The idyllic River Bush laps close to the walls of the Old Bushmills Distillery Co. With a 400-year history of making whiskey with this water, not only is Bushmills the oldest licensed distillery in Ireland, but also the longest-running one in the world. Its new distillery building—opening in 2022—proves, however, that the brand continues to evolve. To learn more, we visited the site for a tour and tasting with the newly named master blender, Alex Thomas. Walking the distillery grounds, we entered a small warehouse set up for barrel tastings. Aromas from the wood casks filled the air.
After 17 years with Bushmills, Thomas was named the new master blender. “I am still in awe to be honest. It’s such a privilege,” she tells us. “Every day you learn something new and meet so many wonderful people and hear their stories. You get opportunities and you grab them with both hands and you never know where you are going to end up.”
Before working at Bushmills, Thomas was employed in the timber industry and she spent time inside the mills, learning about the properties of wood. “I learned how to treat wood, how the grain flows certain ways. It is very similar to what we need to do when constructing casks for whiskey,” she says. She thought she would remain in that realm for her whole career. When a job opening arose at the Bushmills Distillery, where her husband already worked, she was keen for the opportunity.
After creating her own single malt Irish whiskey brand, Sexton, during her time at Bushmills, Thomas will now be responsible for keeping track of the cask stocks and choosing which woods are being used for every whiskey throughout the entire portfolio, as well as maturation and blending. “It is wonderful to walk through the warehouse, take in those aromas, and feel the coolness of the warehouse,” she says. “The casks just lie there and live life. A 21-year-old will tell you about the last 21 years of Bushmills. You just have to listen to their stories. This is the most magical place in the world.”
Surrounded by lush fields of barley, Bushmills is a beautiful place to make whisky. Named for the River Bush and the barley mills, Bushmills continues to use the river water, making triple-distilled whiskey in copper pot stills and bottling on site. After walking past the mash tuns, fermentation tanks and massive copper stills, we arrive at their new Pot Still Bar for tastings. The cozy space features light fixtures that have been fashioned from barrel staves—one of the many clever reuses for cask wood throughout the distillery.
During our visit, we taste diverse expressions: from a 1992 whiskey finished in a champagne grand cru cask to another from 1991, aged in an American oak cask. There’s one from 1995 finished in a port cask, one aged in a Jupilles barrel and two from Pedro Ximénez casks. “There is so much you can do and so many changes you can make,” says Thomas. “The wood gives you opportunity to put your own stamp on it. We will be bringing out some wonderful, new rare whiskies and things you may not expect to see from Bushmills. You will see the quality is there from the heritage of the past and the optimism of our future.”
In the near future, Bushmills will release their newest expression: the Single Malt 12, which will be available in the US later this month. “All we want to do is showcase Ireland and do it well,” she continues. “I get to tell the story of the Irish people who make really good whiskey.”
One of 35 whiskey distilleries in Ireland, Bushmills was one of only three when Thomas began working there. Aligned with this growth, the brand is poised to unveil its new distillery building. The impressive stone structure was built by locals stonemasons, who are keeping the traditional construction methods alive. Inside, state-of-the-art design with technological advances in modern whiskey-making will continue to be helmed by Bushmills’ master distiller, Colum Egan. And while Thomas is looking forward to the new space opening, she will continue to spend most of her time in the historic warehouses.
“I love distillation, but my heart lies in maturation. I love to see how the new spirit is coming along, but there is no better place than that dark, damp, beautiful, rich, alcohol-smelling warehouse for me. I don’t care if it is the coldest day in Ireland or the warmest day, you get that smell and there is just something peaceful as you walk though there,” she says.
Not only does she feel the distillery is imbued with possibility, so too is the world of whiskey as a whole. “It is a wonderful time to be part of the industry,” she tells us. “We are growing. People are passionate about the Irish category. The world is our oyster. There is something for everyone and if you don’t find something you like, I will make you one.”
Hero image courtesy of Bushmills