A spir­i­tous pil­grim­age


The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Britain & Ireland - JOHN HA­GAN

IF God made any­thing bet­ter, he kept it for him­self. That’s how my old Un­cle Fer­gus used to eu­lo­gise when he had a glass of the am­ber liq­uid in his hand. And he was right — I have come to love Ir­ish whiskey, too.

So it’s a thrill to visit my ‘‘spir­i­tual’’ home at Bush­mills dis­tillery in North­ern Ire­land to learn how my favourite drop is pro­duced.

Rightly known as the world’s old­est li­censed dis­tillery, it was King James I who granted the orig­i­nal war­rant for the dis­til­la­tion of aquae vi­tae in 1608. The folks of Bush­mills, about 88km north­west of Belfast, have been hard at it ever since. But even be­fore James’s time they were prac­tis­ing sur­rep­ti­tiously. As early as the 13th cen­tury, there was men­tion of uisce beatha — Gaelic for the wa­ter of life — be­ing made around Bush­mills, while his­toric ref­er­ences to that well- known Ir­ish pas­time of ‘‘un­law­ful dis­till­ing’’ can be traced back to the 1270s. Those Johnny-come-lately Scot­tish producers were only granted a dis­till­ing li­cence in 1823.

Both the Ir­ish and Scot­tish va­ri­eties share sim­i­lar­i­ties, but there are two im­por­tant dif­fer­ences. In Scot­land, the malted bar­ley is in­fused with a peatsmoke char­ac­ter as it is be­ing dried, while Bush­mills is dried in en­closed kilns with­out smoke, al­low­ing honey malt flavours to seep through. Scotch whiskies are gen­er­ally dis­tilled twice, but Bush­mills pro­cesses its spirit three times, im­bu­ing it with that leg­endary silky smooth­ness. Oh yes, and there is a third dif­fer­ence. The Scots omit the e from whiskey — as the Ir­ish would say, to save on print­ing costs.

A visit to Bush­mills dis­tillery be­gins with a short film pre­sen­ta­tion and the hour-long tour cov­ers all as­pects of the pro­duc­tion process, in­clud­ing fer­men­ta­tion, dis­til­la­tion, mat­u­ra­tion and bot­tling. But while all this is in­ter­est­ing, it’s the end of the tour that gen­er­ates the most ex­cite­ment as visi­tors reach the 1608 Bar. On the menu are com­pli­men­tary sam­ples of malts from eight to 21 years old.

At the end of the day’s tour­ing I head to re­lax at the Ra­mada Portrush ho­tel. From the cosi­ness of its snug bar, I set­tle down to watch the rain scud­ding in from the sea, and treat my­self to a large Bush­mills malt. Here’s to you, Un­cle Fer­gus.


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