Each morning, Helen Mulholland heads into work, past a collection of stone buildings and whitewashed warehouses in County Antrim, on the rugged North Coast of Ireland and onto the grounds of The Old Bushmills Distillery.
As master blender at Bushmills, Mulholland has traveled this path daily for 25 years. “I still remember that first day,” says Mulholland, who began her career at the distillery as part of a student placement program. “My father drove me over and left me off at the entrance of the distillery. It was a day of worry and excitement, but I knew as soon as I came through the gates that it was a really special place.”
Located in the outskirts of the village of Bushmills on the banks of St. Columb’s Rill, The Old Bushmills Distillery is the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery, and remains an important part of County Antrim’s cultural identity.
“There was always an awareness of Bush- mills and the distillery because it’s such a huge, iconic brand,” she says. “For many years it was the only truly international brand coming from the Northern Coast. It was an incredibly iconic place and it was always revered. It’s a very beautiful site with a very happy workforce. It’s just part of our history.”
So while there were a few nerves when Mulholland was notified that she had been accepted as part of the student placement program at the distillery — a highly sought- after position — time has shown there was no cause for that initial apprehension. A clear passion for making Irish whiskey (“You have to love the process to be a master blender, and every day I love coming to work — I love making sure Bushmills is the very best it can be”), and a dedication to the maturation process in particular, resulted in Mulholland becoming the first woman to be named master blender in the Irish whiskey industry in 2005.
“I was the very first in history, so it is very unusual,” Mulholland says. “There were a few in Scotland, but I was the first in Ireland. Times are changing and with the growth of Irish whiskey, you see more women coming into the industry. It’s a fabulous time for Irish whiskey.”
Exports of Irish whiskey are up 300 percent over the last decade, according to the Irish food board, Bord Bia. It now accounts for 42 percent of total beverage exports, and in 2018, the value of those exports increased by $51 million to $712 million. Thanks to the uptick in interest and increased exports, a number of whiskey producers have recently expanded operations and others are opening new distilleries throughout Ireland.
“It’s an exciting time because of the huge growth of Irish whiskey,” Mulholland says. “It’s led to new distilleries opening on the island of Ireland and led to huge interest, which is always good for a category. It provides me with inspiration to innovate because Bushmills is the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery and we want to maintain the quality of the whole Irish market.”
Bushmills, in particular, communicates an authentic taste of Ireland from its grain-to- glass operation, producing the classic expression, as well as several variations. “Bushmills is very much a sense of Ireland in that it is a triple-distilled, non-peated malt,” Mulholland says. “It signifies everything about Irish whiskey, because it’s a malt distillery and we triple-distill to ensure that smoothness, that rounded flavor — which is very Irish.”
For more than 1,000 years, whiskey has been made in and around the town of Bushmills, long before it was granted a license to distill in 1608. Through the centuries, when war, famine, or taxes on single malt barley deterred others from making proper single malt whiskey, Bushmills choose to use only malted barley — which gives its whiskey a distinct smooth finish — and stayed true to the formula and single malt tradition. This likely makes Ireland one of — if not the — originators of single malt whiskey, not Scotland.
Bushmills Irish Whiskey — The original, it’s a blend of triple-distilled malt whiskey and a lighter grain whiskey. It has a rich, smooth, warming taste. “It has a lovely, fresh fruit and malt flavor,” Mulholland says.
Bushmills Red Bush — Matured in bourbon casks, it’s an exceptionally smooth whiskey that’s known for being versatile and balanced. “Red Bush is great for the American market,” she says. “It’s a blend made up of triple- distilled single malt and matured in first-filled American bourbon barrels. It brings out that lovely bourbon flavor of vanilla and honey sweetness. It’s completely versatile and a great introduction into the world of whiskey.”
Bushmills Black Bush — Matured in Oloroso Sherry casks, it combines a high amount of malt whiskey with a sweet, batch-distilled grain whiskey. It’s known for its fruity notes and intense character. “It’s something very, very special,” she says. “It’s special in its complexity and the special occasions it can generate.”
Bushmills 10 Year — A single malt matured for at least 10 years in bourbon seasoned barrels, providing honey, vanilla and milk chocolate aromas. “It reminds me of my grandmother’s house,” Mulholland says. “I’d go in after school and my grandmother would always have apple pie in the oven and the smell of all the apples and sugar and all those lovely cinnamon smells coming through.”
It’s those sense memories, and the company, that dictates what Mulholland chooses. If she’s out with friends, she reaches for Bushmills Red Bush or Bushmills original. If she’s at home with family, things get a bit more focused and personal.
“If it’s all about a lovely, peaceful evening, I’d probably take a 10-year-old malt,” she says. “The 10-year-old generates such lovely memories for me. And it’s just a lovely malt for savoring. For a special occasion, maybe the 16-or 21-year-old, but you know, at the end of the day, if you’re just having a lovely evening, it’s the 10-year-old.”
While each offering features distinct aromas and flavors and has details appropriate for different applications or occasions, the whiskey truly begins to take on the traditional Bushmills character in the warehouses, which are full of every possible cask profile. Having a cooperage at the distillery, ensures “the best possible spirit goes into the best possible cask.” The father-and-son team of coopers, Alastair and Chris Kane, ply their traditional trade at the Old Bushmills Distillery, providing access to an expertise that’s key to the process.
“We’re incredibly lucky that we have cooperage on-site,” Mulholland says. “If I see something in a cask that we would like to change or adapt, because we have the knowledge here on-site, we can do it straight away. The coopers can constantly check all our casks. And we’re very privileged to have that knowledge and experience on site to work with our cask profiling.”
Appropriately, it’s that part of the process that Mulholland is most interested in: her university thesis focused on the maturation of whiskey. “I love the fact that the crystal clear spirit is placed into a cask and in six to 10-years it comes out and it’s the most beautiful golden color and has taken on all the characteristics of the wood.”
The cask is a living, breathing thing, she says. It expands and contracts and the whiskey draws out everything from the cask. “I personally love this and what I also love — even though I look for consistency — is that you can fill two casks with the same spirits and can bring out different characteristics from each cask. That, I truly think, is special. I also love the fact that we lose two percent a year. It’s given to the angels and everybody that looks over us at Bushmills.”
By Bill Burke from Celebrate Magazine.