A Bushmills Immersion in Whiskey and Hospitality

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The Bushmills Inn. (Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels)

The Bushmills brand was born in 1608, meaning the Irish whiskey drawn from the river Bush outside Belfast is bottled in the world’s oldest licensed distillery. To the surprise of some, Bushmills is more than just the 10-million cases of the triple-distilled, malted barley whiskey exported in rectangular bottles each year. Northern Ireland’s village of Bushmills, a genuine dot on the Emerald Isle map, is the place the Old Bushmills distillery is located and named for.

Bushmills Inn

In that village, the Bushmills Inn had its beginnings about the same time as the whiskey with which it shares a name – but no official affiliation.

“We work closely together and we’re happy to promote their brand and serve their whiskey,” said Alan Walls, general manager of the cozy, 4-star, Bushmills Inn that began as a coaching inn with stables in the 1600’s. The stable area is now a gourmet restaurant and there are two bars in which you can enjoy a glass of the various versions of whiskey Bushmills produces, including Black Bush, Red Bush and 10, 16 and 21-year old single malts.

Bushmills Whiskey

Irelands-Blue-Book.ie lists unique, historic hotels. (Photo by Michael Patrick Sheils)

In fact every one of the inn’s 41 guestrooms, each clean and bright with plenty of light and fresh smelling Irish linens, is named for an Irish whiskey in history. And there is a “Master Distiller’s 1608 Suite” with a balcony overlooking the River Bush – the lifeblood of Bushmills whiskey. The property’s historical awareness and inherently timeless nature has resulted in placement in Irelands-Blue-Book.ie, the prestigious listing of unique, significant hotel properties on the Emerald Isle. Bushmills Inn is the first of very few Blue Book entries in Northern Ireland.

“We get a huge amount of people who come to us from Ireland’s Blue Book. It lists proper, grand Irish hotels, so people can come to experience something authentic,” said Walls who, himself, has worked at Bushmills Inn for 20 years. “I started as a bar runner picking up glasses and washing ashtrays.”

The secret library room upstairs. (Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels)

Since he mentioned smoke, it is worth mentioning the unmistakably timeless peat fire aroma which wafts from various fireplaces and permeates the property. It is impossible to adequately describe the level of relaxation that comes from slumping, perhaps with a whiskey in hand, in an easy chair next to one of the open fires or hidden in one of the sitting areas in the cozy nooks and crannies around every corner. There is even a hidden library room upstairs accessible by pushing open a secret door made to look like a bookshelf.

Locals Mingle with Hotel Guests

Bushmills Inn is no secret to locals, though, who duck into the inn’s pub directly through the main street door for a drink or a bite of locally inspired bar food such as Guinness and oysters. The traditional pub is known as the Gas Bar because it’s still lit by Victorian gas lamps. Hotel guests are free to mix and mingle with locals and, on Saturdays, enjoy a live Irish music session. Various types of Bushmills whiskeys are front and center behind the bar, including Distillery Reserve 12, which you can only otherwise get at the Old Bushmills Distillery just down the street.

Sunshine bathes the Bushmills Inn veranda. (Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels)

Overnight hotel guests enter through the back side of the building where a secluded side car park sits next to a sunlit garden patio overlooking the Irish countryside and, in the distance, Bushfoot Golf Club, founded in 1890. The patio, beside the windows of the gourmet restaurant and its whitewashed walls in the 17thcentury stables, is an immediate escape from whatever hustle and bustle there can possibly be in small village life.

Guests relax at tables below an ivy-covered turret and, inside or out, savor local favorites such as Plancha grilled fillet of Greencastle cod or a tasting of Slaney valley lamb: nut crust lamb rump; crispy belly; slow braised black olive shoulder, with textures of carrot, goats cheese mousse, and roasting juices.

The two-story inn was expanded time and again by cobbling together seamless new wings and passageways. What appears to the original stone tower looms over the garden patio and each day the Bushmills Inn staff flies the national flags of visiting hotel guests atop the tower to honor and welcome them.

“Many of the flags were donated to us by the embassies they represent,” said communications manager Nikki Picken as she opened the door of the “flag room,” where countless flags – from the Stars and Stripes to the Union Jack to the Tri-Color are neatly folded behind glass and catalogued alphabetically. There are plenty more surprises to find upstairs if you can pry yourself from your peat fire chair, including a small movie theater for screenings, corporate gatherings and golf groups who want to catch a flick.

Bushmills Distillery Tour

As restful as Bushmills Inn is, it’s also perfectly located in the Causeway Coast area of Country Antrim, a region famed for having plenty to see and do in a concentrated area.

Bushmills is the oldest distillery in the world. (Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels)

It’s appropriate to begin with a guided Old Bushmills Distillery tour – whether or not you drink whiskey. Word of mouth with the bartenders and other staff members at Bushmills Inn was that the Old Bushmills Distillery tour was a quality experience – and it sure was. As factory tours go – and I’ve seen plenty – this was just perfect.

The Old Bushmills Distillery tour shows actual production. (Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels)

The Old Bushmills Distillery tour is not expensive, lasts just under an hour, and provides real access to actual distilling operations. By contrast, tourists who visit the Guinness Brewery at St. James Gate in Dublin will find essentially a bustling, 11-level museum with theme park elements. The experience Bushmills offers – limited, guided tours departing by foot on the half-hour – is a different, intimate experience.

The distillery is in a pastoral, hilly setting on the edge of the village and appealing in an old-world, industrial way. It’s part Irish cottage/part factory – like the one in which Willy Wonka made chocolate.

Aging barrels are both above and below ground. (Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels)

Moments after gathering in a reception lobby full of memorabilia and photos, guests are in the distillery area looking at the one, single vat in which millions of bottles of Bushmills are born in each year. The tour provides close glimpses and occasional interaction with the employees working, virtually 24/7, as the docent leads guests through the production process along the equipment that moves the water, mash, sand team through the through the pipes, into the barrels to age, and on into the iconic bottles.

Various versions available for tasting at the end of the tour and at Bushmills Inn. (Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels)

It’s a simple, colorful, multi-sensory tour which includes, sights, sounds, scents, and, at the end, tastes of various blends in a themed bar next to the actual employee commissary. There is a very tasteful souvenir shop, too, offering custom label bottles and logoed apparel, trinkets and gifts.

Scenic Sites Near Bushmills

Some of Northern Ireland’s most precious natural tourist sites are only a few kilometers from Bushmills, including Giants Causeway, Dunluce Castle, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, and Royal Portrush Golf Club – home of the 2019 Open Championship; and another epic links course Portstewart Golf Club. Each of these sites provide jaw-dropping scenic views of high, craggy cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean with Scotland on the horizon.

Michael Patrick Shiels is a radio host and travel blogger. Follow his adventures at GoWorldTravel.com/TravelTattler. You can contact him via MShiels@aol.com.