While whiskey of all kinds has huge momentum right now, the trajectory of Irish whiskey is particularly bright: Its sales grew by 140 percent from 2010 to 2020, and the Irish whiskey category is projected to overtake scotch in the U.S. market in less than a decade. Brands like Tullamore D.E.W., Proper No. Twelve and, of course, Jameson have reaped dividends from the increased interest in Irish whiskey, but one distillery has been curiously quiet: Bushmills.
It’s strange because Bushmills has all the hallmarks of a truly great distillery: It’s got centuries of history, a noteworthy location in Northern Ireland and a devout dedication to making just one type of whiskey, single malt, which it does with near perfection. For decades in the 20th century, when Irish whiskey production had shrunk to just two distilleries, Bushmills steadfastly held the line, keeping the door open long enough for other producers to step in and eventually generate a renaissance of the Emerald Isle’s proud whiskey legacy. As newcomers like Teeling, Walsh Whiskey and Waterford have garnered a surge of interest, Bushmills has largely sat back, continuing its usual production but making few waves beyond a handful of limited releases that rarely hit the U.S.
There’s a bright new star on the horizon, however, and her name is Alex Thomas. The County Antrim native was born just ten miles from the distillery and was recently named master blender for Bushmills. She comes to the job with over a decade’s experience in the timber industry, where she became an expert in all things related to wood, and after 17 years of working at Bushmills in a variety of roles, most recently as master blender for The Sexton. (You may recognize it as the hexagonal black bottle with a goth skeleton motif, but more importantly it’s the best quality-to-price Irish whiskey on shelves right now — proof positive that Thomas knows her stuff.)
First up for Thomas in her new role: Launching Bushmills 12-Year-Old ($60), which joins 10, 16, and 21-year-old siblings as part of the distillery’s core range of single malts. While there has been a 12-year-old offering available as a distillery exclusive for the last couple of years, this whiskey is different, and it’s coming to the U.S. Triple-distilled, like all Bushmills malts, it spends 10 years in American oak bourbon and European oak sherry casks before being married and finished for two years in European oak marsala casks. The double impact of European oak, Thomas says, enriches the house character of orchard fruit and light nut flavors.
“You're going to get those beautiful caramelized apples coming through,” she says. “On the taste you're going to get that warm ginger, you're going to get a little bit of spiced pear… That nutty flavor is going to be emphasized much, much more than it would've been if there'd been a higher percentage of the bourbon cask in there.”
On the heels of the launch — which also debuts a new look for the bottle — will come the second release in Bushmills’ Rare Cask series, a 29-year-old single malt finished in Pedro Ximénez casks. The debut whiskey in the series, 28-year-old Cognac Cask, came out in the fall of 2020 with under 500 bottles at $500 each — an extremely fair list price for its age and provenance — and got snapped up so fast that it instantly became one of the most collectible whiskeys on the market. If you want to find a bottle now, it’s going to cost you: Cask Cartel has it listed at $7,000, in the same band as Pappy 23, Macallan 30 and Michter’s Celebration.
While former master blender Helen Mulholland oversaw the initiation of the Rare Cask series, it’s Thomas, alongside master distiller Colum Egan, who will continue it — and she’s got some mindbogglingly good whiskey waiting in the wings. “We're in a wonderful position in that we have an awful lot of stock in the warehouses,” she says. “There were a lot of years there that the owners of Bushmills didn't want to see anything new coming out, but we still played it right in the background and got the opportunity to lay things down” that have now spent decades maturing — everything from new charred oak, Grand Cru champagne and St-Émilion Bordeaux casks to casks made from non-oak woods, one of the quirks allowed in Irish whiskey regulations.
Many of those experiments are still maturing, with Thomas keeping a close eye — or rather, nose and palate — on them. And there will be much more along those lines in the future, thanks to the massive distillery expansion that got underway in 2019 and finished in late 2021, with its official unveiling set for this year. Although many of the details have been kept under wraps, it’s confirmed that there will be ten stills — exact replicas of those in Bushmills’ existing stillhouse — which will enable double the usual production. More whiskey means more opportunities to get acquainted with Bushmills.
“Watch this space,” Thomas says. “Bushmills will definitely be bringing out some wonderful, new, rare whiskeys and things that we wouldn't have been expecting to see coming from [this distillery]. But you'll see that the quality is there, from the heritage of the past and the optimism of our future.”