A lesser known fact about Northern Ireland’s Bushmills distillery is that it makes some of the best single malts in the world, full stop. Though far better known for its more ubiquitous blended Irish whiskey—the white-labeled “Bushmills Original”—Bushmills has for years turned out truly excellent single malts that include a juicy port cask-finished 16-year-old and a deep, malty, exquisite 21-year-old in the brand’s permanent range, both of which punch above their price points.
As such, it’s unsurprising that expectations for this month’s inaugural release of the brand’s “Rare Casks” series were high, or that Bushmills Master Blender Helen Mulholland exceeded them with a 28-year-old Irish single malt that spent its final 17 years resting in cognac barrels. Light, honeyed, malty, and spicy, this very limited whiskey kicks off what should be a sought-after series of annual releases for a brand from which whiskey lovers—and especially Irish whiskey lovers—always want more.
“I’ve been wanting to do something with our aged single malts, because we have the finest variety of aged single malts in Ireland, and I think, possibly, the world,” Mulholland says. And when the distillery decided to move forward with a series of special releases poured from some of its oldest and rarest stocks, she already knew which casks she would look to first.
Mulholland has been at Bushmills for nearly 30 years, and was working in the lab there when this liquid was distilled back in 1992. She ran the original analysis on the distillate before it went into ex-bourbon barrels for 11 years before being re-casked into specially selected cognac barrels in 2003. As the whiskey matured over the next three decades, it was Mulholland’s job to follow its progress. “I’ve always thought it was an especially special effort,” she says. “I’ve held it back specifically for this range.”
It’s easy to see why. When the whiskey was re-casked in 2003, cognac barrels wouldn’t have necessarily been an obvious choice. Though unorthodox maturations and exotic cask-finishing experiments are now commonplace in whiskies the world over, this wasn’t always the case (which is why you don’t see a whole lot of whiskey that has spent this much time in cognac barrels). But the cognac ended up being a perfect partner for Bushmills, Mulholland says.
Bushmills is fundamentally a malty whiskey, and the long duration in ex-cognac wood enriches all those notes of vanilla, honey, malt, and wood while softening any rough edges. “There’s a roundness you can only get with a single malt of this age,” she says.
And it is remarkably round. The nose is malty, with soft wood notes mingling with stone fruits, vanilla, and warm spice. On the tongue there’s an initial bright burst of freshly cut pear followed by waves of warm honey and vanilla, dried fruits, roasted almonds, and a long finish tinged with cinnamon and baking spice. It’s remarkably light on its feet for a 28-year-old whiskey. It’s not exactly sumptuous in texture so much as rich in those malty notes that speak to Bushmills’ DNA and cognac’s sprightly, fruity eau de vie.
It’s worth noting that Bushmills isn’t on this journey alone, but has partnered with rare spirits subscription service Flaviar to not only deliver its Rare Cask series to consumers (members can purchase this bottle there) but also to help guide the selection of the next cask to be bottled. Bushmills will soon release samples from three casks for tasting, Mulholland says—a 1992 single malt finished in Pedro Jimenez sherry casks, a 1995 finished in marsala wine casks, and a 1997 crystal malt distillate matured in bourbon casks. Through the partnership Flaviar members can enter a lottery through which 100 members will be selected to receive tasting samples of all three liquids and vote for their favorite. Any Flaviar member will be able to read up on the tasting notes and vote for the cask they want to see bottled in the next Rare Cask series release.
With only 500 total bottles available at $500 each, this whiskey won’t be available for long, but for now you can find it at select retailers and at flaviar.com.