For Bushmills Master Blender Helen Mulholland, the launch of the distillery’s first Rare Casks release marks the culmination of a personal journey. She’s been at Bushmills for nearly 30 years, starting as a lab technician. “It’s very close to my heart,” she said on a recent Zoom call to talk about the brand-new 28 Year Old Single Malt Cognac Cask. “I actually was here to help run the laboratory analysis on the malted barley before we even turned it into spirit, so it’s been here as long as I have.” This exceptional new release was distilled in 1992 and aged for 28 years, the first 11 in a combination of bourbon and Oloroso sherry casks, the final 17 in a cognac cask. It was bottled non-chill filtered at a cask strength of 46.7 percent ABV, and only 426 bottles are available, each with a price tag of $500.
A quick primer on Irish single malt—this means that the whiskey is distilled at one distillery from a mash bill of 100 percent malted barley and aged for a minimum of three years. Lengthy maturation spanning decades is usually reserved for single malt scotch, a category that is much more widely recognized than its Irish counterpart. But Bushmills has been making single malt for centuries. “We’re the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world, we’ve been around for over 400 years,” said Mulholland. “Bushmills has the largest stock of aged malt anywhere, definitely in Ireland, possibly in the world.”
She believes that this new release will provide fans of high-end, ultra-aged single malt scotch an entry point into the world of Irish single malt, albeit one that might be geared more towards collectors than the average drinker. But her main goal is always for people to actually enjoy the whiskey that she and her team produces. “There’s nothing greater in my life than doing tastings and seeing people react to the work we do here, because this is my life’s work,” she said. “However, at a price point like this, we realize it’s going to be a collector’s item. That also gives us great pride in the fact that [the whiskey] will be held for years and years because it’s a part of history.”
So how does this 28-year-old whiskey actually taste? Mulholland describes an array of tasting notes that come from the three cask types it was aged in, like dried fruit, vanilla, and spice. “On the palate, there’s a lovely warmth, a beautiful mouthfeel with heat coming down the back of your throat,” she said. “A touch of almond nuttiness as well, but a lovely round Bushmills flavor. At times, there’s a hint of milky chocolate creaminess [on the finish].” The cognac cask maturation obviously played a big role in the whiskey’s flavor, and Mulholland believes it really helped to create layers, something that she strives for in all Bushmills whiskey. “I think the cognac cask enhances the Bushmills DNA because it works in partnership with the whiskey,” she said. “It doesn’t create anything overpowering.”
Mulholland takes great pride in this new release, which she describes as a dream project for her to work on and something that feels like a time capsule of her time at Bushmills. She’s been tasting the whiskey every month to determine when it was ready for bottling, and believes it’s finally reached its pinnacle. “I’ve looked at [the whiskey] for so long, that there’s a delight in releasing it to people that are going to enjoy it,” she said. But as proud as she is, the end of this whiskey’s journey through the years is a little bittersweet as well. “There’s also this thought that it’s leaving home now, because it has my entire timeline on it,” she said. “I hope people appreciate and love it as much as we do.”