Friday, 6 February 2015

An Evening With Bushmills Master Distiller Colum Egan

Previously I have spoken, with great sadness, at the lack of genuine whiskey events taking place in this wonderful city.  Apart from the Hudson Bar's whiskey club and a small number of other excellent establishments, that simply boast a fine selection of whiskey, there really isn't that much to get your teeth into.  

That was until the Merchant Hotel, situated in Waring Street, Belfast, grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns and announced their first ever "By The Fire" event.

Being blessed with a sumptuous interior the Merchant Hotel has the perfect setting to host top quality whiskey events and what better way for a Northern Irish hotel to kick things off than by hosting the master distiller of Northern Ireland's most famous distillery, Bushmills.

For, in my opinion, the small price of £25 you were able to guarantee yourself an evening of "whiskey tasting and informative discussion" with Colum Egan himself.

Tickets in hand, my girlfriend and I made our way down to the hotel and entered through the magnificent entrance to be directed towards a side room.  Upon walking into the venue for the evening it was clear that my previous thoughts of the hotel having the perfect setting were spot on.  Lush decor and elegant lighting provided the backdrop to what was going to be a truly intimate tasting.

To kick things off we were treated to a fine cocktail reception but unfortunately I missed the the name of the delicious citrus liquid that cleansed the palate perfectly in anticipation of things to come.

We then took our seats and surveyed the delights that had been laid out in front of us.  Five Bushmills' drams were ready and waiting: Original, Black Bush, 10yo, 16yo and 21yo.

Naturally the first of the night was the Original and this was an ideal whiskey to get us going.  Lighter and smoother than I remember, this allowed all those present to get their bearings and also allowed Colum to guide us into what was more of an engaging discussion between himself and tasters rather than a typical masterclass.

Questions flowed and Colum was not found wanting.  The answers were delivered with a real air of confidence and insight that would have taught even the most experienced drinker a thing or two.

As the "Original" was finished off a number of hotel staff swooped in and provided us all with small plates of Canapés to be enjoyed as food pairings for each of the remaining four samples and the match ups were as follows:

Black Bush - Foie Gras
10yo - White Chocolate Fudge
16yo - Blue Cheese
21yo - Dark Chocolate Truffle

Each was absolutely delicious!!

Although we had a set list of whiskeys, that were in a regular order, the questions touched on all aspects of Bushmills, and each of their whiskeys, in random order. 

While discussing the 21yo we were informed that this age was selected as it resonated perfectly with a "coming of age".  Colum continued by touching on stock control and the work that has to go into ensuring that the 21yo, and all expressions for that matter, are continuously released to the same high standard year on year.

As Colum spoke you got a true sense of passion and pride with his number one priority appearing to be the task of producing all Bushmills whiskey in the same manner that it has been produced for 100's of years.  This, he says, is his belief why Bushmills has stood the test of time.

We moved onto discussing the 16yo and, not for the first time, it was described as possibly being "pound for pound, the best whiskey in the world".  Whether this is a marketing ploy that has been slowly circulating around the whiskey world, or a genuine feeling from everyone who samples the 16yo, it is obvious that it does display a serious amount of brilliance for a relatively small price.  I have, at certain times, seen this as cheap as £30 in Sainsbury's.

While discussing all of the whiskeys on show we discovered that, generally speaking, the 16yo and 21yo are more or less completely made up of whiskeys of that age whilst the 10yo contains a certain amount of 13yo.  

As the night ticked on we inevitably got onto the hot topic of the last few months...the change of ownership.

For those of you that have been living in a whiskey void it was announced a few months ago that Diageo were relinquishing their control over Bushmills to further their interest in the tequila market.  The new owners are to be Jose Ceurvo who bring with them a feeling of a family run business with the focus going back towards craft and quality.

As we spoke of the exciting times ahead Colum was quick to praise Diageo and their internal investment citing a figure of £50 million that had been spent in the 9 years they were in control.  It is obvious that Bushmills has benefited from the Diageo ownership but in a time where whiskey companies are expanding their portfolios it seems the right time for Bushmills to get a new lease of life.

A feeling was talked about that Bushmills was about to go from being the small fish in a big pond to a rather large fish in a small pond thus allowing the focus to be on the spirit they produce and the people who make it.  As highlighted in a recent article in "Whisky Magazine" the people of Bushmills know their whiskey and know what works so, for god's sake, please let them do it.

As the discussion progressed there was a great sense of hope and excitement of what the future might bring, with murmurings of possible innovation and new ideas coming to life, could we be on the cusp of seeing some absolutely stunning whiskey coming out of Bushmills?  

In my opinion single casks would be a good start and, after my personal tastings of recent Celtic Cask releases, I know fine rightly that some interesting cask finishes wouldn't go amiss either.  I live in hope.  What is clear though that any new styles, or releases, that may appear, are still a few years away.

As the night finished off we ended on a touching note.  Having enjoyed our time with Colum, and the delicious Bushmills drams, we were cordially welcomed into the Bushmills family.

After the event we moved into the main bar where the bar manager took the time to gain valuable feedback from those involved and inform us that more events are in the pipeline with the next possibly being a visit from the mighty Midleton.

I know one thing is for sure, as Belfast grows, and moves forward, events like this are imperative to it's success.  When events like this take place, and more specifically whiskey events, it can only but improve consumer knowledge and bring many more into our already growing Belfast whiskey family.

Many thanks to Colum and The Merchant Hotel for an excellent evening.

Until next time,



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