Irish giant

Irish giant

Dave Broom concludes his indepth investigation of the Irish whiskey industry

Production | 22 Jul 2008 | Issue 73 | By Dave Broom

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For once in his life, Colum Egan is looking disappointed. “The waves are usually breaking right over the rocks,” he says, looking hopefully out at the sea for an oncoming squall. Not today. The water is so lethargic it’s barely able to slop against the basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway. “I was hoping it would be more elemental.” His smile returns as he starts hauling on a rope. “You know, I always prefer my Bushmills on the rocks,” he says pulling a chilled bottle out of the sea. We throw some over the Causeway to toast the giant, give the bottle to some fast-talking Belfast ladies, “Whiskey? Don’t suppose you’ve got any Baileys?” and sip, looking across the channel that separates the northern coast of Ireland from Kintyre and the Hebrides.The North Channel has long been a busy waterway. It was the route taken at the end of the 5th century by Fergus Mor mac Earc as he sailed from Antrim to establish his kingdom of Dalriada, now Argyll. It was from here that Aine O’Cathain set sail to marry Angus Og, Lord of the Isles in 1300, with her physician Padraig MacBeathad whose family could have been the first to distil in Scotland, who himself treated Robert the Bruce, the same Bruce who hid on Rathlin Island up the coastline, communing with a spider. Don’t try and tell me there wasn’t strong liquor involved in that.Years of interaction, of shared tales, songs and poetry, of politics and science.Immigrants and emigres, a great tidal flow of humanity and ideas. Whiskey is just one small (though significant) part of this.Bushmills whiskey has its part to play but, like the rest of the history of Irish whiskey, things are never quite as straightforward as you think, or the way that the books have told you.“It’s more than just the whiskey,” Colum’s saying. “Irish is quirky, it’s rogueish. Why aren’t there Scottish bars around the world?Irish is about being inclusive, about being fun in a world of whiskey where Scotch takes itself too seriously. As for us, we’re different and that lies in the fact that we’ve been doing this in Antrim for 400 years.” Ah yes, 1608. Let’s deal with that first. 400 years ago Sir Arthur Chichester granted his deputy, Sir Thomas Phillips, the right to be the sole legal distiller ‘within the county of Colrane, otherwise called O’Cahanes countrey [the ghost of Aine returns], or within the territorie called the Rowte in County Antrim’, ie where Sir Thomas had made his home. Government corruption isn’t a 21st century invention. Although whiskey has been legally made in this area for 400 years it doesn’t follow that the Bushmills distillery is 400 years old, nor should it be said, is the firm claiming that it is. Whiskey-making however is as much part of this land as the Causeway.Bushmills distillery first appears in 1784.101 years later, by now an established fixture in a small, prosperous town, it had been “improved” and had just had electric light installed, though two weeks after the power was switched on the distillery was destroyed by fire. Whether the two are connected isn’t clear. Three years later, however, a new distillery stood on the site. “There is nothing old about the place except the whiskey and the methods employed,” reported the Book of Antrim. This mix of ancient and modern impressed Alfred Barnard when he paid a visit soon after. “They are alive to all modern inventions,” said whisky’s first great chronicler delightedly.We’re standing under the new mashtun, Colum is explaining, as only an engineer can, about heat recovery and high-tech pumps.The whole place has been refurbished. In fact, it would seem that Bushmills’ history is one of regular upgrades, improvements and most of all, expansions. The small still of 1784 is now a huge rambling site, complete with distillery, filling store, warehousing, bottling hall and the all-important visitors’ centre.Facts and figures spill out; nine lorry loads of malt a week, Fractal Cocktail, Sebastian, new malt bins, a new mill, new mash tun, 59 hours ferment. The head spins, though all of this is straightforward compared to what’s about to happen.You enter the Bushmills stillhouse from the upper level, at the same height almost as the lyne arms of the stills, or at least some of them. As you scan the room you realise that there’s nine of them scattered in seemingly random fashion around a square central control area, three sides of it enclosed by spirit safes. The clear spirit now cascading into them has in turn been manipulated by the stills’ slender necks which has squeezed the vapour into an intimate conversation with the copper, increasing reflux. Light is the desired flavour here, achieved by using a fiendishly difficult method of triple distillation.Things start pretty straightforwardly with the wash distillation which is run as normal, giving a distillate which is collected in the low wines receiver.The contents of this are charged into three of the second distillation stills. The heads are run into the low wines receiver, then a middle cut (between 75% and 66%) is taken.This portion is run into the strong feints receiver. The remainder, aka weak feints, ends up in the low wines receiver.The two stills being used for the spirit run are then each charged with 7,000 litres of strong feints. Only a tiny cut (from 86 per cent down to 83 per cent) is collected as spirit.The distillation continues however with the distillate being collect as strong feints (destination strong feints receiver).When the volume in the stills drops to a certain level, the still is recharged with weak feints to the original level and the distillation starts again. The resulting distillate is collected initially as strong feints (and run into that receiver) until the strength drops to 66% at which point it becomes weak feints (and is run into the low wines receiver). Whoever said whiskey making was simple.“We say it’s triple distillation,” says Colum, “but we’re probably distilling some of this six or seven times, adding copper, building up strength. The fact that we have four, maybe even six cut points also gives us a better opportunity to add strength or take out flavours we don’t want.” It’s hard to say where this one-off approach came from, though a clue might lie in the appointment of James Morrison as manager in the 1930s. According to his memoirs, his first experience of the Bushmills spirit was not a positive one: “Fermentation was rather disappointing, but the results of distillation was vile.” Jimmy Morrison was noted for straight talking. His answer was to try “a triple type of pot still [distillation] not in use anywhere else.” He had come to Bushmills fresh from a stint at Mortlach, which operates the most bizarre distillation regime in Scotland. Coincidence?Who can say.Whatever the case, Bushmills’ take on triple distillation only started in the 1930s.Prior to that it is entirely possible that its whiskey was double distilled. Barnard notes there were two pots; the whiskey was known as “Pure Old Malt Whiskey.” In other words, Bushmills stood apart from the by then standard ‘Irish’ (in reality, Dublin) technique of making whiskey from a triple-distilled mash of malted and unmalted barley. It was small, it was different. Conceivably, this is what saved it from Distillers’ Company Limited’s (DCL) great purge of Northern Ireland’s distilleries in the early 20th century.Having bought up the major (predominantly grain) plants DCL’s chairman William Ross minuted that “Ireland is an irrelevance.” Small plants like Bushmills had no part to play in his grand scheme. It continued in its own, idiosyncratic, way.Oh, and it was lightly peated until the 1970s. Nothing’s quite as clear as you think when it comes to Irish whiskey.“These whiskeys are lighter, they’re complex but there’s less fusel oils, so when they work with each other it’s because of the esters linking together.” Colum’s explaining Bushmills’ wood regime. “If you have a delicate spirit you daren’t put it into poor casks.” There’s a higher percentage of first fill used at Bushmills than in Scotland and once the cask has been used three times it’s sold on.There’s no rejuvenating. The same goes for the grain component (triple distilled from maize at Midleton) used in Original and Black Bush. “Our blending here is mixing two distillates,” says Colum. “So we’d better get the spirit and the wood spot on!” One way of ensuring consistency is using a solera-style technique in the filling vats which are never fully emptied.Bushmills is a blend and it’s malt – no ‘Cardhu’ style fuss here – it’s a shape-shifter, taking what it needs to remain true to itself.That’s very Irish. There may be this thing called Irish whiskey, but it’s actually impossible to say what it is. On one hand it’s the triple distilled/mixed mash whiskeys made by IDL (Irish Distillers Limited) in the old Dublin tradition, it’s also the double distilled whiskeys of Cooley, as well as the Bushmills take. Three distillers, three very different takes.We’re musing on this later that night, comfortably ensconced in the antique gloom of The House of McDonald in Ballycastle.The pub has been in the hands of the same family since 1776 and memories of these 200 plus years are clustered around, of talk and song, of elbows smoothing the bar, a place where every surface has been moulded by the public past. It’s here where it begins to cohere, Bushmills’ silky, tongue-coating whiskey giving added loquaciousness to the conversation. For all the twisting contrariness of Irish whiskey’s story, for all its complex techniques and firmly held beliefs it becomes real here; in the people, in the public bar. It is here that you realise that all spirits, all drinks, are more about a social history which goes far beyond the intricacies of distillation; that they are a part of a shared consciousness, the liquid glue which gives cohesion to the place, that reaches out and pulls you into its embrace. Irish whiskey? It’s about community.
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