Mulholland's Drive

Mulholland's Drive

Iorwerth Griffiths talks to Ireland's first female master blender.

People 24 Jul 2009 | Interviews | By Iorweth Griffiths

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Bushmills Distillery was first registered in 1784 but it likes to trace its history back further to 1608. Although there is no evidence that the present-day distillery existed in 1608, an exclusive licence to distil was given to a Sir Thomas Phillips to make aqua vitae in a large area that contains the village of Bushmills

Bushmills is rightly proud of its long history, but does that make it backwardlooking? Certainly not, and such a view is quickly dispelled on meeting master blender Helen Mulholland, the only woman in the Irish whiskey industry to hold such a high profile role.

Helen hails from Portstewart which is less than 10 miles from the distillery and is therefore very much a local.She trained as a food technologist and first worked at Bushmills on an industrial placement. Although this was a brief encounter it made its mark, "once you come through the gates at Bushmills and see all the whitewashed buildings, you really don't want to leave."

But she had to leave, to finish her training and to take up her first lab job at Coca Cola Bottlers.

However, she was not away for too long and soon secured a return to the place that had made such an impression by becoming a lab technician at Bushmills.

The only other time she has been away since was for a year to complete her masters degree with the thesis looking at whiskey maturation in wood. There followed a number of managerial posts on the quality and compliance side but things were about to change.

In 2005 Diageo took over the distillery from Pernod Ricard, who owned it via its Irish Distillers Ltd subsidiary, in a deal that saw the latter take over Allied Domecq. The master blender at the time was Billy Leighton who worked between Bushmills and Irish Distillers' main plant at Midleton, County Cork.

When the deal went through Diageo needed a new master blender. Rather than bring in someone from elsewhere, Diageo had the foresight to train Helen Mulholland to become Ireland's first female master blender.

To be a master blender Helen says that you "have to have good sensory perception and you have to love the job".

She has a "real passion for casks" and likes "nothing better than going to the warehouses and wandering about in the dark and the cold looking at barrels". Not something that would appeal to everybody perhaps, but she quickly adds "you do have to love the whiskey".

A typical day would start with a visit to the lab to see what tasting panels are required. As well as the usual quality assurance tests on batches of whiskey, each individual cask used for the three top-end single malts - the 12 Years Old Distillery Reserve, 16 and 21 Years Olds - will have to pass a panel before it will be allowed to make up one of this impressive trio.

She works on the formulations, or recipes, and decides the cask profile for maturing the new make spirit, a job that also involves checking any new casks coming into the distillery.

Another element of her work is checking the cask inventory to make sure none of the components of the various Bushmills whiskeys are being used up too quickly. She then gets a chance to wander around in those warehouses checking more casks.

As well as being responsible for new product development Helen's job involves travelling to Spain, Portugal and the island of Madeira to source casks and decide on the sherry, port or Madeira wines that will fill them before they make their way to Bushmills to be filled with its famous Irish whiskey.

The best things about the job are "working with nature" and "working with the people". Although her training was all science based she enjoys the unpredictability of working with nature and natural products to create whiskey and "still gets a thrill when two casks filled at exactly the same time produce something slightly different". She enjoys working with her colleagues at Bushmills as they are "very special" and are "genuinely proud to work for the distillery".

When asked which of the Bushmills whiskeys she prefers she initially gives the politically correct answer that there are "different types for different occasions". However, one in particular is close to her heart - Bushmills 1608 Anniversary Edition.

Bushmills 1608 Anniversary Edition was launched in 2008 to celebrate the 400 year anniversary of whiskey-making in the region. This whiskey is somewhat unique in that some of the malt whiskey component in the blend is made from experimental casks containing whiskey distilled from crystal malt that had been maturing for more than 10 years.

Why is this special? "The 1608 is incredibly special to me as it's the first new whiskey I developed and we launched it in the year my daughter was born, six weeks after in fact, so it's very, very special."

Helen obviously loves her work but are there any downsides to being the master blender at Bushmills? Not really according to Helen but a slightly sad feature of the work is "seeing whiskey being filled into barrels and knowing that it won't be out for 21 years and that it's highly unlikely that I'll be there to see it mature".

As for the future, well, Helen is happy to see the investment in the distillery thanks to Diageo and that the whiskey is becoming a high profile brand in its portfolio but remains confident that the distillery will remain a special place to work with a small, tight knit workforce who are proud of their work and their distillery. New product developments may be in the offing but she remains tight lipped as to what they might be. "Great to see the distillery working at full capacity and building stocks for the future", she says before declaring "it's a great place to be at the moment".

When talk turns to Helen's own future, she reckons she'll be happy if she's still there wandering around those warehouses.

You certainly get the feeling Bushmills' is in safe hands and the distillery is looking to the future without forgetting its past.
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