“Are you going to Ireland? You have to go to the Guinness!” I heard it over and over again every time I commented with someone that I was going to travel to Ireland.
To tell you the truth, I’ve always been a fan of sweet drinks. Beer or whiskey was never among my top picks. Give me wine any day!
But when we are in a country where beer and whiskey are like national drinks, there’s simply no escape.
I thought about visiting the Guinness factory in Dublin, to see how the drink is made and why it shares so many fans around the world. But, the price of this experience is a bit exaggerated – be ready to pay around 25 â‚¬ or more to take a tour and taste a Guinness at the end. So, when I was planning this trip, that would take me through the Republic of Ireland, but also into Northern Ireland, I thought: “since I’m going to spend money in a drink that I don’t like, then let it be a whiskey!”
And that’s how I ended up at Bushmills!
Bushmills, a 400-year history
The small village of Bushmills, a 7-minute drive from Giants Causeway, one of Northern Ireland’s premier tourist attractions, dated from Norman times and was previously called Portcaman.
With the industry development in the 1600s and the presence of about seven mills on the site, operating on the banks of the Bush River, the town’s name evolved to Bushmills. Always linked to a long history of well-known alcoholic beverage production.
In the 1700s, people discovered the Giants Causeway and flocked to Bushmills. Also, in the 1800s, the Macnaghten family introduced new development into the town, bringing even more prosperity to this Irish land.
But with a hydraulic force replaced by steam, gas, and electricity, the village became dependent on the success of “Old Bushmills,” a distillery that, from the 20th century, would once again put the eyes of the world on this location.
Discover the art of distilling
I reached the Bushmills parking lot in expectation of what was waiting for me. I have been to cellars and wine tastings several times, but seeing how whiskey is born and tasting it, in the end, was something I never thought to do.
On the way to the reception, I crossed paths with dozens of tourists returning to one of the many buses waiting to take them to the region’s next tourist spot.
There they went, bags in hand and silly smiles on their faces, quite possibly a result of the whiskey they had drunk.
From there, I could see a large old prison-like building, with the roof painted with wasted ink: ‘Old Bushmills’ Distillery Co. Lda. Beside it, other structures appeared, more modern and showing signs of activity.
I confess that being the oldest licensed distillery in the world and one of the best-selling whiskeys, I expected a much larger venue. But no.
As it turned out, it doesn’t take much to produce the golden liquid, just a great deal of knowledge brought on by centuries of experience.
“It could be extremely dangerous”
It’s from the reception area that the Bushmills visit begins. John, the guide who accompanied me, started by asking with a heavy Irish accent the countries of origin of each member of the tour group.
The presence of Americans was notorious. After all, the USA is one of the biggest whiskey importers.
Being that said, it’s with no surprise that they want to go to the source, understand the intricacies of the activity, and, of course, bring a few bottles home.
I can almost imagine them, at the end of a barbecue, offering a glass of Bushmills to their close friends.
“Taste this. It came straight from Ireland. I bought it on my visit to the factory of this beauty. It’s a blue label, 12 years old and can only be bought there,” they will say.
Of course, when I mentioned that I was Portuguese, all eyes turned. I’m afraid to think that probably some of them might not even know where Portugal is. The guide recognized the origin, as the Portuguese presence would be felt later on in the visit.
We were alerted to the use of mobile phones, prohibited inside the premises. “We will go through areas of elevated danger due to alcohol vapors in the air. Any bad contact on a device, any spark, could be extremely dangerous,” John said.
I confess that the impossibility of taking photographs makes us much more aware of what we are seeing and hearing.
There I began the journey through the active distillery. I learned about ingredients, from spring water to the best barley. The processes are varied. They include obtaining an almost pure, 80% translucent alcohol liquid and bringing it down to levels fit for consumption.
Drunk by smell
“In this next room, the smell and heat can be very intense. So take off your coats, and, if you start feeling bad, let me know immediately so I can take you outside.” The warning arrived before we entered the distillation room.
My heart began to beat a little faster. “For John to be making this warning is because it must be heavy,” I thought. And it was. As I walked through the door, I took in a breath of scorching air and intense alcohol that, I confess, made me shake.
The human organism is fabulous. I soon became accustomed to the dense environment caused by the large copper stills working at high temperatures. The distilling alcohol running through those tubes, would soon fill the Bushmills bottles.
Imagine putting your nose in a full glass whiskey and deeply inhaling its strong scent… and triple it! If there is a picture postcard of a distillery, this was undoubtedly the room to portray it.
After this area, everything became easier. I was led to an exhibition room with all the Bushmills’ bottles produced in that place and learned what distinguishes a new whiskey from an old one.
In another chamber, transparent bottom barrels showed the loss of whiskey with the aging process.
“We believe in the whiskey fairy. She’s the one who protects our product and makes it amazing. Of course, for each year that the whiskey is in the barrel, we have to pay a fee to the fairy…”, explains John, pointing to the different levels of liquid shown inside the barrels. A new whiskey had a full barrel, while the 21-year-old was only half full. This justifies why an old whiskey is sold in less quantity and more expensive than the others.
“I told myself I would take home one of these if Northern Ireland wins the rugby world championship,” John said hopefully, pointing to the most expensive bottle on the shelf.
It was also here that I learned that Bushmills uses oak barrels from Portugal. Many of the casks where whiskey is aged have served to mature well-known Port or Madeira wines. It’s the remnants of these liquids, impregnated in the wood, that give the color and even help in the flavor of Bushmills whiskey. And the Americans quickly looked at me approvingly.
Don’t be afraid to try!
Of course, no tour is complete without a taste, and in the end, we were able to try one of the Bushmills range whiskeys… of course, the 21-year-old was not an option.
As I was traveling with Nuno, we were able to order and taste two different kinds: the Black Bush and the 12-year-old Bushmills, a blue label only sold on location.
I confess that tasting a product after learning how it is made always has a different feeling. With the whiskey, it was no different. Although my palate instantly denied the taste, as soon as the first sip was in my mouth and burned my throat, I can’t say I hated it. I quite enjoyed the 12-year-old, which turned out to be softer than the previous one.
Now, if you ask me if I became a whiskey fan… I don’t think it’s a drink I’ll be asking for on a night out or at a friend’s dinner party. Maybe if I had tasted the 21-year-old…;)
By the way, I ended up trying a Guinness at a bar called The Dark Horse on Belfast’s Hill Street, and you know what… I really enjoyed it!
Bushmills guided tour in Northern Ireland.
It’s the oldest whiskey distillery in the world and a unique experience, especially for those who enjoy this drink.
In addition to getting to know the entire production process of one of the most famous whiskeys on the market, you’ll also notice the strong connection of this factory to the small town with the same name.
When to go?
Like any tourist attraction, it’s best to escape the summer months when there are more visitors. But be prepared to still find a lot of people on site.
Take into account the opening hours — Monday to Saturday, 9:30 – 16:45, and Sunday, 12:00 – 16:45 — and be aware that the distillery is closed between Christmas and the New Year.
In any case, check out the official website for more information.
How to get there?
Whether you’re coming from Dublin or Belfast, you can always rent a car and make your way to the village of Bushmills. Once there, the indications are clear.
You can also buy a tour that often includes a visit to Bushmills and a trip to the Giant’s Causeway.
Where to stay?
In my case, I made the tour while I was just passing the day in Bushmills, but there are plenty of places to stay if you want to explore other nearby tourist attractions.
Are you a whiskey lover? Would you do a tour like this one? Leave your opinion in the comments box below. I’ll love to read it.
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