Page last updated at 19:51 GMT, Friday, 25 April 2008 20:51 UK

The ancient traditions of Bushmills


Take a tour of Bushmills Distillery with Declan Curry as he learns how whiskey is made

By Declan Curry
BBC News, Bushmills, County Antrim

Whiskey tasting. They make it sound so easy.

Swirl a little golden liquid in the glass. Sniff. Sip.

I'd been told to expect light fragrances. A slight tang of citrus fruit. Maybe even a hint of pear. But all I could get was a generic taste of, well, whiskey.

This disappointed the master blender, Helen Mulholland.

Her sophisticated palette detects everything from the honey sweetness of her original whiskey, through to the milk chocolate and toasted wood of her 10-year old single malt.

But with my blunt, insensitive tongue there was no chance of us moving onto level two of the tasting, where you experience a "bubbling on your tongue with intensity".

World's oldest?

I was at the Old Bushmills distillery, in the village of Bushmills in county Antrim.

Bushmills Distillery
King James I gave the Bushmills area the legal right to distil whiskey

If you look closely at the labels on some bottles, it describes itself as the world's oldest whiskey distillery.

There are, of course, competing claims; these things are hard to pin down exactly through the mists of time.

But what we do know for certain is that 400 years ago, King James I gave the Bushmills area the legal right to distil whiskey. The current distillery is the last surviving one of the hundred or so that existed then.

It is the only historic distillery still operating on the island of Ireland.

Water quality

Even though the distillery's owner Diageo has spent millions of pounds on modern equipment since it bought the plant in 2005, the technique of getting from grain to glass hasn't changed much in those intervening four centuries.

It started then, and still starts today, with barley.

The elementary science is this. Barley is encouraged to sprout, is dried and is then ground into a course flour and mixed with hot water.

This releases starches, which then turn into sugars. Yeast is added, to ferment the sugar into alcohol.

The quality of the water is critical. The native Gaelic name for whiskey is "uisce beatha" - which literally translates as the water of life.

Whiskey versus whisky

Next comes the crucial difference between Irish whiskey and most Scotch whiskys.

It's not just that the Irish spell the word with seven letters - whiskey - and the Scotch distillers with six - whisky.

It is also evident in the distillation, the process that extracts the alcohol.

The mix of fermented barley and water is heated until the alcohol turns into vapour; it is then collected and condensed back into a liquid.

Most Scotch whiskys do this twice. Irish whiskeys do it three times. They claim it produces a purer form of alcohol and a smoother taste.

The alcohol is then diluted with pure water, put into barrels and stores for anything between seven and 21 years while it matures into whiskey.

Falling sales

As Bushmills' operations manager Darryl McNally told me, there are four crucial ingredients for good whiskey: barley, water, yeast - and time.

Bushmills Distillery
Younger drinkers tend to prefer other drinks over whiskey

Even the choice of barrel makes a difference to the finished product.

Some of the spirit is matured in barrels that were used previously for port; others in barrels used for Madeira or sherry.

Some is matured in one type of barrel, then another, then another in turn. Each gives a different finish to the whiskey. But all the barrels share one crucial aspect - they are all previously used.

That type of tradition is essential in the whiskey trade. It's not just branding or slick marketing; it goes to the heart of the production process.

But that adherence to tradition causes the industry problems, too.

Whiskey still has the reputation of being an old man's drink that struggles to attract younger customers.

Independent research from Mintel says whiskey and whisky sales have fallen steadily over the last five years. Overall sales have fallen 16% by volume in the five years to 2006.

And sales have declined notably among drinkers aged over 45 - its core base.

Challenge ahead

But the same research says there's been a flight to quality.

Sales of single malts are up by 4% by volume over those five years, while sales of deluxe whiskeys have jumped by 11% each year.

Bushmills' distillery director Gordon Donoghue insists Irish whiskeys are bucking the overall trend, with sales rising by 8% a year.

Three quarters of his product is sold overseas, with the bulk going to the US.

But at home, whiskey faces a tough battle for young customers more used to tastes like vodka, white rum and tequila.

This most traditional of industries faces a modern riddle: how an ancient product can be tweaked to fit with contemporary tastes, without destroying the time-honoured attributes that made it special in the first place - now, and four centuries ago.

Bank raises glass to famous drink
23 Apr 08 |  Northern Ireland
Whiskey distillery changes hands
07 Jun 05 |  Northern Ireland

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