Distilleries are getting smarter. They understand the power of social networking and nearly every distillery has a great website with a chance to join some sort of "club" for unique offers, news stories and other general entertainment.
Their lists of competitions open to members is also becoming increasingly interesting, focusing in on opportunities for people from all over the world to visit and, in some cases, work at a distillery.
The Glenrothes Distillery is currently running their Whisky Maker competition and earlier in the year, Bushmills ran the Make It At Bushmills competition to give the chance for one winner to work a the Distillery with the ultimate goal of creating their own whiskey.
I was lucky enough, along with singer-songwriter Foy Vance and the Irish Rugby Legend that is Keith Wood, to help judge the competition. The winner was a Bulgarian chap called Ivan, so we got him to write us a blog post about his time at the Distillery and what it was like to make his own whiskey.
"“Winning Make it at Bushmills was one of the best things that has ever happened to me! On the day when it announced who would be the finalist from Bulgaria at the Global Final, I was working as a Life Guard and I didn't have my phone on the beach. Bushmills called me 15 times to try and tell me that I was the Bulgarian finalist and decided to give me one last chance to answer…luckily I heard the phone ringing through the door as I was coming home and rushed to answer it. The news that I would be going to the Bushmills Distillery was a great early birthday present for me as I turned 28 two days later!
The feeling of winning something like Make it at Bushmills against such strong competition is unbelievable! It’s like applying for your dream job with thousands of people from all over the world and they choose you above all!! When I got home to Bulgaria after Bushcamp [the worldwide final of the competition, held at the Bushmills Distillery] I was already famous. I was all over the news - every major newspaper had an article about me and I started giving lots of interviews for all kinds of media.
When I went back to Northern Ireland to take up my dream prize, I received rock star treatment. I was picked up from the airport and driven to an awesome huge luxury penthouse apartment which would be my home for the next 30 days. Also the distillery set me up with a car, phone, laptop and camera. I couldn't wait to meet Colum Egan, the Distillery Manager, the Distillery Director Gordon, the Distilling Manager Darryl and the rest of my new family at Bushmills. The first day was overwhelming. Colum giving me the famous red shirt that everybody who works at the distillery wears. It was an epic moment. I then spent lots of time meeting basically everybody who works at the distillery!
I spent my 30 days at Bushmills working in different departments to see all of the stages of the whiskey making process. It gave me a great understanding of the magic of making Bushmills - I felt so lucky to have such an incredible opportunity.
I also went to Cork to learn how barley is converted into malt. I was very impressed by the complexity and the size of the process! Now I fully understand the big difference between barley and malted barley and how important it is in whiskey making.
The Bushmills Master Distiller, Colum Egan saved the best for last. As I had proved that I could ‘Make it at Bushmills’, I was given the unique chance to make my own kind of Bushmills Whiskey. What an honor! It took me two days of walking from cask to cask, from warehouse to warehouse, restless, tasting and smelling all of the liquids to choose which ones I would blend together to make my whiskey.
On the eve of the day when I would finally create my whiskey, Colum invited me and my brother (he got to join me for a few weeks as part of my prize) for a dinner where we met his family and his dog called Whiskey (I wonder why?). This meant a lot. Family is so important to me and Colum introducing me to his made me feel very special. We had a fantastic time and it gave me new confidence in my task!
I confided in Colum that the whiskies that I had chosen had the Bushmills character, but I wanted to add something that reminded me of ME in it. He introduced me to his very special reserve of whiskies to see if they had the character that I was looking for. I chose an 18 Year Old Single Malt Whiskey, aged in a cognac cask and never used in a Bushmills Whiskey before. When I smelt it, I knew right away that this is it! It reminded me of home – fresh and rich ingredients and such a full and long lasting flavor, so I knew this would be the secret weapon in my quest for my perfect whiskey!
At times, I will struggle with Bushmills. Not necessarily the whiskey, but the branding. Sometimes a blend, sometimes a single malt. I wish they'd find a different brand to house their grain and malt mix under. Anyway, we recently reviewed their 21 Year Old which was good, but not mind blowing. Getting to know this range a little more this year, the stand out whisky for me is this 16 Year Old.
Nose: Deep in colour, this is transferred to the nose with rich wood spices, some cinnamon and orange zest. A hint of clove mixes with some fresh green herbs and a touch of spearmint.
Palate: The wood effect on the palate is not drying but creates a mouth-coating whiskey which gives off some stewed red summer fruits, but tempered with a subtlety that doesn't scream "SHERRY CASK!!" in your face at the top of its voice, yet whispers it, probably a bit too quietly, in your ear. It gets its point across, but maybe needs to be a bit more passionate about it.
Finish: There is a distinctive Bushmills finish to this whiskey. Slightly spicey, smooth and just a hint of kumquat.
Overall: A solid whiskey and the pick of their regular releases.