At the top of the village you will find what Bushmills has become known worldwide for - the famous Old Bushmills Whiskey Distillery which is just one hundred metres from my garden. The Victorian architecture dates from 1885 when it was rebuilt due to a fire. The production of still or 'aqua vitae' in Bushmills can be traced back to 1276, when the local landlord Sir Robert Savage is documented as giving each of his troops a draught of 'Aqua Vitae' before they went into battle. Further back we have references to distillation of 'aqua vitae' during the reign of King Henry II (1133-89).
Where the art of distillation came from and how it arrive in Bushmills is still one of debate but the general consensus is that it originated in Asia around 800BC spread to southern Europe arriving on these shores with the establishment of monastic settlements. Within monasteries the art of distilling 'water of life' for medicinal purposes was practised and indeed there are records of past and present monasteries producing their own variations of distilled and fermented spirit.
With the dissolution of monasteries by Henry VIII in the 1500s, the skill passed into the general domain where it was readily taken up. It should be noted that distillation is documented in Asia and Europe long before the spread of Christianity. Bushmills was certainly well into the production of 'aqua vitae' before 1600, the settlement was a river crossing close to the market village of Dunluce with its merchant port at Portballintrae. The river ford served as a transient location for the traveller and an ideal opportunity to carry out some trade.
As production levels increased and the widespread use of 'aqua vitae' took place throughout the kingdom an Act of Parliament was passed in 1552 which lay down the beginnings of modern licensing laws. In Ireland an Act of Parliament passed in 1556 made it a crime punishable by imprisonment, to produce 'aqua vitae' without a license from the Lord Deputy of Ireland. There was a wonderful loophole in this act which permitted the landed gentry and those of high status to continue producing it freely. The act came down on the ordinary individual engaged in distilling but not on those who could make real money out of it. The whole issue was revised in 1606 which resulted in a register and the granting of licenses to distil 'aqua vitae' by the King.
According to Samuel Morewood in his comprehensive book 'Inebriating Liquors' published in 1838, the first seven year license granted in Ireland by the Lord Deputy Sir Arthur Chichester was to Walter Taillor of Dungurey, County Galway on 23rd March 1607. This empowered him to recommend persons to the Lord Deputy for the distillation of 'aqua vitae' in the Province of Connaght and also gave Walter Taillor the liberty to produce 'aqua vitae' in any part of Connaght he saw fit and to sell it anywhere in Ireland at the crown rent of £40 per annum. Another three licenses were granted: Charles Watehouse for the Province of Munster in January 10th 1608 at a crown rent of 6s.8d, George Sexton for the Province of Leinster on March 23rd 1608 at a crown rent of 5s.0d and Thomas Phillips for County Coleraine and the Route on April 20th 1608 at a crown rent of 13s 4d., effectively a licensee for all four Provinces of Ireland.
f Samuel Morewood is correct then the oldest license was granted to Walter Taillor and indeed he paid a significant amount more than the other three and with much wider permissions. These initial licenses led to the recommendation of numerous other persons to the Lord Deputy for distillation of 'aqua vitae' throughout Ireland. On May 20th 1620, however, these privileges were withdrawn after complaints that they were favouring a few individuals. For the next 50 years permission to run a tavern or make 'aqua vitae' in Ireland was granted by appointed gentry who paid for the right. Whoever was the earliest licensee, Thomas Phillips was responsible for establishing the awareness of 'Bushmills' and the early marketing of the product with his peers both in Ireland and in the Royal Courts of London. Phillips was at the time, a key player in the Plantation of Ulster and also governor of the County of Colrane (no longer in existence). Very little is recorded or heard of Taillor, Sexton or Waterhouse or indeed what became of their licenses to distil.
Apart from small snippets here and there references to Bushmills whiskey is very scarce until 1743 when 'Old Bushmills' is referred to as being run by smugglers. Maps from the 1730 and 1750 do not show a distillery which would indicate distilling was still taking place on a small scale and perhaps in houses or other buildings. We dont know what happened to Thomas Phillips license or who continued the tradition over the next ninety years. We do know that in 1782 there were five licensed stills in Bushmills producing 'aqua vitae' and numerous unlicensed stills. So it can be assumed the licensed production stemming from Thomas Phillips was with one of those five. The first reference to 'Old Bushmills' as a Distillery comes with the Excise Survey of 1784, this makes official recognition and registration of a Distillery in Bushmills. 'Old Bushmills' is recorded as producing 10,000 gallons of whiskey annually.
As the govenrment placed duties on legal whiskey production it increase the numbers of illicit stills around the country, these flourished along with smuggling which took off in a big way. The licensed stills were able to compete because they were allowed to increase production, they invested in modern equipment and paid the duty on their products with full support of the government. The level of illegal stills only began dropping from the 1830s after a review of how duties were applied. The illegal stills basically produced for a localised market and those who could not afford the legal spirit. The art of stilling though never went away and even today there are illegal stills producing the 'aqua vitae' within the landscape of North Antrim.
So from a rather misty past we can assertain that a seven year license to distil 'aqua vitae' in County Coleraine and the Route was granted to Thomas Phillips in 1608. We also know that the Old Bushmills Distillery was registered as a distillery in 1784.
So to be totally accurate we can say that the Bushmills Whiskey Distillery which was legally registered in 1784 distills whiskey which traces back to a license issued to Thomas Phillips in 1608. It is not the oldest 'licensed' distillery in the world as the physical evidience of a 'distillery' is not there to support this claim beyond 1784. If evidence to the contrary arises I will post it here. To follow more about the history of Old Bushmills Whiskey please select from the menu above.
Whiskey or Whisky
You may well wonder why there are two spellings for what is regarded by many as the same product. Originally all distillation from grains in Ireland and Scotland were collectively known as whisky. The difference in spelling came about during the 1870-80s, at this time Scots whisky was regarded as being of a lower quality than the Irish and American derivities, large quantities were being produced and flooding the market. Both Scots and Irish distiller's were also engaged in exporting their whiskies to the growing American market. The Irish felt they needed to distinguish their product from the Scots and hopefully increase their potential in the export market based on their quality.
They took a very simple step and added an 'e' to whisky. Both products were soon on the same level for quality but the spelling distinction has remained. The American producers of the time also followed the Irish and added an 'e' to their whiskies. Today you will find that in general the Irish and Americans refer to whiskey and the Scots and rest of the world will refer to Whisky in spelling terms. The term whisky itself, is said to originate from the Gaelic, Iskebaghah (water of life), Isquebeoh ( living water). Another term commonly associated with the early distillation process is Aqua Vitea again this translates to 'water of life'.
This is a record of local distillation and distillery owners over the centuries, there are lots of gaps especially in relationship to the location of whiskey distilling prior to 1784. Some references relate to King William's Square which was behind the present day clock tower. If you have any information that can fill the gaps please email me:
1276: References to local landlord giving his troops 'Aqua Vitae' before a battle suggests it was readily available to him and indeed it could have been distilled on the estate of the Savage family or acquired from a local monastic settlement.
1608 : Licensed for seven year to Thomas Phillips to distil 'aqua vitea' in the County of Coleraine and the Route. We have no records of where he distilled only that he was licensed to produce whiskey from that time.
1743: References to the 'Bushmills Distillery' be run by smuggler's.
1784: Hugh Anderson - formed the company and is registered as the owner.
1833- 46: James McKibben
1855: Stewart Anderson
1860: James McColgan and Patrick Corrigan
1865 : James McColgan and Ellen Jane Corrigan
1880: Became a limited company, Directors: James McColgan, Ellen Jane Corrigan, William Charles Mitchell, David Mitchell and William McColgan
1891: Company reformed, Directors: Charles Connor and James. J. Boyd
1886: Liquidation and new company formed The OLD Bushmills Distillery Company Limited: Directors: Herbert T. Allsopp, Lord Trimlestown, Sir Edward Lee, Joseph Heatherington and Samuel Duncan.
1927: Boyd family
1947: Isaac Wolfson
1967: Bass Charrington
1972: Irish Distillers Group
1988: Pernod Ricard
2014: Jose Cuervo