A spiritous pilgrimage
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
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.