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   The Bushmills distillery in Northern Ireland, located just two miles from the Giant's Causeway, changed hands two years ago. Ian Buxton looks at the impact of Diageo's ownership.

Bushmills big 4-0-0

Ian Buxton, 02/08

You could never say that Pernod Ricard isn't a great owner, but there's a palpable air of change and optimism around Bushmills these days. The distillery's new proprietor, Diageo, has ploughed some £6 million into the distillery and plans to back that investment with a flow of new products and revamped marketing for this most iconic of Irish whiskeys.

The 400th anniversary of distilling around Bushmills is celebrated in 2008. Not actually distilling at Bushmills, you understand, this relates to the grant of a distilling licence in the area to one of the English settlers, Sir Thomas Phillips as part of King James VI and I's attempt to exploit his new territories. But it's as good an excuse as you need for a party, and we won't cavil if it means more good things from Bushmills.

First of all, however, they have to build up stocks. Under Pernod, Bushmills produced between one and 1.5 million litres per annum (lpa). Following expenditure on new plant, this is being ramped up dramatically. The distillery is now working a seven-day week, and Colum Egan, Master Distiller, hopes to hit five million lpa in the next twelve months.

That should, over time, permit the introduction of a number of new expressions from a brand that - until now - has been limited to a couple of blends (Black Bush and the eponymous Original), the 10-year-old Bushmills single malt and aged or finished versions in very limited supply, such as the 16 and 21-year-old single malts. They have always been very hard to find, however.

   Given the riches that once characterised Irish distilling, sadly well outside our lives, it's a tantalising vision of what might have been. But Bushmills proudly boasts that it's the oldest Irish whiskey because it's the best, not the other way round, and the new owners seem determined to build on that heritage.

So, while the 400th anniversary might be a little contrived, it's as good a hook as any on which to hang the re-launch. Coming soon, there'll be new advertising, sponsorship of the Irish rugby team, revised packaging and a new website. But, for drinkers, the most exciting announcement is the new Bushmills 1608 which, as you'll have guessed, has been issued to commemorate that anniversary

It's another blend, available in all Bushmills' key markets throughout 2008, after which the limited stocks mean it will be restricted to travel retail and distillery shop sales. The interesting point about the blend is that the malt whiskey in there, about 90 per cent of the liquid, I would hazard, was made using crystal malt.

That highlights two interesting things: firstly, Irish blended whiskies tend to be more straightforward than their Scotch counterparts. With many fewer operating distilleries to chose from, that's inevitable, and the blend recipes are significantly less complex than those found in Scotland.

Secondly, the use of crystal malt is highly unusual. Presumably, this was an experiment by the previous owners but, as Colum Egan explains, the effect is quite noticeable. “It lends a sweet toffee-like smoothness to the final spirit…with great smoothness and depth of character,” he says.

I concur. This is still clearly in the Bushmills style but with its own special character. If you like a smooth, sweet, relaxing whisky to sip and savour, this one's for you. Bushmills enthusiasts will also welcome the bottling strength of 46% abv and note that this whisky is not chill-filtered. Hurrah, on both counts. Other distillers please note!
Bushmills, 1608 (Ireland)
(IB) Rich and concentrated, the first impression is of the sweetness. There are hints of honey, spice and chocolate, so greater complexity is revealed under the initial, very slightly cloying, first layer. It’s more intense than the signature Bushmills but a family resemblance can be clearly detected. Again, the initial impact on the palate is smooth sweetness, as this rich whiskey rolls around the mouth. There are toffee and dark caramel notes here, mingling with spicy hints that open up with a dash of water. Hints of fruit also appear after a while. The toffee develops to a dark chocolate on a lingering finish that holds together well. I've rated this 3.5 stars, but if you’re a fan of Bushmills it's worth 4, because you’ll probably love this! 46.0% ABV, 70cl, £49.00, specialist whisky merchants.


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