"We frequently hear of people dying from too much drinking. That this happens is a matter of record, but the blame is always placed on whiskey. Why this should be, I never could understand. You can die from drinking too much of anything – coffee, water, milk, soft drinks, and all such stuff as that – and so as long as the presence of death lurks with anyone who goes through the simple act of swallowing, I will make mine whiskey." – W.C. Fields
Although my tragic American palate has spent its 39 years tasting precious little of the beverage which George Bernard Shaw once described as "liquid sunshine," when one receives an invitation to tour the Old Bushmills Distillery, in Northern Ireland, it is a summons which one can scarcely reject out of hand. Believe it or not, though, I almost did just that.
For a guy with a wife and daughter, January was a heavy month. I'd spent the better part of two weeks in Pasadena covering the TCA Press Tour for Bullz-Eye, returned home for all of four days, then hopped back on a plane and headed to Albuquerque to tour the set of "Breaking Bad." When I finally made it home, I set down my bags, breathed a sigh of relief, and basked in the knowledge that I had no trips on my schedule until the next press tour, which wouldn't be until July.
And then I checked my email.
I went into the living room, where my wife was watching television. "Okay," I said, taking a deep breath, "I've just been offered another trip, but I'm going to turn it down."
Her eyes immediately cut from the television to me. "To where?" she asked.
"Well, you know, it doesn't matter where," I said, "because I've just gotten back, I've just told you guys that I'm not going anywhere ‘til July, and…"
"To where?" she repeated, noticeably more sternly.
"Ireland," I sighed. "To tour the Bushmills whiskey distillery. They're also going to take us on a golfing expedition, a pub crawl of Belfast, and possibly on a music tour of the city."
After reciting the list of things that were on the tentative itinerary for the trip, I suddenly found myself wondering if there was perhaps a limit to just how good a family man I could be. Fortunately, once she picked her jaw up from the floor, my wonderful wife said, without so much as a moment's hesitation, "What, are you crazy? It's Ireland! GO!"
So I went.
I mean, my wife told me to go. What kind of husband would I be if I went against her wishes, right?
I don't know what your personal budget is, but if you can manage it, allow me to recommend that you begin and end your next vacation with a chauffeur-driven town car. Before you make good on the desire to smack me that's no doubt just kicked in, let me assure you that I'm currently the proud owner of a 2000 Hyundai which crossed over the 100K-mile mark quite some time ago, so town cars are not my usual mode of transportation to Norfolk International Airport. This was simply part of the trip as it was offered to me, and, as such, I begrudgingly accepted it. Now, I don't want to screw up your figures, so before you finish calculating precisely how much I suck, l should probably also mention that my seats on the flight to and from Northern Ireland were in Business First Class. I've never sat in Business First before, and given my budget, I likely never will again, but if you can afford it, I cannot recommend it enough, particularly on an overnight flight like this one was. My wife once received a free upgrade to First Class, and she told me that she'd never be able to enjoy flying Coach again. At least now we can commiserate with each other as we sit with the rest of the peons for the rest of our lives.
Back to business. The town car has arrived, and the trip has begun.
I fly from Norfolk to Newark, which is where I pick up the flight to Belfast. It's also where I meet up with the majority of the other writers who have been invited along on this trip. Like Bullz-Eye, these guys are also from decidedly guy-centric sites: Brian Childs from Asylum, Mike Dawson from Maxim, BJ Fleming from MadeMan, and Brian Warner from Break Media. Mike immediately gets bonus points for being the first person that I've ever actually heard…outside of a 1930s movie, at least…address a woman as "dollface," and his score is doubled when he doesn't get slapped for it. BJ, meanwhile, earns indie cred by having the most substantial beard this side of Mark Oliver Everett. (Sadly, he has since shaved.) The two Brians are nice chaps as well. All of us, however, are genuflecting in the general direction of the two women who are directly responsible for our having been invited on this trip: Vanessa and Stacey from Hunter PR. At some point during the proceedings, they are referred to as our "sugar mamas." This is possibly not the most politically correct description, but nor is it entirely inaccurate.
It's almost time to go. We order drinks, we toast our impending expedition, and we head off to board our plane.
As we land in Belfast, it's likely that none of us have managed more than three or four hours of sleep during the course of the 6+ hour flight, but we're all too excited about the day that lies before us to really care. We venture forth and find the van that will take us into the town of Bushmills. Already aboard and waiting for us is the last of our fellow writers: Simon Majumdar, who – in addition to serving as a contributor to AskMen.com – has his own blog (Dos Hermanos) and is the author of a book entitled "Eat My Globe: One Year to Go Everywhere and Eat Everything." His knowledge of both food and beverages will prove invaluable to our group over the course of the next 48 hours.
Bushmills is about an hour outside of Belfast, and it's a gorgeous drive through the countryside of Northern Ireland. I attempt to count the number of sheep that we pass, and I end up falling asleep as a result. When I wake, we've arrived at our destination: the Bushmills Inn Hotel.
Although there's an unconfirmed claim that a portion of the inn may date back to 1608 and the beginnings of the nearby distillery, the main part of the hotel was built in the 1820s when the town of Bushmills went through a major redevelopment. It may look historic on the outside, but the inside is as modern as you'd like it to be, with the rooms featuring flat-screen televisions and wireless internet. I stay in one of the inn's Mill House Duplexes, a split room with a large lounge and shower room downstairs and the sleeping area and bathtub upstairs, and I have no complaints whatsoever…but, then, they'd sold me just by providing complimentary tea and biscuits. (I'm a pretty soft touch when it comes to hotels.)
After taking a brief opportunity to get settled, showered, and changed from the flight, the group of us set off on the short stroll from the inn to the distillery. It's chilly, damp, and may even be raining a bit, but any grumblings amongst our group are immediately silenced as we approach Old Bushmills Distillery. It's a bit like coming up on Willy Wonka's chocolate factory…except better, ‘cause it's whiskey…but the disappointing absence of Oompa-Loompas on the premises is made up for by the fact that, upon walking through the doors, we are offered a hot whiskey toddy. Our hostess assures us that the beverage is brewed using her "granny's secret recipe," and she's not kidding. As it turns out, she is a 3rd generation employee of the distillery, with a 6-year-old son who is already chomping at the bit to follow in his mother's footsteps. So as not to offend her granny, we accept the toddy. It is, as they say, to die for. It is also far from the last whiskey that will pass through my lips this day.
Colum Egan arrives. He is the Master Distiller. This is not a superhero sobriquet; it is his formal title at Bushmills. The man knows his whiskey, and we have been assured that he will be providing us with what has been described in our pre-trip literature as "an in-depth tour of the distillery." After a lovely lunch at the distillery's cafeteria (Shepherd's Pie and chips, with a slice of Irish Whiskey cheesecake for dessert), Colum passes out fluorescent safety vests to everyone and informs us that, since we will going places that the standard tour does not go, it's just best to play it safe. Sounds like a pretty in-depth tour to me. Mind you, it helps that Colum begins the proceedings by intoning with all due drama, "All the secrets of Bushmills are about to be unveiled…"
Over the course of the next several hours, we see all of the stages of the whiskey-making process: mashing, fermentation, distillation, maturation, blending, and bottling. First, however, we start by sampling a bit of the finished product…Black Bush, to be specific, which proves so delicious that I immediately decide that I will be purchasing a bottle upon my return home. Standing in the #2 Warehouse, surrounded by more casks than any of us would care to count, Colum offers us a welcoming toast:
"When you drink, you relax. When you relax, you fall asleep. When you fall asleep, you commit no sin. When you commit no sin, you go to heaven. So let's all have a drink and go to heaven."
Bushmills whiskey really only contains two ingredients: water and grain. They get an average of nine 30-ton truckloads of malted barley every week, but the water actually comes from the local stream. They dry the barley with hot air rather than over an open fire, so there's none of the smoky flavor that you get from other whiskeys, and then the barley is ground and mixed with hot water to form a substance referred to as wort. Add some yeast to the wort, and the fermentation process begins.
Colum takes us upstairs to see the washbacks – those would be the big-ass containers in which the fermenting takes place – and, after opening one of them, offers us the opportunity to stick our head into the hole and take a big whiff. Mike goes first, but he seems hesitant to really get in there and open his noseholes properly, so I step up to bat. First, though, Colum asks me to remove my glasses. "Trust me," he says, "you'll know why in a minute." I put my head in, take a big sniff…and, completely unbidden, I find myself jerking back from the impact of the unbridled carbon dioxide on my sinuses. Yeah, those glasses would've been long gone if I'd still been wearing them…and while it might've made a great drinking song later in the evening ("Fill the glasses with your whiskey / Not the whiskey with your glasses"), I suspect it would've been a major distillery faux pas.
From there, we are introduced to Bushmills' copper distillation tanks, where the now-fermented wash is brought to a boil. After the first still, it's 40 proof, and after the second still, it hits 140 proof. There's still a third stage, however, which takes it up to 170 proof, and it's at this point in the process where we are given the opportunity to taste just the tiniest bit. And when I say "just the tiniest bit," I'm not exaggerating: all we do is dip our finger into it. Amazingly, it's smooth and even a bit fruity in taste, but I can't help suspecting that I might go blind if I drink any more of it.
Next up is the maturation process, which seems unimpressive right up to the point where you look into the warehouse and see the thousands upon thousands of oak casks which are filled with Bushmills in various stages of aging. The 170-proof stuff that we've just tasted is placed in the casks, along with enough water to bring it down to 124 proof; it goes in clear, and because of the wood, it comes out a glorious brown. Aside from the breathtaking sight of such much whiskey in one place, there are two particularly great bits to this part of the tour. The first comes when we see one of Bushmills' master craftsman creating a cask before our very eyes, but the second occurs when Colum suggests – reportedly for the first time in the history of giving these sorts of tours – that they pop open a couple of casks and allow us to each siphon out our very own bottle of whiskey. Talk about an interactive experience. (Mine was from a sherry cask originally sealed in 2001, and having shared it with my father upon my return, both of us can assure you that it was lip-smackingly delicious.)
Then it's on to the blending process, which is followed by the bottling. Interesting stuff, but to be perfectly honest, we're all kind of chomping at the bit for what we know will conclude the tour: the grand tasting. In our defense, we'd been walking around for a couple of hours, smelling whiskey at every turn. Frankly, anyone would've been jonesing for a drink by this point. Fortunately, Colum is a very generous man, providing us with the opportunity to taste no less than seven different beverages from the distillery: Bushmills Original, Black Bush, Bushmills 1608 (a special bottling done to commemorate their 400th anniversary), and four single malt whiskeys ranging in age from 10 to 21 years. Although I feel as though I'm probably supposed to prefer the older stuff, I actually like the 16-year single malt the most. In a nice touch, Colum has also included two outside whiskeys in the tasting as well, thereby allowing us instant point of comparison to how different (better?) Bushmills tastes from other brands. With the tasting concluded, our experience at the Old Bushmills Distillery is over, but Colum presents us all with certificates which declare us to be Certified Bushmills Tasters. Maybe it's the whiskey talking, but I'm already making plans to have mine framed.
We hop on the van, and…what's this? Oh, dear: we've spent so long at the distillery – not that anyone's complaining – that the established plan to visit Giant's Causeway is no longer viable. Fortunately, we are all heavily buzzed and warmed with whiskey, so when Simon suggests that we head over to the nearby town of Portrush and pop by The Harbour Bar, where the barman pours an excellent pint of Guinness, we declare it to be a cracking good idea. Simon swears on his blog that we're the ones who convinced him to go, but that's not how I remember it. No matter. We all end up having an exemplary time, though it's less because of the Guinness (which is indeed excellent) than the bar's regulars, who are so pleased at the arrival of these Americans in their establishment that they decide to call up a compatriot with a guitar and sing us some songs. The set list proves to be an unlikely mixture of Johnny Cash ("Ring of Fire"), Tom T. Hall ("Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine"), Neil Diamond ("Sweet Caroline"), and – wait for it – Leo Sayer. Take note: your life's not complete ‘til you've heard an elderly Irishman crooning "More Than I Say." There are also a few Irish ditties thrown in for authenticity's sake, including the inevitable "Whiskey in the Jar," but after a bit of prodding from Simon, the old gents bid us adieu by playing "Danny Boy." Mike breaks into a heaving sob after the second verse. I think he was faking, but after that much whiskey and Guinness, it's hard to say for sure.
Back to the Bushmills Inn we go, and it's time for dinner at the Inn's restaurant. We order a variety of starters to share amongst the entire table, the highlights of which are a delicious seafood chowder (with bacon added into the mix, no less) and the slow roasted pork cheek, which is served with pork crackling, spiced apple and cinnamon chutney, and a candied baby apple. For my main course, I have the pan-fried peppered filet steak, which is flambéed in Bushmills whiskey and finished with cream. It's ridiculously decadent and completely delicious. Though I in no way have room for dessert, I'm fortunately too drunk to realize it (it should come as no surprise that, despite all of the whiskey and Guinness that we'd imbibed, we still felt obliged to have wine with our dinner), so I finish off with a bowl of honeycomb ice cream topped with butterscotch fudge sauce and fresh cream. Ridiculously, it all stays down.
Even more ridiculously, I wake up the next day without a hangover. Behold the power of Bushmills!
We pack our things and bid farewell to the Belfast Inn, boarding the van and heading to…where? Oh, that's right: once we found out that the weather was going to be dismal, thereby making our planned golfing expedition to Royal Portrush a wash, Simon suggested that we go for a traditional Irish breakfast known as an Ulster Fry. Given his blog and book, it's no wonder that he's already got a place in mind, so we're off to the town of Comber and a restaurant called The Georgian House. Simon's been here before and, in addition to having the foresight to call ahead and reserve a table for the lot of us, he's made the acquaintance of Peter McKonkey, the man behind the restaurant. Peter greets us warmly and promptly whips up a variety of scones that are 100% melt-in-your-mouth goodness, but the pièce de résistance is the aforementioned Ulster Fry, which consists of an egg, sausages, bacon, potato cakes, fried bread, sculpted tomatoes and mushrooms, and blood pudding. It's almost entirely delicious. I can't find much love in my heart for the blood pudding, but I manage to lay waste to just about everything else on my plate. Believe me when I tell you that, should you ever find yourself in Northern Ireland, you cannot go wrong with a stop at The Georgian House.
Somehow, we all manage to rise to our feet and make it back to the van, and we are delivered to our hotel in Belfast, The Fitzwilliam, but we've barely had a moment to catch our breath before we find ourselves in another van. This time, however, we're embarking upon the Belfast Music Tour. Our guide is Stuart Baillie, a former writer for New Musical Express. He takes us all over the town, offering up points of interest like famed concert venue Ulster Hall (the first place Led Zeppelin ever played "Stairway to Heaven"), the house where Van Morrison grew up (not to mention the actual Cypress Avenue, which inspired the song of the same name on Astral Weeks), and many other musical landmarks. Our soundtrack consists of tracks from a number of artists who lived and played in Belfast, including – among others – Snow Patrol, Ash, the Undertones, Energy Orchard, the Adventures, and even Ruby Murray. Stuart apologizes for the fact that he's been forced to cut his usual tour short by about half an hour, but given that he's doing a special tour just for our group on a day when he normally wouldn't be doing one, we've no complaints. Before heading back to the hotel, we stop off at the Oh Yeah Music Center, a former whiskey warehouse which Stuart has transitioned into a place for Belfast's musicians to converge. It features a performance space, a drop-in area, office units, a privately-run recording studio and exhibition space. At one point during the tour, Stuart remarked offhandedly that he has occasionally attended SXSW as a musical representative of Belfast. It's hard to imagine anyone better suited for the task.
Back at the hotel, we're given the choice of taking a rest or exploring Belfast on our own. Coming off a tour like that one, my only interest is in finding a record store, as I'm suddenly feeling that my CD collection is woefully lacking if it does not contain a disc that includes the song "Alternative Ulster." Fortunately, the concierge steers me to an HMV location which is within a 10-minute walk of the hotel, and I am able to fill this omission in my musical library with a Stiff Little Fingers anthology called The Story Thus Far. I also pick up a few books for the flight home, most notably the couldn't-possibly-be-more-appropriate "Hellraisers: The Inebriated Life and Times of Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris & Oliver Reed." From there, I do a bit of souvenir shopping for my family, pop by an Oxfam store and score a couple more nicely-priced books, and stop at a grocery store to buy a bottle of Ribena and a packet of crisps to hold me over ‘til dinner…or, more specifically, to make sure I've got something in my stomach before the drinking begins again in earnest.
It doesn't take long. A few hours later, the group of us converges on the hotel lobby once more, and we head over to the legendary Crown Bar, where we promptly slip into a snug and toss back a few pints of Copperhead Ale. Then it's off to dinner at Nick's Warehouse, a restaurant located within a building which – how appropriate – was originally a warehouse for the Bushmills Whiskey Company. Again, the wine was flowing freely (along with Baileys and espresso to stave off the jet lag), the menu was decadent, and my decision to have the sesame-encrusted monkfish in a Thai green curry sauce paid off in spades. Additionally, I believed we all agreed that the sticky toffee pudding was the sort of thing you'd put on your short list of items to order at the conclusion of your last meal on Earth. It's just that good. Before we leave, I have been tempted into trying a Black Velvet, which consists of Guinness and champagne. It's better than you'd think. That, or I was possibly already past the point of being terribly discerning about what I was drinking. Either way, it's another one to cross off my list of Drinks I Have Tried.
Plans to venture into White's Tavern, which proudly trumpets itself as Belfast's oldest tavern (it was founded in 1630), are stymied by the sheer number of people already inside, so we make a judgment call to head over to the Merchant Hotel Bar. It's hardly a case of settling, however, as this place has been voted the best cocktail bar in the world by its peers. Unfortunately, this explains why the bouncer at the door told us that there was no room for us. Fortunately, Simon talks a good game…by which I mean that he is unparalleled in his ability to spin a line of truth infused with no small amount of bullshit…and not only gets us inside but also manages to score us some seriously comfy chairs right next to the bar. The bar book is staggering in its size, but given that we're working on someone else's dime, it's surprisingly easy to find ourselves experimenting and trying as many drinks as our stomachs can stand. We are, however, forewarned that no one will be ordering the most famous item on the menu: The World's Most Expensive Cocktail. With that off the table, I instead take a stab at a Mr. Harrison (Absolut Vodka, cuacao, fresh lime juice, fresh kumquats, fresh basil, house-made orgeat syrup, and chilled seltzer water), a Dark & Stormy (Goslings Black Seal Rum, falternum, fresh lime, fresh ginger extract, cane syrup, and chilled seltzer water), and a Cincinnati Kid (Hennessy VS Cognac, elderberry eau de vie, fresh lemon, housemade cinnamon syrup, allspice tincture, and chilled seltzer water). I want to say that I had a fourth drink as well, but for some reason, my memory's a bit hazy.
Throughout the day, we've all been monitoring the weather in Newark, which has suffered through an awful winter storm in our absence. The possibility exists that our flight will be canceled. Everyone else decides to cut to the chase and change their flights to leave a day later. I can't bring myself to do that, though. For one thing, my wife and daughter are expecting me back. For another, though, I just can't keep up with these kids! I'm 39 years old and average a drink a day at best; two days of non-stop drinking is taking its toll on me. The only person in the group that's older than me is Simon, so I'm glad when he makes the decision to head back to the hotel a bit earlier than the rest. I find it funny, however, that he makes the claim on his blog that he "hit the hay pretty early on." When we got back to the hotel, it was 2 AM!
I wake up with an utterly undeserved lack of hangover, fall out of bed, throw a comb across my head, and make my way downstairs to the lobby in order to catch the van to the airport. My driver, bless him, does not stop talking at any point during the trip, but it's a legitimately fascinating story about his family's experiences during "the Troubles," and he clearly relishes the opportunity to give an American an idea of what the locals have had to endure over the years. Of all the definitive Irish experiences I've had during this trip, this is probably the one that touches me the most. Several others have commented during the course of this expedition that the reason the people of Belfast are so nice to us is because, until relatively recently, they didn't exactly have a prosperous tourist trade. What's most impressive to me, though, is that they don't try to sweep their past under the rug. They've survived it, they're proud that they have, and they're not afraid to tell you about what they've been through to get where they are. Rest assured that I'm ready to listen – that's with or without a drink in my hand, though the former would certainly be considered culturally appropriate – and ready to return to Northern Ireland anytime the opportunity arises.
Next time, though, I should probably take my wife.