2008 was a celebratory time for Bushmills. Why so? It was the 400th anniversary of the distillery being granted their licence to distill! Except in reality that wasn’t the case, the distillery as we know it didn’t exist in 1608 and the licence to distill had been granted to Sir Thomas Phillips, Knight of the Realm and ‘local landowner clearance expert’ extraordinaire.
For his exploits in the service of James I, Phillips was granted substantial tracts of land around Coleraine and the Route in County Antrim as well as a knighthood and a licence to distill ‘uisce beatha’ in 1608. At this time whiskey production in Ireland was very much a farmyard affair, a great way for the locals to use up surplus grain they had kicking about on their plots. The resulting liquid could be traded with others in the area for goods or be consumed for one’s own medicinal purposes. Anyone and everyone could distill and it would seem that they did.
The reality of Phillips license to distill was that it was a monopoly for him to produce whiskey making it illegal for anyone else in his lands to do so unless they sub-let the licence from him at whatever price he chose to set. Failure to comply meant fines and imprisonment. Bad news for the locals then.
Happily though the tradition of distilling, illicit or otherwise continued on in the ‘Route’ area. In fact Alfred Barnard, the Victorian whiskey journalist noted that Bushmills Distillery was ‘in the hands of smugglers’ in 1743. Boringly, in 1784 things went legit when Bushmills officially became a registered company.
Anyway, we all know in Ireland we love a good story and the odd tall tale, so the year 1608 was used to great marketing effect with Bushmills. The distillery was frequently tagged as the ‘worlds oldest licensed distillery’ and often just the ‘worlds oldest distillery’.
Fast forward to 2008 again. What better way to celebrate Bushmills longevity than with a new expression? Thus we have the 1608 4ooth Anniversary Edition. I remember prior to release wondering how much Diageo was going to stiff the punter for upon the Anniversary Edition’s release and was pleasantly surprised when they announced it would cost just £45 a bottle (although back then that was a considerable sum for me to lavish on the ‘water of life’). This expression was ‘limited edition’ although no definitive out-turn was specified. I can hazard a guess lots were made though as it’s taken it the best part of 10 years to become scarce!
So what’s in the bottle then? The Anniversary Edition is a blend comprising 95% and 5% grain that are between 11-13 years old and have been matured in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. The malt is made up of 30% crystal malt. This is usually found in beer rather than whiskey and is made by gently roasting the germinated barley whilst still moist, crystallising the grain and enhancing the natural sugars. This should in theory lead to toffee and marzipan notes in the final product. Unusually for Bushmills this is bottled at 46%, definitely has caramel added (it says so on the box) and is more than likely chill filtered. Let’s taste then!
Bushmills 1608 400th Anniversary Edition – Review
Colour: Bronzed amber.
On the nose: Lots of malt, leather, dark chocolate followed by peach and apricot. Honey becomes evident. Walnuts, fudge, almonds and a slight floral note creeps in at the end.
In the mouth: Feels quite full bodied in the mouth, probably helped by the extra abv. Typical Bushmills fruit notes on arrival, peaches, apricots, ripe bananas, vanilla which then meld with marzipan, raisins, dark demerara sugar, malt, coffee and walnut cake. A medium finish that remains fruity but with treacle and butterscotch.
I have a lot of time for this expression of Bushmills. It’s a bit darker and heavier than their current line-up and the addition of the crystal malt does make itself felt. The extra alcohol definitely helped with the mouthfeel too, feeling slightly chewier and coating the mouth better than what is on offer from Bushmills presently. Unfortunately, due to its limited nature and the passing of time, it is harder to get a hold of. I have seen this priced here in Northern Ireland between £125 to £150, which I don’t think I would pay, but for the £45 I paid at release (thankfully I bought a few when it was plentiful) it was well worth the investment.