Irish whiskey has a reputation for being simple—even uninteresting—it's the proverbial redheaded stepchild lost in the shadows of its higher profile siblings, Scotch and bourbon. Many drinkers don't venture beyond a shot of Jameson on St. Patrick's day, but they should! While there isn't as much variety in the Irish family as you'd find in Scotland or America, there is a satisfyingly complex depth of expression within the well-defined style of Irish whiskeys, as well as a few notable outliers that are expanding the boundaries of what an Irish whiskey can be.
Today we're tasting through some of the offerings from Bushmills, including Bushmills Original, Black Bush, 10 Year Old Malt, and 21 Year Old Malt, in order to get a sense of the house style and determine which bottle is the best value. Perhaps we'll even pick out a whiskey to add to our Christmas wish list.
Located in Northern Ireland in County Antrim, Bushmills has officially been making whiskey since 1784 (it had been previously operating "in the hands of smugglers" according to a Victorian whiskey journalist). Like most Irish whiskey, Bushmills is triple distilled in pot stills from an un-peated malted barley mash. They have two blended offerings on the market (where grain alcohol is added to the whiskey), as well as a range of single malt bottlings (which consist entirely of aged whiskeys). Today we're trying two of each, so let's get to it!
Bushmills Original ($22)
This is a fairly standard blended Irish whiskey—if you're a Jameson fan, you'll feel right at home here, though it's a shade more nuanced and just smidgen smoother. It's the second-lightest in color, a pale amber, with vanilla and grain on the nose. It continues with the sweet grain character and honey on the palate, and a fairly hot finish as the alcohol takes over. A pleasant introduction to the range, and I prefer it over most other standard blended Irish offerings—great for mixing or as a shot whiskey.
Bushmills Black Bush ($33)
A significant step up from the Original, this blend contains a much higher proportion of malt to grain whiskeys. The malt has spent some time in ex-Oloroso Sherry casks, giving it an amber cast and placing it as the second-darkest coloration of the bunch. This spirit is all sherry on the nose, with some baking spices, a hint of the grain, and a little pot still earthiness. It tastes like the sweet grain of the Original, but is distinctly smoother, and there is more sherry flavor, with hints of cinnamon, honey, some pears and nuttiness, and a bit of smoke and wood. The finish is rather short, and there is still a little heat, but it's carried away by a saltiness that leaves the mouth watering for more. This sippable whiskey is a tremendous value, and my favorite of the bunch! Bring this bottle as a gift for your holiday party host.
Bushmills 10 Year Old Malt ($38)
The youngest single malt offering from Bushmills, consisting entirely of whiskeys aged at least 10 years in ex-bourbon barrels, this is actually the lightest colored whiskey of the group. The aroma reminded us of green apples and pears, opening up to vanilla and honey on the palate. There's a breath of smokiness, and the finish is smooth and buttery. A bit less intriguing than the Black Bush, it's both softer and less complex—maybe a little too easy to drink?
Bushmills 21 Year Old Malt ($90)
Matured in ex-bourbon casks and ex-Oloroso Sherry casks for the first 19 years and then finished in Madeira casks, this exceptionally old Irish whiskey is a dark amber and practically glows. The aroma balances vanilla and oak and a hint of citrus, with a deep malty background. On tasting, the first thing you notice is how intensely creamy the spirit is—coating the palate unctuously in a way that is neither cloying nor sticky. There's the malt again, but also raisin flavors, chocolate, toffee, sherry, spices, and toasted nuts. The flavors linger and develop, finishing evenly with an oaky dryness that carries off the sweetness very nicely. It's not the most complex or challenging whiskey I've ever had, but it is one of the smoothest. This malt could make a whiskey drinker out of just about anyone.
All of these are whiskeys that you could down dram after dram, and come back for more. Bushmills is a good representation of the standard styles you may come across from other Irish distilleries, too, but there's also a wider variety of styles out there, from peated to pure pot still. We'll investigate some of these styles in upcoming posts, so stay tuned!
Samples provided for review consideration.
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distillers and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.