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Spirits: Irish Ayes

Richard Carleton Hacker

The world’s oldest licensed distillery is about to introduce to the United States its oldest single malt: Bushmills 21 Year Old. U.S. drinkers already may be familiar with Bushmills 10 Year Old, a combination of single malts aged in bourbon and sherry barrels. Its success led Bushmills to bring out its even more highly acclaimed 16 Year Old in the late 1990s. The 16 Year Old, also a mix of bourbon and sherry barrel-aged single malts, was finished (allowed to age longer) in port casks, producing an even richer color and taste.

When Bushmills launches its 21 Year Old in the United States in February, it will be the oldest Irish single malt in the country. Half of the whiskeys were aged in charred, new oak barrels used for Wild Turkey bourbon, and the rest were matured in Spanish Oloroso sherry casks. In 2001, these single malts were vatted (combined), then poured into oak barrels previously used for Madeira and finished for two more years—a whiskey seasoning technique dating to the 19th century.

The 21 Year Old’s burnished, antique golden color is deeper than either of Bushmills’ previous single malts. Also unique is its Madeira-influenced bouquet, a delicate fruity perfume laced with nuts and burnt raisins. The taste is both delicate and complex, with hints of honeyed cloves, hazelnuts, and oak that dance around the palate, then combine to explode into a surprisingly intense finish.


Whether single malts or blends, Irish whiskeys owe their characteristically lighter flavors to triple distillation, in contrast to most Scotch whiskies, which are distilled twice. Each distillation produces a progressively cleaner-tasting spirit. The Irish also use enclosed kilns to dry their malted barley for fermentation, preventing the peat smoke from reaching the germinated grains and eliminating the smokiness common to many Scotch whiskies.

The weathered stone buildings that house Old Bushmills Distillery are located near the remote northern coast of Ireland’s County Antrim, not far from the Giant’s Causeway, a rock formation reminiscent of a huge pillared stepping-stone pathway leading into the stormy sea and mirrored by a similar formation on the opposite Scottish shore. In addition to serving as the inspiration for legends and fairy tales, the Giant’s Causeway also offers a hint to the reason behind the distinct taste of Old Bushmills’ spirits. Saint Columb’s Rill, a tributary of the River Bush from which the distillery and the nearby town derive their names, supplies the water used in Bushmills’ whiskeys. Unlike Scottish distilleries’ peat-laden water, the water from Saint Columb’s Rill flows over ancient lava, which formed the Giant’s Causeway, picking up a mineralized hardness that lends a crisp clarity to the whiskey.

Whiskey was first made here in the 13th century, and since 1608 Old Bushmills has operated as a licensed distillery. Although Irish single-malt whiskey (only the Scots and Canadians omit the letter e from the spelling) was once the preferred drink of nobility and commoners alike, it fell out of favor by the late 19th century, when blended whiskeys took hold. But with Bushmills 10, 16, and now 21 Year Old, Ireland may be poised to reclaim its single-malt heritage.

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