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Monday, January 28, 2008

The Colum Egan Interview, Finale

The final installment, in which Sam's burning question on "what really happened in 1608?" is answered. Sorry this took so long. It's a New Year's resolution kept, though.

Part IV

How long have you been bottling the 16 and 21 Year Olds?

Part of being a distiller is that you're always looking ahead, thinking way ahead. Because if someone from marketing or from sales, or someone from a particular market comes to you and says, "Colum, we'd love for you to develop a 16 year old whiskey," I'll say, 'Yeah, okay, hang on, and I'll get you your 16 year old whiskey in 16 years time.' They're not going to be happy.

So as a distiller, you're always trying to innovate, and your innovation, I suppose, the only people privy to your innovation are the people in the distillery itself. We tend not to talk a lot about what's in the pipeline or what's ongoing. When the whiskey is launched, that's when we like to tell the consumers, to tell the public about it.

For the 16 Year Old, we did a lot of work with port casks. Historically, we've done a lot of work with port casks, and we felt it was time in about 1996. It was launched in 1996. It was a great day at the launch, we brought over -- Well, see, we're the distillers. But a key part of the whole distillation process is the maturation, aging the whiskey in the oak barrels. So we actually brought over guys from where we buy the bourbon casks, and we brought over the family from Jerez, in Spain, Antonio Paez, and we brought over Alex Burmester from Portugal.

We all did a little presentation, we talked about how we distill the whiskey, and the barrel suppliers talked about how they season the barrels for us. So it was like one big family, and I think Bushmills really represents a kind of family-friendly, easy-drinking, easy-sipping whiskey. That highlights the virtues that we see, bringing those people to the distillery at that time. Rather than taking all the credit for what was in the bottles, we were very much helped by our barrel suppliers.

Most whiskey drinkers don't realize how much of the flavor comes out of the barrel.

Yeah. And imagine: each year, we lose 2% volume, so at the end of 16 years, there's 32% of that whiskey is missing when you open it up, just gone, disappeared. It's a similar thing with the 21 Year Old. That was launched five years later, in 2001. Again, we'd done some work with Madeira casks. We felt the Madeira would only take six months to --

Let me backtrack a little. The 16 Year Old spends 16 years in either bourbon-seasoned barrels or sherry-seasoned casks. We take the whiskey out of both cask types, and marry them for six months in a port cask. So we thought, okay, 21 years in bourbon, 21 years in sherry, it'll be only 6 months in the Madeira. Wellll... we found out that with six months, we weren't getting the character and the taste that really was necessary for a Bushmills whiskey.

Let me make sure I have this straight. The 16 Year Old is aged in sherry and bourbon casks for 16 years...each.

Right, 16 years, 50/50. At the end of 16 years, take the whiskey out of both cask types, marry it together for six months in port [wood]. The 21 Year Old is 21 years in bourbon and 21 years in sherry.

Half and half, roughly?

Yeah, yeah. At the end of 21 years, we take it out. And when we were trying to develop the whiskey, after six months we said, let's take it out and see what it looks like. We just weren't getting enough contribution from the Madeira. It took 2 years to get the contribution right.

I'm very sorry that my wife and I weren't able to drink enough Bushmills Cream to keep the brand alive, because we did try. Is it really dead and gone?

Yeah. The decision we took was -- it was a nice drink, but demand was waning. We said, we've got no problem making it, but we need a minimum quantity to do a run, to make it consistent quality. We never really got that quantity, after six or nine months, so we're probably not going to. Plus now that we're part of Diageo, why drink anything else but Baileys, right? And Baileys has come out with the two new flavors, the creme caramel and the mint, and the reception has been fantastic.

Well, I thought I'd ask. There was one question I got from the blog: what actually happened in 1608? [Here you go, Sam...]

That's when we got our first license to distill.


From King James I. It was issued to a local landlord, Sir Thomas Phillips.

He was the distiller?

No, at the time they were trying to get taxes in.

That's what it's always about, isn't it.

Yeah, it's all about taxes. He was issued a license to distill in April, 1608. He was allowed to distill whiskey in the region around Bushmills. It was called The Rowte. That was about a 7 mile radius around Bushmills. So 1608 is an important date for us, with 2008 coming up next year, that's 400 celebrations of making whiskey. We'll have celebrations all over. We got together and had a big brainstorming session with all the markets around the world, see what they all wanted. We put all the ideas into a big hat, and we're just trying to pick out the best. It's going to be an exciting time.

That's about all I have. Anything else I should ask?

Well, I've got some good toasts for you. Bushmills is a good toasting whiskey.

May you be poor in misfortune, but rich in blessings.
May you be quick to make friends, and slow to make enemies.
Poorer or richer, quicker or slower,
may you only drink Bushmills from this day forward.



Anonymous said...

Everybody knows that interviews, no matter how broken down, count as a single posting.

So keep writing, Big Guy. You're farther from your goal than you think.

(Nice rant of brewers getting paid, by the way; I'll be expanding on that on the morrow.)

Lew Bryson said...

Ah, Jack, Jack, you may know that, and this "Everybody" you talk about may know it, but Blogger gives you the lie. See, right over there in the left-hand column: January -- 41; 2007 -- 317. That's 358, and that's my number, baby!

(Think O'Reilly liked that one? Maybe?)

Anonymous said...

Ah, Lew, Lew, all Blogger can do is record statistics; a blog is the work of a complex human mind which can understand that the whole is the sum of its parts and they are all one.

Who is this O'Reilly of whom you speak?

Lew Bryson said...

...the whole is the sum of its parts and they are all one.

What? You mean I only made one stinking post all year? Jeez. Where do I get my money back?

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess it really WAS worth the wait. I appreciate honesty and transparency whenever I can get it, and Mr. Egan was both, in more ways than one. His perception that the distillery men are the vanguards of future trends is right on the money, and an enlightening perspective. The disclosure of what grain whiskey really is was refreshing, and his owning up to what the hell 1608 actually represents was all I could ask for. I have always preferred Bushmills to Jameson, for whatever reason, and Colum keeps me right on track! Many thanks, Lew! (BTWm your compulsions for posting 365 is really tough to keep up with!