Don't Beat Around the Bush... mills

By Sam MacDonald on Fri 7th Apr 2017

Sam MacDonald

When English writer Samuel Johnson was asked was it worth seeing the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast of Ireland, he is said to have replied, “Worth seeing, yes, but not worth going to see.” Despite his dismissal, however, the Causeway has long been a visitor attraction, whether for geological, mythological or Game‘o’Thronological reasons.

It seems Dr Johnson never grew tired of London life and therefore found little reason to travel so far away from the city. However, from where we stand on the North Coast of Ireland looking out to Islay and the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, we would argue, that it is the getting there that has made the place so important. Not least of the reasons for doing so is Old Bushmills distillery, which lies just two miles from the Giant’s Causeway.

Giant’s Causeway

In 1608, Bushmills got a licence to distil, making it now the World’s Oldest Licensed Distillery. There has been plenty of scepticism recently about this fact. Some suggest that since Bushmills didn’t register as a company until 1784, it cannot claim 1608 as the year of the distillery’s creation. However, there is more to this claimed date than meets the eye and more to Bushmills than a mere 233 years of company registration.

400 years of Bushmills

The 1608 licence to distil was granted to Sir Thomas Phillips, a prominent figure in Ulster’s modern history. He came out on the victorious side of the Tudor invasion of Ireland, the destruction of the O’Neill dynasty and the resulting plantation of Ulster.

The first decade of the 17th Century was a pivotal period in Ireland’s history. In the aftermath of the Nine Years War and the so-called ‘Flight of the Earls’, the English Crown inherited by King James I (a.k.a. James V of Scotland) was in dire financial straits and he was soon looking for ways to make quick money to replenish its coffers.

Sir Thomas Phillips offered a canny solution in the form of utilising the natural resources of Ulster’s Foyle River basin, particularly its large tracts of forest. The northern coastal area of Ulster offered plenty of choices for quick money-making options. Sir Thomas was proven right in that; however unfortunately for him, he was also proven inadequate for the job.

Instead, the Crown favoured the London City Guilds which formed the London Irish Society to undertake the task of planting the area with settlers who would develop its resources. Hence, the city of Derry was renamed Londonderry.

However, as compensation for his initiative, Sir Thomas Phillips was given land, title and, most important, a licence to ‘make aquavitae in the County of Coleraine and the Route, Co. Antrim’.

Foyle River - rich pickings

It is true that a licence does not make whiskey; the processes involved are more complicated than that. However, it does prove an intent to distil.

Some argue that the licence may well have lain useless until 1784 when it was decided to register the company. The trail of whiskey-fuelled inebriation stretching all the way from the distillery to the frontier lands of North America prior to 1784 would suggest otherwise.

As early as 1612, moreover, the Lord Mayor of London Sir William Cockayne (reputed to be the source of the title ‘Cockney’) was said to have had such a taste for our distillate that he ‘had to sell capital to pay for his imports of Bushmills whiskey’. Maybe drinking that much Bushmills can explain the ‘cockney slang’ too.

I would argue that the Bushmills date of 1608 is more than plausible. In fact, it’s legal.

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