Belfast Telegraph

A masterclass on selecting and enjoying the finest Irish whiskey

We catch up with Bushmills' master distiller Colum Egan, who tells Sam Wylie-Harris more about this liquid gold

Top tipple: Colum Egan who is master distiller at Bushmills Irish Whiskey
Top tipple: Colum Egan who is master distiller at Bushmills Irish Whiskey

By Sam Wylie-Harris

Colum Egan grew up in the heartland of Ireland's barley-growing country, where he was surrounded by the golden grain from which all great Irish whiskey is made.

Today, he has what he calls his "dream job", being in charge of The Old Bushmills Distillery on the rugged north coast.

It's Egan's role to ensure Bushmills' centuries-old reputation for crafting the finest quality whiskey is known across the world.

He travels the globe to educate and entertain whiskey lovers and introduce them to Bushmills' triple-distilled single malts and blends, so here are his top tips for mastering the craft of Irish whiskey drinking...

1. What is Irish whiskey and what makes it different from Scotch, American bourbon or Japanese whisky?

Generally speaking Scottish, Japanese and American whiskies are distilled twice, whereas Bushmills Irish Whiskey is distilled three times, producing a smoother spirit.

Irish malt whiskey also typically uses malted barley, which is unpeated.

A bottle of Bushmills single malt whiskey
A bottle of Bushmills single malt whiskey

This means it's dried with hot air rather than peat fire, which frees it from the smoky flavour sometimes found in other whiskeys such as Scotch. Copper pot stills are then used to distil and produce the elegant spirit we all know and love.

2. When tasting Irish whiskey, what should we look for?

Smell and aroma are crucial, as we actually taste more with our nose than with our palate.

Taste is of course also important, so I recommend sipping your whiskey to savour the flavour.

With Irish whiskey, you don't need to fight the smokiness often associated with the first sip of Scotch or bourbon.

3. What's the difference between a blended whiskey and a single malt - and which should we try first?

A single malt whiskey is seen as the most premium and best whiskey because it is made with 100% malted barley and is therefore very pleasing to the palate. It's a really enjoyable whiskey.

Blended whiskey is equally as enjoyable and is very versatile - it works very well with a mixer and is perfect for cocktails.

Different whiskeys will suit different occasions, so it's important to match the whiskey to the moment in time.

4. What's the best way to drink whiskey? Neat, on the rocks or with a mixer?

I believe the best way to drink whiskey is the way you most enjoy it and how you're feeling. It's perfectly acceptable to drink whiskey in a cocktail, or with a mixer, or enjoy a single malt neat or over ice.

5. Are cocktails a good way to experiment and which would you recommend?

Bushmills whiskey
Bushmills whiskey

Irish whiskey has really come into its own over the past few years, as it grows in popularity beyond its more traditional reputation.

The world is now realising how versatile it is and how complex the flavours are, meaning it can be enjoyed in lots of different ways - cocktails included.

There are many lovely cocktails out there which are particularly delicious.

My personal favourite is a Black Bush Old Fashioned or Whiskey Sour. A Whiskey Sour is a mixed drink with whiskey, lemon juice, sugar and if you're feeling it, a dash of egg white.

6. How much does age matter when it comes to whiskey?

Age really does matter, as the longer the whiskey is in the barrel, the longer it has to interact with the wood and the air.

These interactions lead to new flavours and characters and increase the complexity of the whiskey.

7. Does whiskey age in the bottle in the same way wine does?

No, whiskey does not age when bottled. This is great as it means that the high quality of the whiskey remains constant throughout its time in the bottle.

8. How long will a bottle of whiskey last once opened?

Whiskey will last a long time once opened. I would recommend keeping the bottle out of sunlight with the cap firmly in place.

9. Should I keep whiskey in the fridge?

This is completely a matter of personal preference. Many people prefer to drink their whiskey cold rather than at room temperature.

10. Should you always look for the most expensive bottle?

This really depends. Single malts are aged for longer and therefore are naturally a more expensive and premium whiskey.

11. What's the number one rule for any whiskey drinker?

Drink it the way you enjoy it - there are no rules.

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