Planet Whiskies tour of the new Bushmills Distillery and the visit of the Giant Causeway.
Planet Whiskies Tour and Tasting at Bushmills Distillery
Planet Whiskies had a fantastic time in Northern Ireland in late September 2023 when we visited the new Bushmills Distillery. The trip was a two-day adventure organized by Mark at Button Collective and by Proximo UK , who own the Irish Whiskey Brand Bushmills.
A special mention has to go to Alex Thomas, Bushmills Master Blender, who completed the whole experience of the two days in Northern Ireland.
Her passion for Bushmills products is shown through every talk she makes on the first day of the trip. Whether this was in the distillery tasting room, telling us all about the five whiskies we were tasting or the dinner that she hosted in the evening. Alex always wanted to answer any questions, but obviously, there were questions that she could not answer, as they were 'TOP SECRET'. Over the 16 years we have been running Planet Whiskies website, Alex is near the top of the most impressive whisk(e)y people we have met. The fact you can see her excitement when talking about Bushmills current activities and how for years she wanted any job within the distillery shows her passion for the whiskey industry, and now, with all her excitement about the Bushmills core range and plans, she is dealing with daily, Planet Whiskies can't wait for future ongoing development that will come out for the distillery soon.
Below, Alex Thomas talks about the types of barrels she likes using, talking about the Bushmills 25 and 30 years old and about her time at Bushmills.
"I have a passion for unusual wood and reimagining a traditional single malt. The Old Bushmills Distillery is a very special place where I get to explore this passion for developing new whiskeys and experimenting with different casks and flavours, while still maintaining the iconic Bushmills taste and quality"
"I have worked at Bushmills for almost two decades, and I have had a hand in shaping every one of the expressions we have released during that time. In 2021, I was officially appointed Master Blender for Bushmills and have since had the privilege of unveiling several incredible new whiskeys."
"More recently, I had the opportunity to release the Bushmills 25 and 30 Year Old Single Malts, which proudly stand as the oldest and rarest liquids to come from the distillery. The 25 Year Old is a 46% ABV, non-chill-filtered, single malt Irish whiskey that has been matured at the Old Bushmills Distillery for between four and six years before finishing in ruby port pipes for up to 21 years. It is one of the best whiskeys I have tasted in my lifetime – a bold statement, but true! Here, you can savour the wood's influence and appreciate the craft of whiskey making."
"The 30 Year Old is for the sherry cask fans out there – the smooth palate of figs and dates, followed by praline, orange peel and vanilla truly needs to be tasted to be believed! Distilled in 1992, it is the oldest expression in the Bushmills core range to date. Bottled at 46% ABV and non-chill-filtered, this sublime whiskey has been matured for 14 years before being finished in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks for 16 years."
Highlights of the two days to Northern Ireland
The tour was well planned from start to finish, highlighting the best in Irish Whiskey, Accommodation and Food with visits to The Bushmills Inn for lunch on the first day, and a trip around the new Bushmills Distillery in the afternoon. Then, a night of whiskey, excellent food and an overnight stay at the fantastic Galgorm Hotel and Spa in Ballymena. The night was hosted by Bushmills Master Blender, Alex Thomas and Proximo, Mark McConville. At dinner, we had an eight-course meal with drinks, and the food was 'out of this world'. The highlight of the evening was tasting the new core range from Bushmills, their 25-year-old and 30-year-old single malts. Both were fantastic drams and finished off the evening in style. We will talk about all the Bushmill drams later in the article.
On the second day, we had lunch at Harry's Shack after visiting Giant's Causeway, having one of Bushmills Causeway drams while on the rocks. And then a trip back to Belfast Airport for the flight back to Glasgow.
Details about the Bushmills Distillery Tour
The Bushmills Distillery Tour was a fantastic opportunity to see the newly constructed facilities. The building of this new distillery, within 100 metres of the Old Bushmills Distillery, started just before COVID and was worked on during COVID, with workers from throughout Europe staying in Bushmills so they did not have to quarantine. Bushmills could not thank these workers enough; if it were not for them, the distillery would not have been built so quickly during one of the most troubling times in recent memories. The cost of building this whisky project was £37 million, and the official opening of the new distillery took place on 20 April 2023, with an impressive light show that could be seen from miles around Bushmills.
With the new distillery in operation, it has come at the best time, with Bushmills sales volumes globally growing 10% in 2022 and passing 1 million cases sales in a calendar year for the first time in its long legacy. Bushmills fill approximately 150,000 American cask equivalent per year between malt and the grain they use for their blends. In the warehouses, there are over 460,000, so Bushmills are is a great position to satisfy the growing demand for their unique single malts worldwide.
Taking the tour around Bushmills was fascinating. Our tour guide host was called Tim, and he walked us through all the details about the distillery and its working. Walking down to the new distillery, passing row after row of empty barrels, waiting for their next fills to be completed. It was impossible to judge how many barrels were there, but knowing these would be filled soon and lying in one of the many warehouses was a wonderful thought. The distilleries use each cask three to four times, and throughout the distillery, there are 480K casks on-site, including barrels filled with their wonderful Bushmills spirit and empty casks.
Tim was an excellent tour guide, telling us as many details as possible about the distillery and answering all our questions. The new distillery has yet to be opened to the public, so we were one of the first people Bushmills did not employ to access the new buildings. With The Old Bushmills Distillery in a normal year welcoming over 130,000 visitors, whatever plans for the new Causeway distillery, this figure is likely to be considerably greater, with plans for a new visitor experience.
Tim then took us into the spirit house and where the mash tuns are located. Everything about the distillery was impressive, and just a couple of facts are the new large mash tum has a capacity of 65,700 litres and is run on a 3.5-hour cycle. This large mash tum has a capacity of 14 tonnes of Malted Barley. This is compared to the older size mash tum that only holds 48,000 litres and requires to run for 5.5 hours, and has a capacity of 10 tonnes of Malted Barley. He also told us that there are between 140-160 full-time staff at Bushmills, depending on the time of year. This shows us how vital Bushmills Distilleries is to the local community and why people wanted to work for them
Bushmill Distillery now has a capacity of 11.5 litres, producing a million cases yearly (2022). The old distillery could only handle around five million litres annually. The best thing about the new distillery's architecture is how it was built. The new distillery has been built so that they could if required, double the still house and fermentation and increase the new distillery to 13 million litres annually.
Currently, there are 38 warehouses on the site at Bushmills, with another 20 planned when required. Each warehouse contains between 19,000 and 24,000 barrels - this variation is due to the many different sizes of barrels that Bushmills works with. And if more is needed, they will find a way to buy more land and add to their storage capacity. Most of the warehouses stock the barrels on pallets in an upright position to maximise the space in each warehouse.
Bushmills are committed to small-batch blending. At The Old Bushmills Distillery, they use just ten copper pot stills to produce limited batches each time. At The Causeway Distillery, we will use an additional 10 copper pot stills of similar dimensions to those in The Old Bushmills Distillery to enable us to achieve the exact same quality and flavour of whiskey in both distilleries.
One of the exciting facts about Bushmills is the foresight they have for the future of the whiskey industry. When the Irish Whiskey industry was in trouble in the 90s, they decided to increase their whiskey production. In fact, they doubled it as they could see this would be short-lived, and it's testimony to this foresight that they have added the Bushmills 25 and 30-year-olds to their core ranges this year. This would not have been possible in the past. Adding these two whiskies to the core range shows the previous management team's vision. You will always get distilleries to release a limited edition 25 and 30-year-olds, but to add this to your core range, which will mostly always be available, is a fantastic fact and one that the old and new owners of Bushmills can be proud of for years to come.
Tasting and Q&A's at Bushmills Distillery with Alex Thomas
The tasting of the core Bushmills whiskies was one highlight for me on the tour. It was in a perfect setting in the distillery, with three tables with four people on each table. Walking in, the host of the afternoon tasting, Alex Thomas, greeted everyone with a warm handshake, thanked us all for coming on the tour and asked how we enjoyed the tour with Tim. Then Alex, on a podium by this time, introduced us again to the distilleries and details about her life within the Bushmills Family. One of Alex's key phrases was, "Remember, Bushmills is all about the wood", referring to the different types of casks used in the production of the distillery drams. Also, stating that each dram that leaves Bushmills goes through a checking process of between 200 and 250 tests before that batch is released. After an introduction, it was time to start the tasting, as we all had six of the finest Bushmills drams in front of us. Alex went through each one, describing her thoughts about each one and giving us all an accurate inside view of each malt we tasted.
Whiskey Tasting at Bushmills Distillery.
- Bushmills 10-year-old 1983
- Bushmills 12-year-old, which had two years in sherry casks at the end of the process
- Bushmills Three Woods 1997, which was a 16-year-old
- Bushmills 21-year-old from 2001, which had 19 years in sherry/bourbon casks and two years in Madeira cask.
- Bushmills 10 year old. Eight years in a sherry cask and then a final two years with a Barolo finish.
- Causeway 21-year-old, which was storied in bourbon/sherry casks and, for the last two years, again using Basalt rock.
The basalt stone is no longer in the casks. They were only used when Bushmills toasted the wood when building the cask. This imparted the minerality into the wood so they can draw it back into the whiskey now as it matures.
After the tasting, Alex held a question and answer session with everyone in the touring party. It was fascinating listening to Alex answer all the questions that were put to her. You could tell she wanted to say more but couldn't, as she could "let the rabbit out the bag." with things currently happening at Bushmills. As I said before, Alex's passion for her whiskey was terrific and the highlight of the whole experience at Bushmills (excluding the new structure of the 'New Bushmills Distillery', which was equally impressive) because of her highly positive feelings about the Bushmills brands, which spread to all of us.
Thanks to Bushmills, Button Collective and Proximo UK
Planet Whiskies would like to thank Bushmills for the invite to see their new distillery and what an experience it was. We want to thank Button Collective and Proximo UK for organising everything on the trip to Northern Ireland, including the taxi pick-up and drop-off from Planet Whiskies to the airport, the bus in Northern Ireland, and every part of the planning that went into the trip, to make it such a success for everyone involved. And staying at the Galgorm Hotel and Spa in Ballymena and its fantastic setting made it even more perfect for everyone on the trip.