Dive deep into the surprisingly complex world of Irish single malt

If you’re going to visit a major US tourist attraction that includes slippery rocks and the chance to stumble into the freezing and turbulent sea, the authorities will probably frown at dedicating this location to whiskey tastings. This is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Attitudes in Ireland seem a bit more relaxed. On a recent visit to the Bushmills Distillery, the Giant’s Causeway—a 50- to 60-million-year-old formation of basalt columns bounding into the Atlantic Ocean—was where we dropped off for a glass of barley at sunset. This was also where we met Alex Thomas, and on the same day he announced the new Bushmills master blender 17 years after she first joined the distillery.

It is impossible not to romanticize whiskey in one’s glass in such a stunning setting, a few miles from the distillery along with the delightful mixer that helped produce it. Back home in the States, Irish whiskey is easy to overlook. That’s not to say it’s not popular: Irish blends sell in bulk, and we’re happy to chill them back in Irish coffee and on St. Patrick’s Day. If the category doesn’t yet have the culturally devoted following to bourbon or the well-established cashew of single-malt Scotch, this one’s coming: Sales have been firmly in the competition for years, with some market reports suggesting Irish whiskey could overtake Scotch sales in the United States by 2030.

A visit to Bushmills, which claims to have the largest stock of malt whiskey in Ireland, is the perfect place to plunge deeply into the surprisingly complex world of Irish malt.

The old Bushmills Distillery was rebuilt in its present form after a catastrophic fire in 1885; To keep up with demand, a second distillery that will double the capacity is almost completed. Warehouses are crowded too. “We have a huge inventory of rare, aging barrels at our Bushmills distillery, so there’s no shortage of unique and surprising whiskeys,” Thomas says.

Alex Thomas, master blender at Bushmills Irish Whiskey, teaches a drama of single malt

Alex Thomas was recently appointed as Bushmills’ new head mixer

Eileen Hill / Bushmills

This opens up exciting possibilities. “Even some of the oldest kegs have been resting in warehouses since the year I was born. I like to think they have been patiently waiting for me to become their master blender and release them to the world.”

A tasting through Bushmills’ core lineup is an exploration of both the extended aging and the effects of different barrel finishes. Aged whiskeys in sherry casks and bourbon casks provide the heart of the single malt. The 10-year-old express is made primarily of these whiskeys, providing a light, friendly contrast to the older entries in the line. In this 16-year-old, port piping steps in to give a finishing touch, complementing the softness of sherry with hints of stone-peeled fruit. For the 21-year-old, whiskey aged in sherry and bourbon casks is transported to Madeira casks for two years to make wonderfully rich and complex single malts; Only about 28 barrels are released each year, but it’s often worth researching.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo