Irish whiskey is enjoying a global renaissance and one man is better placed than any of us to enjoy it
Colum Egan, 47, is originally from Portarlington in Laois, born to parents from Kerry and Roscommon. He not only runs one of the world’s best-known whiskey distilleries but is also a master distiller who oversees the process from the very first steps.
It was on his watch that was named best Irish whiskey in the world at the 2010 World Spirits competition.
As a young man he lost his job in Northern Ireland and moved to England and worked at a breakfast cereals factory. He then moved on to brewing. He was working in London at the Stag Brewery in Mortlake in the mid-90s – at the time it made Budweiser – when he met, and fell for, a Gaelic football playing young Irish woman from Ballycastle in Antrim called Clare Maybin and went home one week-end to meet her parents.
As he describes it he went out for a walk and visited the Bushmills Distillery near her home in Ballycastle (about ten miles) because “I had to escape”.
“I fell in love with the distillery — its history, heritage, and magic. I later joined The Old Bushmills Distillery team and started to learn the art of distilling and processing. After a year-long apprenticeship under my predecessor, David Quinn, I was appointed Bushmills master distiller.
Still a haven
“My wife says that nearly thirty years later it (Bushmills) is still a haven,” he says. “I’ve always liked whiskey and I would have enjoyed Bushmills depending on the circumstances because it was always top shelf.
“I never dreamed I would someday have this job which, quite frankly, is something I was born to do I love it so much. It is enjoyable, trying to make something that will bring a smile to people’s faces.
“I’ve been Bushmills’ master distiller since 2002, and I have a real passion for whiskey, so I have loved every minute of it. My main responsibility is to ensure every drop is as good today as it has been for the last few hundred years. I keep an eye on the critical production and blending stages of Bushmills Irish Whiskey.
“No day is typical, I am on call 24/7. The best thing is the variety. I must ensure the mashing, fermentation, distillation, and maturing of the whiskey in oak barrels, as well as the blending and preparing of the whiskey for bottling, all adhere to the very high expectations and standards that have been laid down over the years.
Hugely passionate team
“The team helps to make that easy, they are all hugely passionate and very highly skilled and most have been making and bottling whiskey for years.
“Bushmills is a nice story itself, it has a 400-year old history of whiskey making and there are records of uisce beatha dating back to 1066.
“It’s a privilege and I am proud to have the knowledge to pass on as I’m only going to be here for another 40 years but it will go on after me to ensure that same taste and character that we have made for the last 150 years is passed on.
“We have a range of labels for all tastes, there’s our Original, which has a bourbon, fruity vanilla quality and is popular in 80 countries. Something like Black Bush, which is seasoned in sherry casks has a gentle nutty sweet finish, and then there’s the single malts, ten, sixteen and 21 years old. They take a lot of care, time and attention.
“The 10-year old is matured in bourbon barrels and 100 per cent malted barley and has apple pastry character.
“The 16 year old is matured in different woods, bourbon sherry casks and then six months in port casks to give it a perfect finish, a blend of the tastes and aromas of warm port wine with almond and nutty textures. It is malt whiskey at its core, we are malt distillery with a sense of tradition. Go around the world and ask what it is that people find most enjoyable and flavourable and it is the single malt and you can only do that with the best of ingredients and to a tight specification.
“We start with the finest ingredients and only end up with the finest results, we are very careful about where we source our barrels and their history, where the sherry has come from. Bushmills Original takes four years to make and you go right up to the 21 year old, these whiskies demand respect, care and attention.
“To understand the difference between Bushmills and other Irish, and even Scotch, whiskies you need to know that Bushmills is 100 per cent single malt barley.
“Pot Still whiskies became popular in the late 1800s when malted barley was being taxed, often at duties of up to 100 per cent. Non-malted barley whiskies have a mouth coating and oily texture.
“We explain all this at our Visitors’ Centre where we get 130,000 visitors and we want to show everybody how it is done, through to the fermentation process and then we have a bar where people who have never tried whiskey before get to try it in a lovely ambience and the whole process comes alive and whiskey is almost a living thing.
“People should enjoy it whichever way they wish. When I go into a bar I like to have a couple of big ice cubes even though it will lose some of its small nuances but let me worry about that same as I do when I’m making the whiskey for the bottle but I certainly don’t want to be telling people how they should enjoy it.
“This is a very exciting time for Irish whiskey and we are in an especially great position to move forward with the original, Black and the three single malts and perhaps one or two exciting new ones along the way.