For too long I had stood by and watched my beloved Bushmills become seemingly stuck in the mud while every other Irish whiskey company moved onto the tarmac and planted their respective accelerators, sending them off into the Irish whiskey future.
This was of course until 2014 when the magical news came through that the evil overlords Diageo had been ousted from their Northern Irish coastal base by the family owned company Jose Cuervo.
Now, say what you like about Diageo, but the truth is they seemed to have absolutely no interest in promoting the Bushmills brand in any shape or form. Yes they may have provided significant inward investment into the distillery, but, without any outward activity, the brand was always going to stagnate in a market that was growing faster than any other in the drinks industry.
The arrival of Jose Cuervo was therefore a breath of fresh air and they immediately set their stall out by stating that they understood "the importance of nurturing and protecting the heritage and quality of a brand" and that they were "strongly committed to doing exactly that with Bushmills".
At long last Bushmills was back, or at least it should've been.
At various tastings I heard rumours of new ideas, and possible single cask releases, but for the better part of 18 months Bushmills seemed to remain quiet.
This all changed in February of this year when, finally, we had a new release to celebrate.
This was of course the announcement of the new "Steamship" collection, a collection consisting of three permanent “special cask matured” variants plus regular limited edition releases.
The collection itself was inspired by the historical SS Bushmills steamship and celebrates its maiden voyage in the 1890s. After being commissioned, by then owner the Boyd Brothers, it sailed across the world, travelling as far as Philadelphia and Yokohama, returning with refilled casks of rum, fortfied wine and Bourbon.
The first release in this range was the Sherry Cask Reserve, a no-age-statement single malt Irish whiskey exclusively matured in Oloroso Sherry butts before being bottled at 40% ABV and put on sale at a price of £65.
Being a NAS whiskey, travel retail only and at a relatively high price point I had my concerns. This wasn't exactly what I had wanted to see but I suppose I should've been grateful there was any release at all. I only hoped the flavour, and style, of the whiskey would hold up to scrutiny.
Onto my notes:
Nose - Classic cut grass Bushmills nose. Mashed banana on brown toast, a little candied sweetness, cinnamon lozenges, alcohol soaked raisins and light Christmas cake. A lot more of the lighter and sweeter than the deeper and heavier, if you know what I mean. Pressed apple juice and gentle red fruits with hints of strawberry and black cherry. The lack of depth highlights the youthfulness and for being matured exclusively in Sherry casks it feels like the casks may have been a little "tired". Flavours are nice but in truth I was expecting a little more.
Palate - Shockingly poor mouth feel. Thin to the point of diluted. What flavours you do get are some spiced sherry fruits and a little sweet orchard fruits. This feels like a beginners whiskey. No depth, no balance, no age and no character. Really disappointing. This is screaming out for more maturation, and a higher strength, but unfortunately has neither.
Finish - Thankfully short, allowing me to find something better to drink.
Well that's completely taken the wind out of my sails. Any hope, and excitement, I had about the future of this fantastic distillery has been wiped out in one glass.
Taking over a distillery, of this magnitude, you need to hit the ground running, in a market that's growing so quickly. Instead they have released, in my opinion, overpriced nonsense that will only damage whatever reputation was left after the dark days of Diageo.
Looking forward things aren't much better with a Port Cask release on the horizon. Another 40% ABV, NAS bottling with another £30+ added onto the price.
What angers me even more is when you're at a Bushmills tasting, you get a sense of what whiskey they have under their control. When you speak with the long term staff, you get a feeling of the pride and ambition they have. When you taste certain other Irish whiskeys, that may be using Bushmills spirit, you see exactly what they could be capable of.
Instead we're left with sub-standard, travel retail only, releases that could damage Bushmills beyond repair.
I'd love to know where their aversion to bottling at a higher strength comes from? Bushmills is a beautifully light and delicate spirit, and that can come through delightfully in some releases, but I see no harm in giving the whole range a boost by simply upping the strength to maybe 46% ABV.
It's obvious that this Steamship Sherry Cask would've benefitted from it.
I will certainly sample the Port Cask release but there's no way I'll be buying a bottle and if the quality is similar to this release I may have to abandon sampling this Steamship collection altogether.
Until next time,