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'I’m only a custodian here at Bushmills… there will be many master blenders after me'

Helen Mulholland has spent the last 30 years working across some of the most interesting roles the iconic Bushmills Distillery has to offer, and has held the title of master blender for half that time. She speaks to John Mulgrew about a day-in-the-life, plans for £60m expansion and doubling of output, crafting top-end spirits for the growing global market, and the challenges of Covid-19

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Helen Mulholland

Helen Mulholland

Helen Mulholland

Helen Mulholland may have one of the most enviable jobs on the island of Ireland.

For the last 15 years, she’s held the role of master blender at Co Antrim’s Bushmills Distillery, and has worked with the global whiskey brand for more than 30 years.

“From the very first moment, you are met with the beauty and magic of the site,” she says.

“The white wash building and stone warehouse. It’s a completely unique place in the food and drink sector here.

“I’m a food technologist and went to Loughry Campus. As part of that course, you did work placements and I was lucky enough to get to go to Bushmills.

“I did my placement in Bushmills. In the lab, we tested all the raw materials going in to the main distillery – the water and barley, and carried out taste panels. I went back to finish the course and luckily a role came up in the lab. I only stayed for three months before doing my master’s degree in Reading on the maturation of whiskey in wood.”

Since joining, Helen’s held a series of managerial roles at the whiskey-maker, from quality and compliance to technical.

But for the last 15 years she’s held the title of master blender – becoming the first woman to hold the role in the history of the Co Antrim distillery.

“From then on it has been building my knowledge – working with the different casks, and creating whiskies that people enjoy which then become part of the history of Bushmills.

“We are the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. In my role, I’m only a custodian. There will be a huge number of blenders which will come after me. It’s about making it a part of history.”

For Helen, each day is different in the adult version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Having grown up just down the road from the iconic spot – and I didn’t actually visit until my mid-20s – you only have to do a brief tour to take in the atmosphere, creative process, aromas and vast cask stores Bushmills boasts.

“Every day is different – there is no ‘normal’ day. A morning could be taste profiling, starting to work through them, the different taste profiles,” Helen says. “Turning to projects and ensuring that our signature blends and malts remain completely constant in flavour profile. Maintaining consistency for brands we have, and looking at new flavour profiles.

“The afternoon could see quite some time working on long-term planning, looking at different casks throughout the world which we could purchase, then having a look at the distillery and bottling plant.”

If you’re in any way on top of what is going on in terms of spirit, and more specifically whiskey trends, then you’ll know Irish whiskey has, and continues to have, a serious renaissance. It’s been buoyed globally by the big brands – predominantly Jameson and Bushmills. 

The plans for expansion at Bushmills are sizeable. In total, it represents a £60m investment that will see the distillery – now owned by Jose Cuervo – expand significantly, including in its warehousing, to grow its stock and ability to age.

“There is an expansion plan for warehousing and the distillery expansion,” Helen says. “It plays in to the Causeway Collection being part of that. Our plan for additional distribution, warehousing – we plan to double capacity over the next five years.

“The US is the largest market, but again, it is to cover the huge growth in Europe and in the home market.

“Irish whiskey is the fastest growing sector in drinks industry and it’s incredible to see. When I started in the industry almost 30 years ago there were only three distilleries in Ireland.

“It’s great to see the interest and the excitement that the influx (of new distilleries) is bringing. There is room for all of us and that just generates excitement. As long as the quality is maintained then it is a good thing.”

The company’s core range – which includes the younger Original and Black Bush blends – remains its largest seller. But Helen says there has been a growth in the premium end – part of the reason for launching the ongoing Causeway Collection.

“You see a whole collection of premium single malts and it shows that the market is leading to that (premium end). That is where we are currently releasing our new products in to.

“The Causeway Collection is a full collection of different aged malts that are released throughout the world. There will be an annual release of the collection.”

The first tranche includes two stunning drams – a 1995 Malaga cask and 2008 Muscatel cask. The former is a whack of acetone, meaty, sherry without the sweetness, burnt toffee, wood, roasted chestnuts, coffee and Christmas pudding. It’s certainly making a statement for Bushmills.

“I have been working on the Causeway Collection for about 15 years,” Helen says. “The Malaga cask was distilled in 1995, (placed) in bourbon and sherry and then re-casked for 14 years in Malaga cask. These are all long-term and require long-term planning. But again, it’s a joy to work with these liquids and working with a company that allows you the time to get these things right.

“We were never in any hurry. It will only come out when it’s perfect. I’m lucky to be afforded that luxury of time.”

The collection is being released in Australia, France and the US has also seen rare casks released, along with those for the Asia market.

“It is wonderful to see, that it is throughout the rest of the world,” Helen says. “It’s wonderful that while US is the largest market, we are not targeting everything to them.”

When she was first starting her career in the industry, three decades ago, there were just a handful of distilleries on the island of Ireland.

“Once we get in to this role we stay a lifetime,” Helen says. “It only comes up once in a lifetime. With the increase in the number of distilleries, there are so many more opportunities and possibilities, so you will see a whole range of women coming in to the role.”

The Portstewart woman says that includes those coming to the industry with a background in area such as chemical engineering and technology.

But Bushmills, like much of the rest of the world, has suffered at the hands of Covid. While whiskey sales remain, the site’s visitor centre has been closed since March, and has no immediate signs of reopening. That’s meant voluntary redundancies.

“It’s a huge worry for ourselves, because we normally invited 120,000 visitors to the site (each year),” Helen says. “We love being able to show people around the site – people who love our products. But the visitor centre needs members of the public. Meeting people under the Covid regulations means we can’t foresee when (we will) open the tours again (for the near future).

“We are trying to redeploy brand home team throughout the site, we do have to look at every eventuality.”

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