When you think of whiskey, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Smokey Scottish single malts? Or a blended Japanese Hibiki? Even though Irish whiskey probably wasn’t the first thing you thought of, it was once the most popular spirit in the world. And Bushmills, on the River Bush in Northern Ireland, is the oldest licensed distillery in the world.
Read on in Vietnamese
“The Bushmills story actually starts in 1608,” brand ambassador Valentin C Iulian says showing us the year stamped onto the Bushmills 12 bottle – a special edition that has been produced exclusively for Asia.
“Historians of bartending get very excited about Irish whiskeys like Bushmills,” Valentin continues, “ because the spirit features in many pre-prohibition cocktails. In fact, the first Old Fashioned was most likely made with Irish whiskey.”
Bushmills survived hard times like the Prohibition era in the States – one of the distillery’s main markets. And by 2008 Bushmills had become such an icon of Irish culture that the Bank of Ireland issued bank notes featuring the Old Bushmills Distillery on one side. “Look, I have one here,” Valentin shows us. There on the ten-pound note is a picture of the mill and its water wheel on Saint Columb’s Rill — a tributary of the River Bush that lends the whiskey some of its distinctive character. “What’s incredible is that this is one of the few locations in the world that creates whiskeys all the way from grain to glass.”
We wanted to learn more about Bushmills’ unique history and distillation process — as well as how to make a few whiskey-based cocktails. And inspired by the Bushmills story, where they triple-distill their whiskey and age their 12 years old in three different barrels we sat down with three people: Valentin C Iulian and two other local bartenders and Bushmills aficionados, Grace Zhang from Firkin and Tam at La Bar, two of Saigon’s most stylish bars.
Bushmills Brand Ambassador Valentin C Iulian
“My first taste of whisky?” Valentin C Iulian asks. “It was probably a Johnnie Walker or a Jack Daniels when I first started working bars as a teenager in my hometown and Black Sea summer resort of Costanza in Romania” Back then he didn’t appreciate the nuances between a blended Scotch whiskey and bourbon. Now, he’s converted to the clean flavour of Bushmills.
“I take pride in representing authentic whiskey — a place with a rich history and a rich local culture,” he says proudly. At Bushmills, everything from distillation to ageing happens on-site. There’s even a cooperage at the plant. “The Kane family have been reconditioning barrels since the 1800s,” Valentin shakes his head in amazement.
Then he begins breaking down the major differences between Irish and Scottish whiskey. Unlike Scottish whiskey, Irish whiskey doesn’t use peat or any kind of smoke. “It’s simply not a feature of their whiskey making tradition,” Valentin explains. And Irish whiskey is distilled three times which means “a smoother and cleaner taste with less flavor and body from the grain.” That means the barrels create the flavor (and the colour). Bushmills 12 years old is a good example. “The Bushmills 12 years old goes through ex-bourbon barrels, ex-Oloroso sherry barrels, and finished in Marsala wine casks.”
Having been to the Bushmills distillery, Valentin could talk about the process all day. But we stop him for a moment to ask him to make us a cocktail, a Jasmine Sour.
30ml Bushmills 12
2 tbsp of mixed berry jam
10ml of vermouth blanco
3 sprigs of mint
10ml of lemon juice
1 dash of sugar syrup
2 orange bitters
Garnish: fresh sprig of mint
Tam Nguyen Bar Manager at La Bar
“We used to be a bespoke cocktail bar, but we’re evolving with a menu of modern classics that are strong on local ingredients,” Tam “Thomas” Nguyen says proudly as we sit at the cool horseshoe-shaped bar at La Bar.
The bar manager is proud to use Vietnamese flavours in his concoctions. “I’m always excited to present cocktails using Vietnamese ingredients. Things I grew up with,” he adds. One such cocktail is his Tamarind Whiskey Sour. “And that requires a classic, clean whiskey,” he smiles taking the bottle of Bushmills 12.
He feels Bushmills 12 years old works particularly well with Asian flavours. “The flowery and fruity aroma is followed by a bit of smooth sweetness on the palette which is perfect for a neat dram, or a cocktail…”
“The mango, peach and tropical aromas introduce spice flavours like cloves, a hint of star anise (which comes from the Oloroso sherry oak barrel) and there’s a light finish with spice and oakyness….” he nods as he begins making us a cocktail. He’s decided to compliment the fruitiness of the whiskey with the flavour of Vietnamese Banana. “And I’m adding creaminess using whipped cream and a dash of almond for the extra-tropical element.”
“It’s the perfect antidote for this hot Saigon weather,” he says sliding the Wild La Bar over to us.
Wild La Bar
Bushmills 12 years old
Garnish: Vietnamese banana and dried pineapple
Head Bar Manager Grace Zhang at Firkin Bespoke Cocktails & Whiskey and Dram Bar
Grace is busy. Tribe Hospitality is in the throes of opening Stoker Woodfired Grill & Bar. Upstairs will be Dram Bar with a graffiti-covered entrance (there’s another staircase inside in case you went to Stoker first), racing green games room and private whiskey den hidden behind a bookcase.
Her proudest creation to date is her rum and coffee-based cocktail, Cafe Ba. “I created it and entered into the Bacardi cocktail competition which was held in Bangkok, Thailand last year, where I represented Vietnam,” she reminisces. She’s taken the cocktail to pop-ups like the ones she starred in at Mad Botanist Hanoi and Saigon’s Layla Eatery & Bar. But today we’re talking about Bushmills 12. It’s something Grace Zhang is happy about. “Well, I love whiskey, so almost everything on my alcohol shelf at home is whiskey – Bushmills, Ardberg, Macallan, Dewars…”
She has a particular affection for Irish whiskey. “I have always loved Irish whiskey. I believe that as it regains its historic popularity and prominence lots of people will grow to appreciate it too,” she smiles. “And it’s just as complex, layered, and capable of taking you on a fantastic journey as its Scottish and Japanese counterparts.”
We wonder how she feels Bushmills 12 compares to those other kinds of whisky. She pauses for a moment then explains: “Every whiskey has different characteristics and special flavours so it’s difficult to compare. But Bushmills 12 years old, in my opinion, is very easy to work with when making cocktails but is also very good on its own neat or on the rocks. This is very important as drinking neat without mixers is widely considered the true test of the quality of a spirit…”
And, she adds, “The turquoise color, packaging and branding standout in comparison to most whiskey bottles…”
Convinced of her affection for the Irish distillery, we ask Grace Zhang to make us a cocktail with the Bushmills 12. “I connected the idea of the world’s oldest whiskey distillery with the oldest tribes people in the world, the Bushmen of the Kalahari – this is my Language of the Bushmen. Their language uses lots of clicks and movements of the mouth and tongue that don’t appear in other languages.” She stirs the mix of Bushmills 12, hazelnut liquor and orange & mandarin bitter, adds a garnish of star anise which she careful burns, then serves us the drink to try.
Language of the Bushmen
Orange & mandarin bitter
Garnish: burnt star anise