I grew up about 10 miles away from the oldest whisk(e)y distillery in the world – Bushmills 1608 in Northern Ireland. In an industry obsessed with pairing up the sometimes unhappy bedfellows of a whisky’s age its resulting quality, you might expect Bushmills to have all the heritage and resources to turn out some of the finest drams known to humanity. If that were true, of course, the entire craft of whisky distilling would be reduced to a protracted game of chicken to see who could hold their nerve, and their whisky casked, the longest.
I am familiar with Bushmills Original, Black Bush and Bushmills 10 from before I ever fully appreciated whisky and have grown to appreciate each of them on their varied and specific merits. In the meantime the distillery has undergone a high-profile change of ownership, witnessed a resurgent Irish whiskey industry and faced more competition in the last couple of decades than it probably saw in the prior few centuries.
I’ve enjoyed the distillery-only release 12-year single malt, as much for the personalised labels printed on site at the distillery shop marking my wedding and the birth of my son, as for its gentle spice and citrus notes. The 16-year malt is a very fine dram; much-celebrated, increasingly hard to find yet almost mourned in some quarters for not being what it once was, if they’re to be believed. I’ve even enjoyed the hot toddy presented to you in the distilllery foyer as you wait to be drawn into a tour that lingers a little too long in the industrial bottling plant before finally sitting you down for a tasting.
It was only recently that I found both the opportunity and the careless slip of the wallet required to try a measure of the top-of-the-range 21-year single malt, in the eponymous Inn at Bushmills. What is certainly true is that this is a very fine glass of whisky, if you can tear your mind away from the pound-to-millilitre ratio provided by the bar’s price list. The sweet toffee nose leads into a complex array of spicy fruit and nut flavours with a rich menthol-tinged, liquorice finish. It is in turns both violently rich and subtly decadent, like a Mafia interrogator who pauses between each flurry of gut punches to fetch you another Macaron.
What struck me most was how much the aromas and flavours were profoundly evocative of the rugged and precise coastline where I spent my childhood. I can say I’ve drank better whisky, sure, but Bushmills 21 was the closest thing to Proust’s madeleine that I’ve experienced – if we aren’t counting White Lightening cider and acute nausea. It seems that in the world’s oldest distillery, age and quality have indeed learned to live side by side very well over their two decades in bourbon, Oloroso sherry and Madeira casks.