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Monday, January 14, 2008

The Colum Egan Interview, Part II (Never too late, eh?)

One of the things you said back when I brought up the whole idea of New Year's resolutions, and what you wanted to see more or less of in the blog was, um, actually following up on what I said I would do, and doing it. Okay, here you go: the next installment of my interview of Bushmills master distiller Colum Egan...from last March. Part II picks up right where we left off, with Colum explaining about the use of wood in maturing Bushmills Irish Whiskey.

Colum Egan: Maturation is very important at Bushmills. We'll use a cask about three times. As you can imagine, each time you use a cask, the contribution from the wood to the whiskey is declining. After three times, I feel that the contribution is not appropriate, not sufficient. Other distillers are different, they'll use it four, five, six times, but I just think, myself...well, I would say it, but we always say that our attention to detail is second to none at Bushmills.

It's not just me. I'd like to take all the credit, but I just can't. The people at Bushmills are just fantastic. I've worked a lot of places, New York, Dublin, London, and really, the best place I've ever worked is Bushmills. I think I'm enthusiastic and passionate about the whiskey, but these guys just blow me away. If my enthusiasm wanes a bit, I just have a chat with them.

There's six guys that make the whiskey, two per shift. One guy that mashes, actually takes the extract from the barley, and one guy that runs the stillhouse, separates alcohol from water. So over 24 hours, that's a six-man team. The least amount of experience you've got on them is 25 years, and the most is 40 years. So these guys know what they're doing. People ask me, what happens when you leave the distillery? I tell them, well, if they don't know how to make it after 25 years, we're in trouble.

There's some great stories. There's a guy there, Ronnie Brennan, one of the mashmen. He's very knowledgeable, knows every little intricacy that could possibly go wrong. Of course, your knowledge is only tested after perhaps a power cut, or something unusual. That's when you know. If the other two guys run into something on their shifts, they'll ring Ronnie at home. And Ronnie lives just across the road. He'll come in. Doesn't clock in, doesn't tell me he's come in, might spend an hour or two helping them fix the issue with the pump or whatever. He does that totally on his own time, just walks in.

That's the commitment that the guys have to Bushmills. As long as they can see some kind of development down the road, and that's what makes it so much fun to be part of Diageo. We finally have someone who believes in the whiskey, with that same passion that we have. We're very good at making whiskey, but Diageo's very good at actually telling the world about it.

I say, if I can just get people to taste Bushmills, I know they'll drink it. It's as simple as that, and I don't think you can say anything better about a whiskey. Over the years, I've got enough people tasting it, so now I've got people drinking it.

The grains that go in the whiskey: what are you using? Is it all malt?

There’s three types of whiskey made in Ireland. That's a very important point, I think, that a lot people miss, even whiskey writers who know a lot about whiskey. There's malt whiskey. Malt whiskey's what we make at Bushmills, it's made from 100% malted barley. There's a second type of whiskey called pure pot still whiskey. Pure pot still whiskey is made from mainly raw barley, with just a small amount of malted barley added to it.

That's added in the still or in the mash?

That's added in the mash, right in the mix. You need the malted barley for enzyme conversion of the raw barley. Then the third type of whiskey is grain whiskey. Grain whiskey is made through a continuous, column still, whereas malt whiskey and pure pot still whiskey are made in a copper pot still.

What's going into grain whiskey?

The grain [whiskey] in Ireland is actually made from corn -- we call it maize -- where in Scotland, they tend to use wheat. It depends what's available, it's really kind of traditional things. That's not to say that in Ireland we won't make grain whiskey from wheat, that's not to say that in Scotland they won't make grain whiskey from corn, that's just, at the moment, what they make it from.

What is grain whiskey? We're not talking about grain neutral spirits?

No, no. There's a very critical difference between grain whiskey and grain neutral spirits. In Irish whiskey, and Scotch whiskey, I think it's 94.7, I'd want to kinda look that up and confirm that to you, but I think it's 94.7% is the maximum strength that you're allowed to go to, of whiskey. Anything above that, it comes into grain neutral spirit, it comes into the whole vodka territory. Really 97% is about the highest you can go; the higher you go, the less color, the less flavor you get.

There's no room for it.

Yeah. Grain whiskey tends to be very bland, really. It's sweet, but it tends to be bland. It's not as complex, it doesn't have the different aromas you'd get from a whiskey made from barley, or whiskey made in a copper pot still. The copper really has a big influence on the whiskey, and the shape of the still has a big difference on the whiskey.

So you have the three whiskeys we make in Ireland. In a blended whiskey, like Bushmills Original, for instance, we take some of the malt whiskey -- because it's only made at Bushmills, it's a single malt whiskey -- and we'll blend it with some of the grain whiskey, the whiskey made in the column still from maize.

Is it blended in aged, or is it blended in straight off the still?

Again, for a whiskey to be called whiskey, it must be aged in the oak barrel. Always, always, always. At Bushmills, our malts are all a minimum of five years, and our grain is a minimum of four years, for the States. So we'll take some of the malt whiskey, and mix it with some of the grain whiskey -- we use the word 'blending' -- so we blend the two together, because we don't want any layering or anything in the vat. We blend the two together, and make a blended whiskey, and that's the Bushmills Original.

Now, you can get other whiskeys in Ireland, from the Midleton Distillery. Midleton just makes pure pot still whiskey. So you'll get brands like Jameson's, and Powers, they're two blended whiskeys, where they'll take the pure pot still and blend in some grain whiskey with it. It's a very big difference, obviously, because there's no malt whiskey in Jameson's, there's no malt whiskey in Powers, it's pure pot still, and it's a very different character.

Malt whiskey is seen the world over as the best whiskey (I suspect that this is not true in the states of Kentucky and Tennessee...), and I really think that holds true, and it's a big point of difference between Bushmills and other Irish whiskeys. Jameson's, you'll find, is a little bit oily in character, a little bit mouth-coating, and I find it a bit green, a little bit grassy. I'm not saying it's young, it's...

It's a flavor, a descriptor.

Yeah. I also think it's a bit unbalanced, but we leave that to everybody (? Did I mention that it was very noisy in the bar?). I always find that a good whiskey will always improve when you add some water to it. If you add water to Bushmills, what happens to it is, the aromas are released into the glass. Your nose is very sensitive: it can actually detect parts per billion, your nose, it's tremendously sensitive, whereas your palate goes nowhere near that level of sensitivity. That's why at the distillery I nose all the time, I rarely actually sip whiskey.

So if you add water to Bushmills, it releases the aromas into the glass and exacerbates, or extenuates the whole tasting experience. Whereas when you do it with Jameson's, it actually kills it flat, a very unusual phenomenon. It really knocks it back, it's a very clear difference.

With Bushmills, you get this nice, light, fruity, spiciness, you get that malty character coming through. With Black Bush, because it's matured in sherry casks --

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.

(Okay, it will not be 10 months before you get Part III!)


Anonymous said...


Many thanks for continuing this thread belatedly. Great follow-up to the first installment, which I had to read again (thanks for the link). I especially appreciated the intensive description of grain whiskey. Though I like to think I have a decent overall grasp of the whiskey business, grain whiskey has always been a shadowy cousin in the family, and I've always wondered what it really is. Multi-layered, as it turns out. Great job on both your and Colin's part. I also took a lot from the look at cooperage nuances at Bushmills.

So, anyway, I'm sitting here right now with a Bluecoat gin & tonic and a little Steg 150 in a bottle, and after tasting both, decided that a splash of the Steg would do justice to the whole Bluecoat thing, and I was right! I'm not much of a cocktail guy, but this is fine!

Lew Bryson said...

You're welcome, Sam, and again, apologies for the delay. The whole thing was worth it just for the grain whiskey, wasn't it? I think I probably could have edited some of the stuff on the stillmen, but... easier to just type it all.

But let me get this straight: you put a splash of beer in your gin and tonic? Now dat's interesting!

Anonymous said...

Yay for you Lew.

Now does this mean the rest of us have to keep our resolutions too? :)

Bill said...

Fascinating. I would have assumed the end product between a whiskey made from an aged blend of malt whiskey and grain whiskey would taste considerably different then one from pot still whiskey and grain whiskey... but while I could probably tell you Bushmill's and Jameson's have slightly different tastes, if you were to hand me a glass, I couldn't tell you which it was. They taste like Irish whiskey, and it boggles me that they start with such different bases yet get such similar end results. And it further boggles me how different Jameson's 12 year is from their flagship. I guess now that I know Black Bush has been sherry-cask aged, I understand its differences from basic Bushmill's.

Anonymous said...

I like Colum (no "n" at the end). He's a nice guy and really knows his stuff.

But, the biased salesman side of him came shining through when he made those (what I believe to be)untrue negative comments about Jameson and pure pot still whiskeys in general--that they only have a small amount of malt in the pot still mix (it varies depending on the brand), that pot still whiskey tastes "green", and that adding water to it "kills it flat".

You can be sure that if you asked him those questions a couple years ago when Pernod owned both distilleries (Bushmills and Midleton--where Jameson and all the other pot still whiskeys are made)he would have never made those comments.

Lew Bryson said...


Good God, I didn't even notice that misspelling. Get his name right everywhere else, and then screw it up in the headline. Ouch. Thanks for the catch.

Yeah, I thought he beat up on Midleton pretty hard there. I remember working hard to keep a poker face during that part of the interview. There are some positively beautiful Jameson whiskeys, and they got short shrift in the name of competition. Funny indeed that they were the same company until quite recently.

Too bad, too: Diageo killed the Bushmills cream liqueur so it wouldn't compete with Baileys, and I really liked that stuff!

Anonymous said...

I liked Bushmills Cream too! Sort of reminds me of the days when Guinness couldn't import Smithwicks because of their agreement to import Bass.