By S.D. Peters
Uisce beatha, if the story be true, has been a tradition in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, since at least 1207. That’s when Sir Robert Savage of Ards prepared his troops for a victorious battle against the Irish with “a mighty drop of acqua vitae”.
The story can be found in the “Old Bushmills History” on Bushmills Official Website. Bushmills being Bushmills Irish whiskey, distilled in County Antrim since 1608, the year King James I licensed Sir Thomas Phillipps the right to set up a distillery there.
Counterintuitive as it may seem to advertise Irish whiskey with a story that ends with the Irish defeated by a savage bunch of whiskey-fortified Angles, Bushmills is Northern Irish whiskey. Their gambit “takes the soup” only if you happen to be a descendent on the losing side of the Boyne; otherwise, Old Bushmills Distillery is the Irish whiskey distillery that just happens to be in “Protestant” Northern Ireland. The others – New Midleton Distillery (of Jameson fame), Cooley Distillery (the makers of Connemara) and Kilbeggan Distillery – all operate in the “Catholic” Republic Of Ireland.
Thus, Bushmills is “Protestant whiskey” thanks only to geography’s role in the history of Ireland’s religious rancor. On the positive side, the label may be the most innocuous of that history’s troublesome effects. Would that the ancient rift might be resolved with the succinctness of Detective James McNulty in Season 3 of HBO’s The Wire (2004). Approaching the open bar at an soire hosted by the private school his sons attend:
McNulty: Can I get a Jameson?
Bartender: Bushmills OK?
McNulty: That’s Protestant whiskey.
Bartender: Price is right, ain’t it?
McNulty: Make it neat.
I’m not the first whiskey reviewer to repeat that exchange in a Bushmills review, but I’d be remiss if I let someone else be the last. It’s a brilliant bit of comedic script AND an amicable compromise to the stubbornness indoctrinated by brand loyalty. Would a Bushmills drinker, finding himself in a reversed version of the dilemma, accept a neat Jameson on the house? I’d like to think that when it comes to whiskey, drinking a different, but not entirely dissimilar brand, is not like taking the soup.
Nevertheless, if we’re talking Irish whiskey, Bushmills earns it’s Irish stripes, not just by meeting the standards of Irish whiskey, but by being name-checked, like it’s brother to the south, in that most Irish of Irish Novels, James Joyce’s Ulysses:
“…he never forgot himself when I was there sending me out of the room on some blind excuse paying his compliments to Bushmills whisky talking of course but hed do the same to the next woman that came along I suppose he died of galloping drink ages ago…” [636.11-14]
Bushmills White Label (sometimes called “White Bush”) is the original Bushmills brand. It’s spartan – a blend of triple distilled malted barley, green barley and other grains aged in American oak casks that imparts the “Smooth & Mellow” characteristics advertised on its label – but sin qua non to the Irish whiskey experience. Like its counterpart, Jameson Irish whiskey, it has the color of goldenrod. The nose is pleasant: wildflower, hint a caramel, and strawberry licorice linger long and sweet. The body has the lightness characteristic of Irish whiskey, but alas, it’s too light to carry much flavor. Like a draught of fresh spring water, there’s a crispness about it, and eventually grainy bran steps out and lingers in the finish, where sweetness is a vague outlier.
Bushmills White Label suggests there are good things waiting to happen in Irish whiskey; it just doesn’t quite make them happen.
Like Jameson, it’s younger brother, a 750ml bottle of Bushmills White Label averages between $25-$30 in most U.S. stores that carry it (and almost every store that sells Jameson also sells Bushmills). In Europe, the average cost is about £18 or 20 euros.