The Oregon Bartenders Guild welcomed Colum Egan, one of Ireland’s favorite sons, to Portland this week for the final stop of his far too brief American visit.
Colum is the personable and talented Master Distiller for Bushmills Irish Whiskey…that’s the legendary and traditionally malt-focused whiskey distillery in County Antrim in the “Six Counties” of Northern Ireland…and he oversees all production of whiskey there. Or, as Colum pronounces it proudly, he works at “the finest whiskey distillery in the world!”
Either the natural eloquence of the Irish or a lifetime of palate lubrication with fine whiskey (or both?) have endowed Colum with a tongue as smooth as his triple-distilled malt whiskey. He regaled the trade professionals with the fascinating story of Bushmills and led the group in an astounding tasting of the amazing breadth of the whiskey portfolio.
Bushmills is a malt-centric distillery, as compared to other Irish distilleries which make “Irish pot still whiskey” with a blend of malted and unmalted barley for an entirely different style. And all Bushmills whiskey is an extension of the original malt, either blended with grain whiskey, or matured as a single malt under varying barrel regimens for extended times. So a full spectrum tasting of Bushmills whiskey is a rare and precious opportunity to observe the primary malt whiskey mellowing and deepening through maturation and concentration.
Colum began with the popular Bushmills Blended Irish Whiskey, the mellow uisce beatha that’s graced many a glass. The Irish tradition favors the absence of peat smoke (although there are some, as with the Connemara Peated Irish Single Malt Whiskey from another distillery) and focuses on the natural flavors of the malted barley, refined and softened by three distillations, and mellowed by a minimum of three years in barrel.
The second whiskey, Black Bush, showed an entirely different face, stepping out with bolder, more robust aromas and flavors, with the sweet, clean nature of the whiskey robed in rich, dried fruits and winey notes from the use of seasoned oloroso sherry barrels and sweet old bourbon barrels in the slow maturation process. Black Bush takes a bit longer to make, as it matures for up to seven years; it shows that extra barrel essence and age in the dark color, heady aroma, and rich flavor of the 80% malt blend.
The following three Bushmills were iterations of single malt Bushmills with varying barrel and age regimens.
Bushmills 10 Year Old is a single malt matured exclusively in bourbon seasoned barrels to add a distinctive note of melted chocolate and honey that sits in the back of the throat. This is a smooth, mellow and very gentle Irish malt whiskey with a delicate, long finish.
Bushmills 16 Single Malt, signified by its port wine colored label, requires excessive patience, obviously. It also requires a careful dual maturation, with half the whiskey in seasoned bourbon barrels, half in seasoned oloroso sherry barrels, and then a blend of the two further aged and finished briefly in Portugese port wine barrels. The resulting elixir is abundantly rich, fruity, silky---or as Colum says, “heavenly to taste.”
Just when it’s as good as you think it can get, Colum brings out the Bushmills 21 Single Malt. Bushmills 21 Single Malt is a rare and precious form of the Bushmills magic. It benefits from the seasoned bourbon and oloroso oak barrels in a dual aging regimen, then is blended and placed in port barrels for a full two years beyond so the spirits can mingle and marry.
Intensely rich, but incredibly mellow, the Bushmills 21 is a combination of dark chocolate and buttery toffee, with deep fruity, raisiny notes lingering around the edges and an herbal, almost minty-fresh flash, at the very finish. This is an altogether splendid Irish single malt whiskey and a wonder to sip slowly, reverently, with due attention and appreciation.
As a parting sip, Colum passed around samples of one of Bushmills’ new iterations, Bushmills Irish Honey. If you are expecting a treacly sweet liqueur concoction with Bushmills Honey, you’ll be disappointed. If, however, you’d like a healthy tot of Bushmills Irish Whiskey with a sparely measured bit of honey to the taste, not overly sweet, not overly thick, with more whiskey than honey, and more honey taste and aroma than sweetness, this may be your very thing.
And with that, Colum ended his whirlwind American tour and headed to the airport to return to Ireland, echoes of “Slainte” and “God Bless You” in echoing in his ears. The Bushmills whiskey remains here, in full array and available throughout Oregon in OLCC liquor stores and in bars everywhere.