Rarely does the face of a major legacy spirits brand speak superlatively about one of its products in relation to the others, but Bushmills master blender Alex Thomas has no qualms about picking favorites. “I think this is the best liquid we’ve ever released,” Thomas casually remarked at an NYC event in May, hoisting a caramel-hued dram overhead in the universal gesture for “sláinte.” The liquid in question — the second in a limited-edition series of Irish single malts titled “The Rare Casks” — spent 29 years resting in various ex-bourbon, oloroso sherry, and Pedro Ximénez sherry casks.
That makes Bushmills Rare Cask No. 2 a full two decades older than the vast majority of Ireland’s distilleries, underscoring the brand’s unique position as consumers rediscover premium Irish whiskey. Exploding interest in the broader Irish whiskey category has recently driven the total number of Irish distilleries into the 40s, just a few decades after a string of economic and political factors shrunk the industry to just two operational distillers. Bushmills — a survivor since the 18th century — managed to keep its doors open throughout the industry’s struggles, often by concentrating marketing and distribution resources on its popular blended whiskeys. Though the distillery continued to lay down barrels of its high-quality single malt, it marketed, bottled, and sold relatively little.
That’s created a unique moment for Bushmills, and whiskeys like The Rare Casks No. 2 — and there are many more like it in the distillery’s vast warehouses, Thomas says — represent its latest reinvention. Just one year into her tenure as chief product developer, Thomas knows she’s sitting atop an unrivaled stockpile of ultra-aged Irish single malt as well as a collection of rare and diverse casks that took decades to assemble. Ireland’s new class of recently opened distilleries simply doesn’t have these things, creating an opportunity for a very old brand to reimagine itself for a new generation of eager single malt consumers.
Thomas aims for nothing less than the restoration of Irish single malt to its once-vaunted place as the world’s standard-bearer for premium single malt whiskey, a mantle seized by Scottish distillers during the second half of the 20th century. And Bushmills — backed by supportive new ownership, a recently completed distillery expansion, an innovative new master blender, and a deep inventory of ultra-aged Irish single malt — is perfectly positioned to realize that vision. “We’ve got such an array of casks here, just sitting and waiting,” Thomas says. “And now we’re finally ready to release them.”
Under New Management
Prior to joining Bushmills some 18 years ago, Thomas spent a decade in the timber industry, where she gained a more than casual appreciation for all things wood and an expertise in timber types and quality that’s carried straight through to her work in barrel selection and cask maturation. After serving in several roles at Old Bushmills Distillery (most recently as master blender for The Sexton Single Malt, a position she retains) Bushmills elevated her to master blender in November 2021.
Since then she’s overseen the launch of Bushmills 12-Year-Old Single Malt Whiskey, which joined the brand’s core lineup of 10-, 16-, and 21-year-old single malts, as well as the rollout of a new bottle and package design for the entire single malts range. She selected all 10 of the whiskeys for this year’s Causeway Collection, an annual release of rare, highly limited single malts available only in select markets. And while her influence on the The Rare Casks bottlings predates her official designation as master blender, Rare Cask No. 2 marks the first release from the series on her watch (joining a 30-year-old Cognac cask-matured single malt that debuted in 2020).
But if releases like The Rare Casks exemplify what Bushmills can do, they don’t necessarily represent what the brand has been doing. Bushmills survived a century that most Irish distilleries did not, and by the 1960s only a pair of production facilities remained: New Midleton Distillery (where Jameson, Powers, Redbreast, and various other labels consolidated production) in County Cork, and Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim on Northern Ireland’s windswept northern coast.
The Irish whiskey industry was on the mend by the time spirits giant Diageo bought Bushmills from Pernod Ricard in 2005. But the new ownership tasked Bushmills with regaining market share at the lower end of the market, where Bushmills Original — the distillery’s flagship blend of malt and grain whiskeys — jockeys with other popular Irish names like Jameson, Powers, and Tullamore D.E.W. for space on the back bar. Playing second fiddle to Diageo’s portfolio of dozens of prestigious Scotch whisky labels, Bushmills Irish single malts were an afterthought.
“We had constraints on us because of our past owners,” Thomas says. “They didn’t really want innovation, and they didn’t want us doing certain things.” At the distillery, however, the Bushmills team quietly kept its single malt portfolio top of mind, acquiring new and interesting casks and laying down prodigious stores of single malt, patiently waiting for an opportunity to let its single malts shine once again.
Making Up for a Lost Century
That moment came in late 2014, when Diageo offloaded Bushmills to Proximo Spirits (and by extension, Proximo owner Becle, a.k.a. Jose Cuervo), which has variously called the acquisition “the most important purchase made by Cuervo in its history” and described Bushmills as “one of the biggest brands” in its portfolio. No longer a small fish in Diageo’s vast ocean, Bushmills refocused on its single malts portfolio. And in Proximo, it found a very supportive partner.
“Over my past 20-plus years at Bushmills, one of the most significant and beneficial changes to the business that I’ve been part of has been the prioritization of the production and release of our whiskeys, specifically of our single malts, since the business was acquired by Proximo Spirits/Casa Cuervo in 2014,” says Bushmills master distiller Colum Egan.
If Diageo was the caring but distracted parent, Proximo has proven more doting and attentive. It has supported Bushmills in elevating its single malt range, green-lighting a complete redesign of the packaging. More significantly, it has invested heavily in Bushmills’ infrastructure, completing a massive distillery expansion in 2021 that will effectively double production volume. Reflective of the Bushmills brand, the new distillery nods to the past while facing squarely toward the future, housing a state-of-the-art distillery capable of producing 6.5 million liters annually within a stone exterior built by local stonemasons using methods traditional to the region. The buildout also provides additional warehouse space for single malt maturation (ensuring adequate future supplies), and expanded facilities for further cask experimentation and maturation trials.
And when the distillery team wanted to hire from within to fill its vacant master blender position last year, Proximo agreed.
The parent company’s investments in Bushmills have paid off, as both its blends and single malts have experienced tremendous growth, Egan says. Irish whiskey as a category has exploded in popularity of late, notching a compound annual growth rate of 22 percent by volume from 2020 to 2021, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. Exclude blended whiskeys — i.e., Jameson and, to a lesser extent, Proper No. Twelve — from that data, however, and that number jumps to 38 percent. According to Proximo, Bushmills is now the fastest-growing brand in its competitor set at price points above $40, indicative of the “premiumization” trend that’s taken hold across the broader spirits market. Consumers who have long associated the term “single malt” strictly with Scotch whisky are discovering Irish offerings, and that increased product awareness has translated directly to sales.
“People are wanting different maturations, finishes, different technical styles, different mash bills — they want to taste stuff that’s 25 or 35 years old,” says Jack McGarry, co-founder and managing partner of The Dead Rabbit, a New York City shrine to Irish whiskey. “There’s definitely a market for them anytime these products come online.”
As such, it’s no coincidence that higher-end Bushmills offerings like The Rare Casks series and the Causeway Collection have all launched in the last few years as Proximo’s investments — and its willingness to let Bushmills be Bushmills — have begun to bear fruit. While Ireland’s new class of young distilleries wait patiently for their recently casked liquids to mature (or scour the country in search of old stocks to purchase), Bushmills sits atop what is arguably the world’s largest and most varied collection of long-matured Irish single malts at a time when consumers are beginning to clamor for them.
“There isn’t anybody else who can really stand up and say they’ve got the quality and quantity of casks that Bushmills has,” master blender Thomas says. Bushmills recently released its third edition of The Rare Casks, a 30-year-old single malt that’s been resting in ex-bourbon, sherry, and Madeira casks since 1991. The Causeway Collection will continue to showcase very old and very rare cask expressions (the 2022 turnout included a 2002-vintage single malt matured in sweet vermouth casks “that went down phenomenally well,” Thomas says).
Bushmills stockpile of aged single malts runs sufficiently deep that the company will also add two new aged single malts to its core range next year, slotting into the lineup at older age statements than the 21-year-old that’s currently the eldest of the bunch. “We’re in a position where we can put that stock out into the market as a regular release, every year, as part of the core brand,” Thomas says. It will take younger Irish distilleries decades to get to the same place.
Meanwhile, Thomas and company continue to experiment, laying down more and more single malt and amassing an ever-widening variety of casks. “We don’t have to stick to just oak,” Thomas says, referring to Scottish whisky regulations that dictate all single malt Scotch whiskies must be aged in oak barrels. Bushmills distillery store sells an acacia wood-finished single malt that’s proved extremely popular with visitors, for instance. Thomas demurs when asked what sorts of specific casks — oak or otherwise — excite her at the moment, but confirms she’s acquired several “weird and wonderfuls” that could figure into future Causeway Collections or Rare Cask releases.
Whether or not all that is enough to restore Irish whiskey’s reputation as the world’s finest single malt depends largely on the consumer. But Thomas, Egan, and the rest of the distillery team understand they face a rare opportunity, even in the context of Bushmills’ centuries-long history. Timing is everything in a business where production timelines can run into the decades. And right now, everything — from its supportive new ownership to its expanding distillery capacity to its existing collection of aged stocks to its ambitious new master blender — is trending in Bushmills’ direction at a time when demand for Irish single malt is also on the rise. Over the coming decade, Bushmills will continue to release new ultra-aged single malts that differ from anything released previously, Thomas says, providing ongoing opportunities for consumers to find their way into Irish single malt.
“In a way, they did all of us a favor, because the market is in a better place than it was even 10 years ago,” Thomas says, nodding to the many years Bushmills spent stockpiling aged single malt under previous owners. “But now the time is right.”