Bushmills – Whiskey from the oldest licensed distillery in the world

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Early Days

In the thirteenth century the Bushmills area in north Country Antrim was under the control of the Norman baron Sir William Le Savage.

Le Savage (from the Old French Sauvage) was one of 22 knights who accompanied John de Courcy when he came to the north of Ireland in 1177. William was to become one of the most powerful Norman-Ulster leaders in the district.

According to the Annals of the Savages published in 1888, William’s son Robert, or more likely his grandson Henry, before a battle in 1276 is said to have declared “….having prepared an army against the Irish, allowed to every soldier, before he buckled with the enemy, a mighty draft of aqua vitae”. Some historians claim that this is the first reference to whiskey distilling in the area!

Whiskey – The Water of Life

Aqua vitae” is the Latin phrase for distilled alcohol – meaning “water of life”. Translated into Gaelic/Irish this is “uisce beatha”. The word “Whiskey” is derived from that Gaelic word “uisce” meaning water.

Acknowledging the need to drink in moderation, it has long been known that whiskey offers a range of health benefits. Healthy side effects of an occasional whiskey include:

  • reduces risk of heart disease
  • reduces stress
  • supports weight loss (it contains very little sodium and no fat)
  • reduces risk of dementia (2003 Study)
  • reduces risk of blood clotting/ stroke

Excessive alcohol intake is unquestionably harmful but even during the Prohibition era, whiskey was still available with a doctor’s prescription in recognition of its benefits. A person was permitted one pint of medicinal liquor every ten days.

Bushmills License

English king James 1 granted a royal license to make whiskey at Bushmills to Thomas Phillipps, the Chief Governor of Ireland, on 20th April 1608. Bushmills is therefore the oldest licensed distillery in the world!

Bushmills Logo
Bushmills Logo

“…for the next seaven yeres, withn the countie of Colrane, otherwise called O Cahanes country, or within the territorie called the Rowte, in co. Antrim, by himself or his servauntes, to make, drawe, and distill such and soe great quantities of aquavite, usquabagh and aqua composite, as he or his assignes shall think fit; and the same to sell, vent, and dispose to any persons, yeeldinge that somme 13s 4d…”

Extract from Bushmill’s license

Bushmills Old Distillery Company

In 1784 Hugh Anderson established the Bushmills Old Distillery Company. Despite a Crown tax being imposed on barley in 1850, Bushmills continued to use only malted barley in its distilling process, producing a ‘single malt’ whiskey.

The spirit is produced using water from Saint Columb’s Rill, a tributary of the River Bush. The water flows over basalt rocks and through peat bogs giving it a slightly sweet, smoky flavour.

The Bushmills Fire

Ballymoney spirit merchant James McColgan and Patrick Corrigan bought the Company for £500 on 20th August 1860. In 1880 it became a limited liability company headed by McColgan. Patrick Corrigan had died in 1865.

From Bassett's Guide to County Antrim 1888
From Bassett’s Guide to County Antrim 1888

Unfortunately, five years later the distillery buildings were destroyed by fire, although, thankfully, all the bottles of whiskey were saved! The premises were quickly rebuilt on a larger and improved scale and the latest technology installed. By late 1885 Bushmills Distillery was producing 100,000 gallons of whiskey a year.

Old Bushmills Distillery Roof Sign
Old Bushmills Distillery Roof Sign

International Success

The business was very successful, its famous malt whiskey winning numerous prizes abroad; including the gold medal at the Paris Expo in 1889.Subsequently the owners began looking further afield to market their distinct product. In 1890 the Company purchased a steamship named the SS Bushmills. Its first voyage was to America stopping at Philadelphia and New York. It then continued to Singapore, Hong Kong, Shangai and Yokohama.

“No Irish whiskey enjoys a more eminent reputation among the best judges of the national beverage, and none preserves a more notable uniformity of character and quality. It is remarkable in its absolute purity and delicious flavour, equalling in these respects the very finest spirituous distillations in the market, and acknowledging no superior and few rivals among even the most distinguished of its contemporaries. The Company do not allow even the smallest quantity of their whiskey to go out of the warehouse until it has attained a state of thoroughly satisfactory maturity, and, all things considered, the most fastidious palate cannot fail to be gratified by the exquisite flavour and character of the spirit which enters the market under the auspices of the well-known trademark (a pot-still) of the Bushmill Distillery”.  

Industries of the North   1891
History of Giants Causeway District - Franco-British Exhibition 1908
History of Giants Causeway District – Franco-British Exhibition 1908

Bushmills Distillery in the 20th Century

Between the Wars

By the 1920’s Old Bushmills Distillery was in the hands of Belfast wine and spirit merchant Samuel Wilson Boyd. Boyd was an astute businessman and had increased whiskey production in anticipation of the repeal of Prohibition in America.

He had begun his working life at the Belfast spirits firm Mitchell & Company. Subsequently Boyd bought Thomas Quinn & Co of Hill Street which became Boyd & Co. After purchasing Bushmills in 1923, the distillery expanded and prospered. In 1930 it became a limited company with Boyd and his two sons Wilson and Austin as co-directors.

An interesting fact about Samuel Boyd was that he was a strict Presbyterian and the author of temperance pamphlets! Boyd died on 4th June 1932. Boyd’s funeral took place in Fortwilliam Presbyterian Church and he is buried in Belfast City Cemetery.

When Prohibition was revoked in 1933, it is reported that Bushmills sent a ship to Chicago “with the biggest shipment of whiskey ever to leave an Irish port”.

World War 2

During the Blitz of 1941, the Belfast headquarters of the firm in Hill Street took a direct hit destroying all the official company documents and ledgers post 1885. The bottling plant in nearby Gordon Street was also bombed, with a huge loss of whiskey, but thankfully no lives were lost.

“Not only were valuable papers gone, but a bonded warehouse full of precious and rare mature whiskey went up in smoke. The resulting fire raged so fiercely that steel beams buckled and the building smouldered for a week. After this, all remaining whiskey was moved out of Belfast”

Peter Mulryan, Bushmills – 400 Years in the Making, 2008

The Distillery Today

Bushmills produces a range of world acclaimed whiskeys including Bushmills Original, Black Bush and Bushmills Distillery Reserve, a 16 year malt. The onsite shop stocks all of these. If looking for a unique gift for a whiskey lover in the Bushmills shop, you can buy a bottle of whiskey with the recipient’s name printed on the label.

The distillery welcomes visitors and there are organised visits and tours of the distillery as well as tasting experiences. (The tours have been stopped during the Covid pandemic but will hopefully resume soon). Check the website for details of tours and opening hours.

Contact Details

Address: Bushmills Distillery, 2 Distillery Road, Bushmills, County Antrim BT57 8XH

Website: www.bushmills.com

Reservations.bushmills@bushmills.com

Bushmills Village

Bushmills village is 60 miles from Belfast, near the north Antrim coast. It is a quaint conservation village built on the River Bush.

In non-Covid times, Bushmills hosts a Salmon and Whiskey Festival in June.

The village is located 2 miles from the world famous Giant’s Causeway and 5.5 miles from the Royal Portrush Golf Club.

Bushmills - Ulster Towns Directory Listing 1894
Bushmills – Ulster Towns Directory Listing 1894

Contact: www.bushmillsvillage.com

Bushmills Gallery

Related Posts – The Causeway Coast Trip

White Park Bay path
White Park Bay path

Have you heard the ‘singing sands’ of White Park Bay?

White Park Bay on the North Coast of Antrim between the fishing villages of Ballintoy and Portbraddon is noted for its ‘singing sands’


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