Monday, 3 May 2010

Bushmills Sessions

Prior to this tasting session, my experience of Irish whiskey had been limited to the odd dram of Jamesons, which I'd always found smooth and inoffensive to the point of boring. Still, I'm not one to say no to a free drink or two, and having been invited to a Bushmills sampling, I packed away my prejudices and got my craic on.

I was joined by my malt-loving friend C, who visited the Bushmills distillery in, er, Bushmills, Northern Ireland, a while back. It claims to be the world's oldest, having been granted a royal licence to distill in 1608. Our tasting, branded Bushmills Sessions, was led by the whiskey's amiable master distiller, Colum Egan, who introduced us to three varieties of Bushmills - and a Scotch to help us compare'n'contrast.

First the basic, Bushmills Original (left), which is a blend of Bushmills' four-year-old single malt and an Irish grain. The first thing to report is how smooth this stuff is. Most Irish whiskey is triple distilled (by contrast, Scotch is usually distilled twice) before being aged, in this case in oak casks. Another characteristic of Irish whiskey is its lack of smoke/earthiness, due to the absence of peat in the malting process of most whiskeys. All of which contribute to an easy sipping spirit. The Original provided lovely aromas of sweet vanilla and honey, with the taste adding maple syrup and a little maltiness in the finish. Fairly uncomplicated - but very moreish.

Black Bush
is another blend, mostly malt with some grain whiskey, this time aged in sherry casks. The resulting spirit, slightly darker in colour, issued forth aromas of coconut, spicy cedar and a nutty sort of vanilla. The taste was, again, smooth, but this time richer and spicier, with a drier, warming finish.

That was our cue to try a "mystery" Scotch, to help us better appreciate the contrasts in styles. It turned out to be Johnnie Walker Red, a robust blend of about 35 grain and malt whiskies, whose smoky finish provided the necessary contrast and, surprisingly, left me wanting more Bushmills.

Our final taste of the evening was Bushmills' 10-year-old Single Malt, aged in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks, and lighter in colour than the Black Bush. I have to admit I struggled to identify a distinct aroma but when prompted agreed it might resemble milk chocolate. Following the Scotch, the sweetness was evident, but the taste was perhaps drier and tarter than the other Bushmills, with a minty maltiness about it. The finish was longer, more interesting, than the other two expressions. A decent after-dinner drink, maybe.

Bushmills also produces 16- and a 21-year-old malts, but alas, they weren't on offer this time. Towards the end of the evening, as our gathering moved to the free bar, we tried a couple of Bushmills with mixers, at Colum's suggestion. I have to say, despite reassurances, the whiskey was smothered somewhat. Perhaps a one-part cola, one-part whiskey mix might be more productive. After ditching the mixers, C and I ordered a straight Bushmills Original side by side with a Jameson, just to compare, like. The results were interesting, because alongside the Bushmills, which sparkled, the Jameson tasted incredibly uninteresting: sweet and smooth and little else. (Perhaps by then our palates had become overly conditioned to the Bushmills formula).

Jameson aside, having sipped our trio of Bushmills expressions, repeatedly and with as much concentration as I could muster, I honestly couldn't decide which one I preferred. All my instincts said the Single Malt should be superior (you can spot a whisky snob a mile away, right?) but I kept coming back to the Original, for its easy going nature and its vanillery simplicity, and the Black Bush, a kind of Original plus, with its spicy cedary notes. The single malt was counter-intuitively less satisfying, don't ask me why. If I was being unkind, I'd say it suggested a rather ordinary Scotch. Whatever - that night another of my prejudices disintegrated. There will be many times, of course, when only the complexity and punch of a peaty Scotch will provide the goods. But I now realise there will be other occasions when a clean, easy-sipping, soft & sweet malty caress is precisely what I need.


* Avoid coffee before a whisk(e)y session. Apparently it distorts your senses and can alter the flavours.

* Bushmills, in common with many big brands - adds "a fraction of one drop" of caramel, an extract of sugar beet, to its younger whiskeys to achieve a consistency in colour, since spirits aged in different barrels for shorter periods might otherwise reach the bottle in varying shades, frightening the punters. Such an additive is not considered necessary for older whiskeys, since they've had time to take on a consistent colour from the cask naturally.

No comments:

Post a Comment