: Distinct rose-like aroma of Bushmills. Sandalwood. Palate: Syrupy, sherryish. Nutty. Almondy. Finish: Hard liquorice. Late rootiness. Comment: Very rich and sweet, but still a Bushmills. [Michael Jackson]


Photo Credits: (1) The Old Bushmills Distillery, (2) Dusty Rhodes, (3) Pencil drawing of Mickey McIlhatton on the wall of the Crosskeys Inn, Toome [-> FW#23], (4) Bushmills whiskey (unknown); (5) Bushmills whiskey (by Walkin' Tom).

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