Bushmills Whiskey — Founded 1608
In Ireland, distilling whiskey dates back to the 11th century when monks turned wheat and barley into a mash and let it ferment. Whiskey is so enmeshed in Ireland’s history that the word itself comes from the Celtic word for water, uisce, its nickname, uisce beatha, meaning water of life.
In 1608, King James I granted a license to Sir Thomas Phillipps to distill whiskey officially in Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
“for the next seaven yeres, within the countie of Colrane, otherwise called O Cahanes countrey, or within the territorie called Rowte, in Co. Antrim, by himselfe or his servauntes, to make, drawe, and distil such and soe great quantities of aquavite, usquabagh and aqua composita, as he or his assignes shall thinke fitt; and the same to sell, vent, and dispose of to any persons, yeeldinge yerelie the somme 13s 4d…”
The first evidence of the existence of The Old Bushmills Distillery was in 1743. However, at the time, it was “in the hands of smugglers,” according to a Victorian whiskey journalist (yes, there were whiskey journalists) by the name of Alfred Barnard.
Hugh Anderson established the company formally in 1743, and after a century of robust commerce, the Crown imposed a barley tax on Irish distillers in 1850. Now, malted barley is the key ingredient for “pure malt” whiskey. When only malted barley is used in distillation and made at a single distillery, the result is “single malt” whiskey. The tax forced most Irish distillers to substitute corn for barley and to this day, the most famous Irish blended whiskeys use only corn.
Bushmills refused to change its recipe.
It continued to distill malted barley, but its adherence to tradition and the barley tax meant Bushmills suffered many lean years. In 1860 Belfast spirit merchants named Jame McColgan and Patrick Corrigan bought the distillery. In 1880, they formed a limited company.
In 1890, a steamship owned and operated by the distillery, the S.S. Bushmills made its maiden voyage across the Atlantic to deliver Bushmills whiskey first to America, then it sailed through the brand new Panama Canal to sell in China and Japan.
At the turn of the century, the U.S. was a lucrative market for Bushmills. Then Prohibition almost delivered a death blow. Still, Wilson Boyd, Bushmills’ CEO, firmly and correctly believed that Prohibition was a temporary setback. So he increased production and kept a large inventory of whiskey ready to export.
In June 2005, Diageo bought the distillery for £200 million. Diageo significantly increased production, doubling it by 2011. It was in stark contrast to the serious neglect that the brand suffered before the sale when Irish Distillers hamstrung Bushmills production to increase the market share of Jameson Whiskey, Irish Distillers’ leading brand.
Today, the distillery is owned by Jose Cuervo, reflecting the growing international demand for Irish whiskey.
There’s a clarity and simplicity as to why Bushmills has been around so long.
They had a good product, a good way of making it and they stuck to it. They focused on what they’re good at in robust and lean times.
A lot of companies who enjoy some success lose themselves, they lose their principles. Not Bushmills. There is nothing complicated about doing what you do best every time. It may sound cliché, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true.