...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A tale of two Bushmills White Labels: Diageo era (2015) and Irish Distillers era (1980s)

I've always had issues with Bushmills White Label blended whiskey.  Even when I was not so choosy about my Irish whiskies, it was the last one I'd go for.  Sometimes I'd wondered if this was Diageo's fault.  (Of course he'd wonder that, you're thinking.)  It was as if they'd taken the Johnnie Walker Red Approach to this blend.  Bushmills's Ulster malt whiskey is perfectly serviceable stuff, sometimes quite good, so was Diageo taking potentially salvageable malt and drowning it in the cheapest grain whiskey they could find?  From an accountant's perspective the answer is, of course they are.  It's their cheapest product, it had better have the cheapest ingredients.  Yet, this Irish fan knows that all of the Republic of Ireland's Midleton Distillery's blends, priced the same or less than Bushmills White, are of higher quality.  And Bushmills even uses Midleton's grain whiskey.  It's not like the Catholics know something the Protestants don't know.  About whiskey, I mean.  So......I start to blame the producers for giving up on quality control.


When dusty hunting in Southern California, one is lucky if one finds something cool in 1 out of 10 stores.  During a particularly fruitless dusty hunt, I found myself going 0-for-11.  Store 12 proved to be uninspiring too, so when I spotted an old 200mL of Bushmills for $5 I bought it, figuring it would be my lone thing to show for the day, like the little gold painted plastic trophies with sharp edges given out to Little Leaguers at the end of the season because their parents paid the league entry fee at the start of the season.  I filed this trophy next to another, an '80s Early Times bourbon.

When I bought it, I thought the whiskey was from the 1990s, but upon unearthing it recently, I saw that it was actually from the '80s.  A bonus trophy!  Like for the kid who draws the most walks on his team.  It's not that he's a good baseball player; he doesn't swing because he doesn't actually know the strike zone because he probably needs glasses but he hasn't told his parents yet because his dad just got laid off from the paint factory for drinking BUSHMILLS on the job and the boy has heard that glasses cost a lot of money.  Whew, I didn't know where I was going with that but I saved it right there.  The bottle is post-1980 because it measures in metric and pre-1989 because it doesn't have the government warning.

I also had a mini of the current version of Bushmills White because I'm a masochist.  That bottle has an early 2015 bottle code and a Diageo reference on the back, thus it was made during Diageo's ownership period.  But since Diageo didn't buy Bushmills until 2005, who made my bottle of the old stuff?  Irish Distillers owned Bushmills from 1972 to 1987, when it was then sold to Pernod Ricard.  I believe my bottle is genuine Irish Distillers stuff because Brown Forman was the bottle's importer and Brown Forman was under contract with Irish Distillers to import Bushmills to the US.

So if you've skipped down here because you're getting all TL;DR on me, see at least the above paragraph.

Taste Off!

NEAT (40%abv)

Diageo 2015 bottling
Its color is quite light so there is, thankfully, a minimum of e150a colorant in the mix.  The nose is fruitier and more floral than I'd remembered, though often it smells like straight up grain whiskey.  There's some dried apricots and vanilla, though that fades quickly.  It gets very grassy after 30 minutes in the glass.  The palate is hot.  Big on notebook paper and a plain sugariness.  Some nondescript white fruitiness.  A hint of shortbread.  Bitter, sour berries.  Feels like a watery Jameson.  Here's the heart of the problem, it finishes rough and bitter.  It has the vague vanilla and shortbread notes, but it ends up reading as something between a cheap Canadian whiskey and vanilla vodka.

Irish Distillers 1980s bottling
Its color is similar to the current version, maybe a hint lighter.  The nose is very malty, and the fruit and flowers are well defined.  Fresh lemons, citronella, orange blossoms, and jasmine.  Gets more biscuity (or cookie-ish for us Americans) with time.  After 30 minutes, a rich vanilla bean note arrives and the citronella brightens.  A much thicker mouthfeel in the palate.  Malt and milk chocolate.  Mandarin oranges and toasted oak spices.  Simple but rich.  It finishes mildly with nice notes of vanilla cake and caramel sauce. Hints of citrus and baking spices linger underneath.

Comments: So far the Irish Distillers blend has the advantage, but part of that is due to the weakness in the Diageo version's palate and finish.  The '80s blend has a thickness and lusciousness that is missing from most current Irish (and Scottish) blends.  And I can only guess that's due to less grain and a better matured malt content.

Normally, I do a round on the rocks when reviewing cheaper blends.  But I just couldn't bring myself to add ice to this stuff because I just always drink Irish whiskey neat.  So I decided to add water and drop the ABV quite a bit, much like blenders (allegedly) do when assembling their products.

WITH WATER (~30%abv)

Diageo 2015 bottling
The nose is still there, a good sign.  Fizzy, like ginger ale and tonic water.  Orange candy, generic vanilla and caramel, and some plain woody notes.  A hint of malt and lime in the palate.  Tangy, woody.  Mostly watery vanilla.  Not much in the finish.  Tangy with a peppery bite and little bit of vanilla.

Irish Distillers 1980s bottling
Oh my goodness.  The nose is incredibly rich.  TONS of chocolate.  Egg creme soda.  Circling notes of caramel chews, toffee pudding, and butterscotch.  "Holy crap," says my notes.  Vanilla beans, orange blossoms, and fresh limes.  A gorgeous rose note.  A whole bowl of fresh citrus fruits.  The palate remains plenty thick.  Better vanilla notes.  A touch grassy, but also brightly peppery and fizzy.  A little bit of the rosy notes show up in the finish, along with vanilla beans and peppercorns.

Comments: Stunned. The '80s bottling's nose was one of the loveliest I've ever experienced, and it went on and on.  I've never found a blend to open up like this at such a low ABV.  I'm just going to enjoy the rest of this bottle at 30%abv.  The current version doesn't totally collapse, but it is breaking apart.  These are two very different whiskies at this point.

That was so much fun that I decided to add some more water for the final few milliliters just to see what would happen.

WITH WATER (~25%abv)

Diageo 2015 bottling
The nose is still perky, now all lemon juice and Belgian witbier.  The palate is bitter with moderate notes of vanilla and caramel.  Not much left of the finish, as it's mostly just bitter.

Irish Distillers 1980s bottling
That nose is still kickin', full of Balblair fruitiness.  Honeydew, mango, and lychee.  Maybe some ocean air.  The palate is very creamy.  Cream puffs, milk chocolate, and malt.  The fruit returns in the finish, with just a hint of tartness.

Comments: The current edition's nose is still pretty good, but the palate is done for.  Meanwhile, Mr. '80s still works very well.  Even the palate is keeps on clicking.

The 1980s bottling is the sturdiest 40%abv blend I've ever had.  And, in my experience, it has one of the best noses on any blend, period.  At 30%abv it's pure joy.  Bushmills White Label once had a very good recipe with exemplary ingredients, but I fear that was lost long ago.  The good news about the current version is that it's better than I'd remembered (faint praise!).  I thought I'd be giving this one a super low score, but the nose works moderately well for a $20 blend.  The palate is still problematic and the finish is worse.  Yet, it's better than most $20 scotch blends (even fainter praise!).  But if you're out treasure hunting around old liquor stores and you're in a rut, don't be so quick to pass up on an old Bushmills.  You may be in for a treat.

Diageo 2015 bottling
Availability - Everywhere
Pricing - $16-$28 for 750mL in the US
Rating - 71

Irish Distillers 1980s bottling
Availability - Happy hunting!
Pricing - my 200mL cost $5.19
Rating - 89 (add water!)