Whiskey is the spirit of Northern Ireland’s rejuvenated Causeway Coast, says Nicola Brady.
Whiskey has never suited the sunshine.
It’s made for days when elements are raging, skies are moody and fires are roaring. So it’s fitting that the day I visit Bushmills is a ferocious one.
While the wind outside is whipping and relentless, the air inside The Old Bushmills Distillery is thick with the warm, heady aroma of whiskey: of fireside hot toddies and nightcaps sipped under woollen blankets.
As our tour weaves between the giant copper pot stills, we learn about the methods of distillation, as well as the history of an iconic Irish whiskey. Casks are still repaired by coopers using timeworn tools, grain is sourced in Ireland and water arrives fresh from a nearby river.
But let’s be honest — it’s the tastings that tempt visitors to this corner of Co Antrim. Craft whiskey is making a comeback all over the country (see panel), but there’s something seductive about this old-school scene.
The premium tasting room is exactly what you’d envisage — all turf fires, overstuffed booths and a generous smattering of snifters.
We sample five different whiskeys, my personal favourite being the 16-year-old. Aged in a combination of sherry and bourbon casks, then matured in port wine barrels, the single malt has a plump juiciness that goes down like a dream.
Once the whiskey fog kicks in, you’ll be thankful for a bed just a short hop away. The Bushmills Inn is pure cosiness: all plush nooks and crannies, fire-warmed snugs and insanely comfy rooms. Opt for a garden-view two-level suite and you’ll never want to leave — think rough wooden beams, an enormous fluffy bed and a freestanding bath that’s deeper than Plato.
But you can’t resist the call of the outside world forever. Bushmills is right at the heart of the Causeway Coast, which has come on in leaps and bounds as a tourist destination. You can start at the Giant’s Causeway, of course — a scant 10-minute drive from the inn. Take a guided walk down to the basalt columns and you’ll hear all the legends behind the formation (and the mythical tale of Finn McCool is far better than the geological reality).
Walk beyond the hexagonal stacks, past the precarious selfie-takers, and take a peek at the rocks lining the pathway — people have long stuck coins into the crevices, which are now warped, tarnished and weatherworn.
Keep on and you’ll go beyond the traditional footfall to a series of extraordinarily beautiful cliff walks, which are synonymous with the Causeway Coast. There’s the nail-biting Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, of course, but at the end of June, the Gobbins Cliff Path (thegobbinscliffpath.com) will be reopening, following crucial maintenance to repair storm damage. The two-mile path snakes perilously close to the edge, with one section bridging over the choppy water itself.
From beauty spot to beauty spot, the route makes for a gorgeous drive. The 16th-century ruins of Dunluce Castle emerge from a rocky shoreline, as surfers tackle the waves of the Atlantic.
Towns like Portrush make for cute pit stops. Don’t forget, this is also prime Game of Thrones territory — the Dark Hedges are a 15-minute drive from Ballycastle, and the Cushendun Caves (where Melisandre gave birth to a Shadow) are right on the coast. The ‘Game of Thrones NI Locations’ app is both fantastic and free: you can see all the sites used, both in their real life and on-screen incarnations.
There’s no better place to live out all your Westeros fantasies — just don’t forget the Jon Snow furs.
The Causeway Coast spans a total of 120 miles, from Belfast to Derry. Taking the scenic route, you can drive from Belfast to Bushmills in under two hours (Belfast to Cushendun takes about an hour and 20 minutes). B&B at The Bushmills Inn (bushmillsinn.com) starts from £120/€140 in winter. Tours at The Old Bushmills Distillery (bushmills.com) start at £8/€9pp — the premium tasting is held daily at 3pm and costs £20/€23pp. See visitcausewaycoastandglens.com.
Just when you thought craft gin had stolen its thunder, Irish whiskey makes a comeback. Along with stalwarts like Bushmills and Jameson (with its revamped, €11 million visitor experience in Dublin), recent arrivals include Teeling’s distillery tour (above), the two-hour Dublin Whiskey Tours, Cork’s self-guided Whiskey Way and Kilkenny’s Whiskey Guild... and new brands are popping up like mushrooms. Irish whiskey has been the world’s fastest-growing premium spirit in the last 10 years, according to the Irish Whiskey Association. But its renaissance is just beginning.