When Bushmills released its 2001 Feuillette Cask in 2020, the first in its Causeway Collection single malt range, it sold out in 24 hours. ‘Everyone has been patiently waiting for us to release something… so they wanted to taste the fluids we’ve been hiding away from them,’ says Alex Thomas, the distillery’s new master blender, of the speed within which this whiskey sold out.
While drinkers may have missed their chance to try the 2001 Feuillette Cask, they’re in luck, as the historic Irish whiskey maker has released a second in the series – and it’s even older than the one before it. The Bushmills Causeway Collection 1991 Madeira Cask is being sold exclusively though The Whisky Shop. It’s been aged for over 13 years in Oloroso Sherry butts and bourbon barrels before spending an extraordinary 16 years in first-fill Madeira wine casks.
There’s promise of mandarin and orange on the nose, black coffee and chocolate, and what Thomas describes as ‘a controlled heat on the finish from having spent all that time in cask.’ Bottled at a cask strength of 50.2% abv and non-chill filtered, it’s a liquid that packs a punch.
The chance to try such cared-for liquid from the world’s oldest licenced whiskey distillery is a special one. The County Antrim distillery has 400 years of heritage behind it and centuries of experience championing Irish single malts. Each generation at Bushmills is said to act as a custodian to the liquids coming out of its stills – now overseen by master distiller Colum Egan – with its whiskey-making traditions passed on from generation to generation.
But for the Causeway Collection, the team is also taking inspiration from its surroundings. Specifically, they’ve been inspired by the Giant’s Causeway UNESCO heritage site, a huge area of igneous rock and a Northern Irish icon that sits approximately three miles northeast of the town of Bushmills, where the distillery is housed.
‘It’s right on our doorstep and the stones have been shaved down over the years, just like our whisky has been moulded and shaped,’ Thomas explains of the synergy between the World Heritage Site and the single malts the distillery makes. The water used by Bushmills to craft their whiskey is also drawn from the River Bush, which will have flowed through the Causeway’s mineral-rich basalt rock and gives the whiskey its character.
The Causeway is right on our doorstep and the stones have been shaved down over the years, just like our whisky has been moulded and shaped
Philosophically, it seems that the distillery is inspired by Giant’s Causeway, too: Thomas refers to Bushmills as a ‘sleeping giant’, with its loyal fanbase waiting eagerly for old liquids like the 1991 Madeira Cask to be released. ‘We’ve just been patient,’ Thomas says. ‘We all mature differently, and whiskey is the same – it’s a living, breathing product.’
Biding their time
So, when does the team know when it is time to release the liquids forming a part of the Causeway Collection? Thomas explains the close relationship Bushmills has had with its cask partners over the years, with casks built to specification and the chance to pick their seasoning to ensure full control of the flavours that will be imparted on the spirit.
Then it’s a case of regular checking and waiting until the desired flavour profile has been achieved. ‘These casks would have been looked at every three to five months,’ says Thomas of the casks the collection’s whiskies will have been drawn from. ‘Some do take longer than others, and we make sure they’ve reached their real potential. It’s a delight for someone like me, I get to walk around these casks that have been here for years.’
Looking forward, how does the Causeway Collection reflect both the past and the future of Bushmills? ‘It pays homage to those who have been custodians, but we’re also always innovating. We start off with the same raw spirit and we look at how we can do things differently – it gives us the opportunity to create something new,’ says Thomas.
As well as the release of a third expression – the 2000 Port Cask, released at the same time as the 1991 Madeira Cask – Thomas hints that there will be a few more releases coming our way in the months and years to come. ‘I can put my own stamp on Bushmills too,’ she says excitedly of the prospect. ‘Maybe people will talk about what I did in Bushmills’ history. We just want to give them a wonderful experience so that they can make their own memories.’
It seems an apt statement: the 1991 Madeira Cask is as memorable as they come, a giant in the glass or for the collection.