Raise Your Glass to the Prince Across the Water

First Society bottling in 1988.

At Old Bushmills, the whiskey has an 'e'. in it. And as Anthony Troon discovers, they are still building the oldest licensed distillery in the world.

There's a comfortable, mossy patina in the long, low buildings reflected in the still water of the dam. But there are other causes for reflection at the handsome distillery of Old Bushmills, in County Antrim. Apart from a new enterprise at Cooley, in Eire, Old Bushmills's the only, true legal malt whiskey distillery operating in the whole of Ireland. How can this be? Making whiskey was supposed to be an Irish secret, stolen by the Scots who couldn't even spell it properly.

Earlier this century, there were as many as 37 distilleries in Ireland, but they were killed off by commercial imperative. Dennis Higgins, the deputy MD at Old Bushmills, says that a generation ago, the lrish distillers strenously objected to the legal acceptance of grain whisky. And of course, the blending of malt and grain under the name of 'Scotch' was a key to the dramatic expansion of the industry in Scotland. So while Scotch took over the world, Irish whiskey languished-apparently for a principle with which members of a malt whisky brotherhood such as ours would have a sneaking sympathy.

Scotch blended whisky benefitted from the huge market of the British Empire: and it was also well-place to seize a share of the sleeping US market, wakened by the end of Prohibition. According to Dennis Higgins, Irish whiskey suffered an unlucky hacklash in America: many brands of home-made hooch, peddled by gangsters in the Prohibition speakeasies, had been given Irish names for spurious authenticity, which did nothing for the reputation of the real stuff later on.

One other factor contributes to Old Bushmills being Ireland's sole malt. Other Irish single Whiskeys produced at the Midleton distillery complex in Eire are distilled from a mash that contains only a proportion of malted barley, mixed with either unmalted barley or other unmalted cereals such as wheat or oats. This is a traditional practice but, obviously, whatever the result is, it ain't pure malt. So Old Bushmills distillery, situated 55 miles north of Belfast, is a great survivor. The right to distill here was first granted in 1608 by James I of England: in contrast, the first actual distillery license granted in Scotland was The Glenlivet's in 1823, although various kinds of distilling legislation had existed for centuries previously.

Three kinds of whiskey derive from Old Bushmills: there's the standard blend called 'Bushmills', the luxury blend containing some sherry-casked malt called 'Black Bush', and the one we are concerned with here, 'Bushmills Malt'. The water source, St Columb's Rill, runs through the distillery grounds before it joins the River Bush. The stream flows over peat and basalt, but peatiness is not a characteristic of the result, a light and elegantly rounded dram with an elusive character that sets itself apart from the Scotch Lowland style. Dennis Higgins said that the tradition of peatiness had disappeared from Irish whiskey-making many years ago.

When the celebrated Alfred Barnard visited Bushmills around 1884, he found it used only locally-produced barley; and malting, of course, was done on the premises. But since the early 1970s, Old Bushmills has bought in its malted barley, taking a third of the production of Northern Ireland's only commercial maltsters, with additional supplies from Eire and Scotland - and occasionally from France. Provided that it comes from the recognised barley varieties, the grain itself does not contribute any detectable difference in flavour, and the distillers are looking for maximum yield.

Oldest it may be in one sense, but Old Bushmills distillery has had to renew itself. a traumatic event was a fire in 1885 which destroyed practically all of the buildings and equipment. But three years later, an engraving The Book of Antrim shows the distillery completely rebuilt and back in business, with author George Henry Bassett's admiring observation: 'There is nothing old about the place except the whiskey.' On my visit in June, a new fermentation hall was being built, its breeze block walls disguised by rough-east, and with small windows to help it blend with neighbouring buildings. A sensible subterfuge when you have 50,000 visitors a year.

The present fermentation vessels five of Oregon pine and two of stainless steel-will be replaced by ten stainless steel washbacks. These will receive the worts from the mash tuns at an original gravity 'in the high 50s'. Only distiller's yeast is used at Old Bushmills. Fermentation is vigorous, producing after about 45 hours a wash containing 7t per cent alcohol byvolume, twice as strong as that in a beer or ale producing process.

The spirit here is triple-distilled, using four wash-stills and five spirit-stills and therefore a complicated shuffling of batches that it would take a mathematician to fathom. Each fermentation fills three wash stills at about 16,000 litres capacity, while each spirit still handles about 9,000 Iitres. As our picture shows, two of the wash stills are unusually shaped, the neck ending in a flat top and with an offset lyne arm. This was to accommodate the drive for the 'rummager' when the stills were direct-fired: but heating is now done through an internal steam coil. The spirit stills are particularly elegant-high and slim-and reckoned thus to produce a lighter spirit. Although some parts of the stills have to be renewed at five-year intervals, some components are a century old.

Old Bushmills comes off the third distillation at a powerful 80 per cent alcohol by volume, reduced to 63 per cent before filling the casks. After maturation the whiskey emerges at around 50 per cent and is further reduced' for bottling. The distillery is unusual too in that it employs three full-time coopers. Its blends are unusual also, in that they contain only Old Bushmills malt married to Irish grain whiskey' from Midleton. Blending is-cartied out at the distillery, and also bottling of the three products. This, of course, is unusual. Here's to happy non-conformity.