A Deep Dive Into the Booming, Surprisingly Complex World of Irish Single Malt

Irish whiskey could outsell Scotch in the US by 2030. We headed to the Bushmills Distillery to see if the hooch is worth the hype.

January 12, 2022 6:02 am
Whiskey ages in one of the barrel rooms at the Bushmlils distillery in Ireland
Whiskey ages in one of the barrel rooms at the Bushmlils distillery in Ireland

If you were to visit a major tourist attraction in the United States that involved slippery rocks and a chance of stumbling into tumultuous, frigid sea, authorities would likely frown upon that site being designated for a whiskey tasting. That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Attitudes in Ireland are apparently a bit more relaxed. On a recent visit to the Bushmills Distillery, the Giant’s Causeway — a 50- to 60-million-year-old formation of basalt columns heading into the Atlantic Ocean — was where we hiked out for a glass of single malt at sunset. It was also where we met Alex Thomas, announced that same day as Bushmills’ new master blender 17 years after she first joined the distillery.

It’s impossible not to romanticize the whiskey in one’s glass in such a spectacular setting, just a few miles away from the distillery alongside the beamingly joyful blender who helped produce it. Back home in the U.S., Irish whiskey is easier to overlook. That’s not to say it isn’t popular: Irish blends sell massively, and we happily kick it back in Irish Coffees and on St. Patrick’s Day. If the category doesn’t yet have the cultishly devoted following of bourbon or the established cachet of single-malt scotch, it’s coming: sales have been steadily gaining ground on the competition for years, with some market reports suggesting Irish whiskey could overtake Scotch sales in the U.S. by 2030.

And a visit to Bushmills, which lays claim to having the largest stock of aging malt whiskey in Ireland, is the perfect place to take a deep dive into the surprisingly complex world of Irish single malt.

The Old Bushmills Distillery as it stands today was rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1885; to keep up with demand, a second distillery that will double capacity is nearly complete next door. The warehouses are packed, too. “We have a huge stock of rare casks aging at the Bushmills distillery, so there’s no shortage of surprising and unique whiskeys,” says Thomas.

Alex Thomas, the master blender for Bushmills Irish Whiskey, studies a dram of single malt
Alex Thomas was recently anointed as the new master blender at Bushmills
Elaine Hill/Bushmills

That opens up exciting possibilities. “Some of the oldest barrels have even been resting in the warehouses from the year I was born. I like to think they have been patiently waiting for me to become their Master Blender and release them to the world.”

Tasting through the core lineup of Bushmills is an exploration of both extended aging and the effects of different barrel finishes. Whiskey aged in sherry casks and bourbon barrels provides the heart of the single malts. The 10-year-old expression is comprised mainly of these whiskeys, providing a light and approachable contrast to the older entries in the line. In the 16-year-old, port pipes step in to provide a finishing touch, complementing the nuttiness of the sherry with hints of stone fruit. For the 21-year-old, whiskeys that have aged in sherry and bourbon barrels are transferred to madeira casks for two years to make a wonderfully rich and complex single malt; only around 28 casks are released each year, but it’s very much worth seeking out.

There’s also a brand-new addition for the United States: a Bushmills’ 12-year-old single malt that was previously unavailable here. In this one, the bourbon- and sherry-finished whiskey finishes for half a year or more in marsala wine casks, providing additional layers of fruit. It’s a welcome addition, rounding out the portfolio and offering a way to explore the complexities of barrel finishing more accessibly than some of the older expressions.

Bushmills' core lineup of single malts, including the 12-year, which is brand new to the US market
Bushmills’ core lineup of single malts, including the 12-year, which is brand new to the US market

The older casks are where some of the most fun is lurking, however.

“We have a huge stock of rare casks aging at the Bushmills Distillery, so there’s no shortage of surprising and unique whiskeys,” says Thomas. She pulled a selection of samples to try in the tasting room, highlighting the incredible diversity of barrels tucked away there. A port finish from 1995 is a luscious, mature fruit bomb. A 1991 whiskey that spent more than five years in PX sherry casks is richly layered with raisin and oak tannins. A 1992 champagne cask brings out bright hints of lemon meringue. And then there’s the downright weird: a 2008 whiskey aged in red Bordeaux casks offered pronounced savory notes of mushroom unlike any other whiskey I’ve ever tried. 

The Bushmills “Rare Cask” series is where you might find some of these archive whiskeys offered for limited release in the United States. A 28-year-old that stacked 17 years of aging in cognac casks on top of 11 in sherry and bourbon was the first to hit our shores. Complete details for the second haven’t been released yet, but keep an eye out for something that spent time in a Pedro Ximenez cask. 

And after that? That’s unknown for now, but it’s bound to be beguiling. Thomas grew up in the nearby Northern Irish town Ballymoney and spent her pre-whiskey career in the timber business, which provided an education in wood. Perhaps that presaged a future selecting barrels for blending and release at the distillery.

“Each cask is as unique as you and I so each offers up its own characteristics and personality that sets it apart,” she says. “It’s this individuality I’m looking for as a special release.” Whatever it is, I can’t wait to try it.


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