2 Distillery Road, BUSHMILLS, BT57 8XH
The Old Bushmills Distillery was first recorded in 1743 although at the time it was “in the hands of smugglers” according to Victorian whiskey journalist Alfred Barnard. A license to distill in the area was granted to Sir Thomas Phillipps in 1608 by King James I. Bushmills whiskey is produced, matured, and bottled on-site at the Bushmills Distillery in Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The distillery is a tourist attraction, with around 110,000 visitors per year, and is now owned by Diageo.
The area has a long tradition with distillation. According to one story, as far back as 1276, an early settler called Sir Robert Savage of Ards, before defeating the Irish in battle, fortified his troops with “a mighty drop of acqua vitae”. In 1608, a license was granted to Sir Thomas Phillipps by King James I to distill whiskey.
“for the next seaven yeres, within the countie of Colrane, otherwise called O Cahanes countrey, or within the territorie called Rowte, in Co. Antrim, by himselfe or his servauntes, to make, drawe, and distil such and soe great quantities of aquavite, usquabagh and aqua composita, as he or his assignes shall thinke fitt; and the same to sell, vent, and dispose of to any persons, yeeldinge yerelie the somme 13s 4d…”
The Bushmills Old Distillery Company itself was not established until 1784 by Hugh Anderson. Bushmills suffered many lean years with numerous periods of closure with no record of the distillery being in operation in the official records both in 1802 and in 1822. In 1860 a Belfast spirit merchant named Jame McColgan and Patrick Corrigan bought the distillery in 1880, formed a limited company. In 1885, the original Bushmills buildings were destroyed by fire but the distillery was swiftly rebuilt. In 1890, a steamship owned and operated by the distillery, the S.S. Bushmills, made its maiden voyage across the Atlantic to deliver Bushmills whiskey to America. It called at Philadelphia and New York before heading on to Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama.
In the early 1900s, the USA was a very important market for Bushmills (and other Irish Whiskey producers). Prohibition in 1920 came as a large blow to the Irish Whiskey industry, but Bushmills managed to survive. Wilson Boyd, Bushmills’ director at the time, predicted the end of prohibition and had large stores of whiskey ready to export. After the Second World War, the distillery was bought by Isaac Wolfson, and, in 1972, it was taken over by Irish Distillers, meaning that Irish Distillers controlled the production of all Irish whiskey at the time. In June 1988, Irish Distillers was bought by French liquor group Pernod Ricard.
In June 2005, the distillery was bought by Diageo for £200 million. Diageo has significantly increased production at the distillery and hopes to double production by 2011. This is in contrast to the serious neglect that the brand suffered during its time under Irish Distillers, during which the whiskey stocks at Bushmills were severely decreased in order to increase the market share of Jameson Whiskey, which is Irish Distillers’ main brand. Diageo have also announced a large advertising campaign in order to regain a market share for Bushmills.
In May 2008, the Bank of Ireland issued a new series of sterling banknotes in Northern Ireland which all feature an illustration of the Old Bushmills Distillery on the obverse side, replacing the previous notes series which depicted Queen’s University of Belfast.
Life and Legend
settlement has stood on the river Bush for many thousands of years and it is the river Bush that made the place. In the village the river runs fast and wide, but on the river bank looking upstream it is plain that it has cut its course through a ravine in the basalt, creating rapids, weirs and waterfalls.
The first people were attracted by the salmon which can still be seen returning to the river from the Atlantic in summer. They leap above the water at the scenic Walkmill Falls as they make their way upstream to their spawning grounds. There is a special salmon station at one of the old mills where the fish are studied. The river is also a Celtic border which divides the village between the Kingdoms of Dalriata and Eilne.
There are almost a hundred listed buildings in the main street conservation area, which give the place much of its Victorian character and there are still some unusual shops.
The river was the powerhouse of the village and anywhere a mill could run directly from the river or from a mill race, one was set up. There were at least 10 corn, flax and saw mills with a spade mill and two of the mills have since been authentically restored. One of the wheels was used to provide the power for the world’s first hydro electric tramway. The tramway is gradually being brought back to life through years of patient work by enthusiasts.
Bushmills’ international fame is about one thing, whiskey. Bushmills whiskey was first mentioned by Sir Robert Savage, a Norman knight with a huge estate that included Bushmills. In 1276 he fortified his army with “a mighty drop of acqua vitae” before defeating the Irish in battle.
The Bushmills water of life has gone from strength to strength over the centuries and it is amazing how it can still give a drinker fierce courage, now that it is such a smooth and refined beverage.
The Distillery is another unforgettable image of the coast. Outside, its big pyramid shaped roofs with their ventilators at the top stand beside five storey warehouses, all made from beautifully cut basalt blocks with windows framed in red brick.
The Bank of Ireland uses this image on its banknotes. The buildings to the rear have the look of neat Irish cottages, whitewashed and gleaming in the sunlight.
Like everything about Bushmills, the whiskey begins with water and the spring stream of Saint Columb’s Rill has been used from earliest times. Inside, the row of great copper mash pots still work their magic on the brew and everywhere the thousands of sherry casks that mature the whiskey make the place look like an old dockyard warehouse.
Everywhere there is the unmistakable warm aroma as the angels take their share of Bushmills.
Video produced by Ambient Light Productions