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Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Colum Egan Interview, Part III

The third of four installments of the transcribed Colum Egan interview from last March. You'll note that there was a LOT less time elapsed between Part II and Part III than between Parts I and II! I made a bad break last time, so I'm going to repeat the question to get started. I'll have Part IV for you tomorrow; this was just too long to make one post.

Part III
It's not all sherry casks, right?

Right. It's a mix of first-fill and second-fill sherry casks, and some third-fill casks. Your attention has to very high when you use sherry casks, because there's a possibility that you could over-sherry the whiskey, and that's not what we're going for. We're trying to really hone in on the fruitiness, hone in on the light floral notes, the typical house style of Bushmills.

What the sherry casks also give is a lovely softness, and you get this lovely nutty-type sweetness. That's very typical of an oloroso-type sherry, and that's one of the main reasons we use an oloroso sherry cask, as opposed to a fino or any of the other kinds of sherry.

Is there grain whiskey in this? (I held up my glass of Black Bush, severely depleted by this time.)

Yeah, there is. Bushmills Original is a blended whiskey. There's probably a higher single malt content in Bushmills Original then there is in a lot of blends available in the world, from both Ireland and Scotland. But in terms of Black Bush, there's actually a special grain whiskey in it, that's really only made for Black Bush. We do put a small amount of it also into Original. Some of that grain's actually made in a copper pot still, which is a very unusual way to make grain whiskey. It's got a fantastic texture, fantastic mouthfeel, and it's got a character and a taste that, really, we could probably bottle it on its own.

That's what it sounds like...

Well, I don't want to give away too many secrets, but that could be coming down the road, you know?

Well, that's my next question: what's coming down the road?

We've been making whiskey longer than anyone else, we've been making whiskey in the Bushmills area for more than 400 years, and naturally, being Irish, we've been making whiskey a lot longer than that and my God, it just took them a few hundred years to catch up with us.

The history of whiskey-making in the Bushmills area dates all the way back to the 1100s, when King Henry II brought his troops to Ireland. The local spirit, they called it uisce beatha [he says something like "eesh-kee ba'a ha"], that means "water of life." They [the English] weren't able to pronounce the Gaelic, so they started to call it fuisce ["fwish-ke'h"]. That's the modern word "whiskey," just without the 'f'. What I'm claiming is that the 'e' at the end of "fuisce" is very important, because that's the right way to spell whiskey. [Both laugh.] I'm sticking with that story.
[That really was the answer he gave to that question. Later in the interview he specifically says they don't like to talk about what's in the pipeline: guess not!]

The 16 Year Old and the 21 Year Old are both "three wood" whiskeys, is that correct?

Yeah. We have a range. We have the Bushmills Original and Black Bush, obviously, and then we have three single malts --

Which of those is the best seller in the U.S. market, overall, the Original or the Black Bush?

The Bushmills Original. The Original outsells all four of the others combined, it's that popular. I think it's a lot because of its versatility.

Is that new packaging on the Original?

Yeah, yeah. That white label, you put it on a back bar and you'll just spot it right away. That was about 9 months ago [July, 2006], when we became part of the Diageo family. One of the first things Diageo wanted to do was to emphasize a lot of characteristics of Bushmills that were neglected for years under the previous owner. The Bushmills name is more prominent now; it's a name that's synonymous with quality. If you ask people in Ireland what's the best quality whiskey, they'll all say Bushmills. Unfortunately, they'll probably go away and buy something else! What they do is, they keep it for special occasions. Don't keep it for special occasions, treat yourself all the time!

We also have single malts. Single malts are 10, 16, and 21 [Years Old]. You notice the nice light gold color on the 10 Year Old, and if you look at the packaging, it's actually matured in two woods. The light color is a giveaway. Whiskey with a light color tends to be whiskey that's matured in bourbon barrels. You see whiskey from Scotland or Ireland that's a light color, you pretty much know it's either old casks or it was matured in bourbon barrels. Bourbon-seasoned casks don't give up much color to the whiskey, whereas, when you go on to the 16 and 21 year old, they're much deeper in color.

What we do with the 10 Year Old though, we mature, or age, a portion of it, just a small amount, in sherry-seasoned casks, just to give it a hint of that sweetness. But the overwhelming characteristic of the 10 Year Old is like vanilla and milk chocolate; it really is like a melted milk chocolate bar on your tongue, and you get a nice sweet, kind of dry aroma in the back of your mouth on the finish.

A lot of whiskeys are described as being malty, whiskeys from Ireland and Scotland. If you want to pick up what that malty character is like, and what it smells like, you really should nose a Bushmills 10 Year Old Original. It's unmasked by any smokiness, unmasked by any peat, it's distilled three times, so you're really getting back to the grain, the malted barley we use in the first place.

As you know, whiskey's very natural: we only use water, we only use malted barley. We get the extract and ferment it with yeast, and distill it to bring it up from 8%. In Ireland, we bring it all the way up to 85% on the third distillation, and then mature it.

[That's it for now...see you tomorrow...]


Matt said...

"If you ask people in Ireland what's the best quality whiskey, they'll all say Bushmills. Unfortunately, they'll probably go away and buy something else!"

He certainly lacks nothing in the confidence department.

Steven said...

I had a dram of the 10 Year Old on Saturday evening -- soooo smoooth.