Ireland has long been believed to be the probable birthplace of whiskey, despite those upstart Scots stealing the limelight these days. And appropriately, the Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim is claimed to be the oldest licensed distillery in the world, said license having been granted by King James I in 1608 (though the distillery wasn’t actually registered until 1784, so that seems like it may be a nice bit of blarney!).
The location of the Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland
In common with many other distilleries, Bushmills has had a bit of a chequered past, suffering through lengthy periods of silence during the 19th century. After changing hands a few times in the last several decades though (most recently going to Diageo), it happily seems to be on a significant upswing these days.
As well as boosting output, quality seems to be heading in the same upward direction. My personal experience with their whiskies is limited, but a colleague brought us a bottle of their sherry-cask matured 12-year-old single malt from the distillery for a Scotch Club meeting recently and I enjoyed it quite a bit, the soft sherry tones suiting the light, aromatic spirit. The local liquor store sells a bottle of 21-year-old, tempting apart from the somewhat eye-watering price of $185.
But we’re not here for that today! At almost the opposite end of the Bushmills price spectrum lies the Black Bush, a gentle blended whiskey priced for the mass market. Even here in BC it’s only $38 for 750ml, which feels like something of a miracle with our local tax-gouging liquor board in control. Of course, that’s 60% higher than the UK price.
(Dammit, I promised myself no more complaining about local prices!
Only kidding, of course I didn’t. What else would I have to write about if I put a stop to that?)
The Black Bush is a blend of Bushmills’ single malt, triple-distilled of course, and externally-sourced grain whiskey, in a proportion of 80% malt and 20% grain. It’s unusual for a value-priced blended whiskey in that it’s partially matured in Oloroso sherry casks, lending it a decidedly fruity character (though not, I suspect, its dark amber colour; nowhere does it claim “no added colouring” and so I remain suspicious). This page claims that the expression has been around in one form or another since 1934 and that the name is due to the distinctive black label; if that’s true then presumably “the black Bushmills” got shortened to “Black Bush” somewhere along the way. There doesn’t seem to be an official story so I’ll just go with that!
The colour, artificial or not, is very attractive and gives a good first impression in the glass. Nosing, the positive mood is continued; dried fruit, candied orange peel, brown sugar, maybe a touch of red apple all come across on a pleasant gentle alcohol base. It’s only when tasting that things fall down a few notches. First off, I find the mouth feel and the general taste and overall impact on the palate to be quite watery – I’d love to try this at a higher alcohol strength to enhance both. Even 43% would be an improvement. The promise of the nose doesn’t fully translate to the mouth, with muted reflections of the hoped-for fruit being all that comes through for me.
I’ll admit to not being the world’s biggest fan of blended whiskey in general, and so even the 20% of grain spirit in the Black Bush is too much for my liking. Give me my “rough” single malts any day! The softening effect of the grain further undermines the fruity character and dilutes the flavour. And despite the overall gentleness of the whiskey, the finish is short, bitter and a little metallic.
Despite my complaints, I have to say that as an overall value proposition I don’t think the Black Bush is too bad. I certainly can’t think of any Scottish or Irish whiskey around the same price point I’d pick over it. Personally I’d rather spend a little more and get a good single malt, but if you’re looking for a blended whiskey with a little sherry influence at the lowest possible price, the Black Bush might just be your dram.
(I’d like to say thank you to Johanne McInnis, the irrepressible WhiskyLassie, for setting up this flash mob project and inviting us all to be a part of it! Three cheers, Johanne. You can find the excellent whisky blog Johanne runs in conjunction with her husband Graham at http://theperfectwhiskymatch.blogspot.ca/)