An interview with Alex Thomas, Master Blender at Bushmills Whiskey

In June 2023 I was invited to visit the Bushmills in Ireland, together with a group of Dutch journalists. It became a memorable trip, where we got to see the old distillery and the new one: the Causeway Distillery. We were welcomed by the team working there, including the coopers, father and son Kane, and Master Blender Alex Thomas. She guided us through the range of Bushmills whiskey, but a lot of new whiskeys have been introduced since. First there were the 25 and 30 year old Single Malts and last October the 4th Causeway Collection was launched. I had the chance to ask a few questions to Alex about her carreer and her vision on helping create the current and future whiskeys for Bushmills.

Can you tell me about your career you pursued before you started working at Bushmills Whiskey?

I began my career working as a timber merchant in my hometown, just 15 minutes from the Old Bushmills Distillery, where I spent over 10 years learning about different types of wood. Now, as master blender at Bushmills Irish Whiskey, I work with wood in a very different way. I have a passion for unusual wood and reimagining a traditional single malt.

The Old Bushmills Distillery is a very special place where I get to explore this passion, developing new whiskeys and experimenting with different casks and flavours, while still maintaining the iconic Bushmills taste and quality. The craftmanship and passion that goes into Bushmills is something that has truly captured my imagination. Whiskey fans know Bushmills Irish Whiskey for our four centuries of quality and taste, and part of my job is ensuring that we continue to meet that high standard.

Mister Cocktail Bushmills Irish Whiskey Alex Thomas master blender
The stillhouse at the new Causeway Distillery at Bushmills. Photocredits: Albert van Beeck Calkoen / Mister Cocktail

How long have you been working at Bushmills? And which roles have you fulfilled in the company?

I have worked at Bushmills for almost two decades, and I have had a hand in shaping every one of the expressions we have released during that time. In 2021, I was officially appointed master blender for Bushmills and have since had the privilege of unveiling several incredible new whiskeys.

Recently, I had the opportunity to release the Bushmills 25 and 30 Year Old Single Malts. The 25 Year Old is a 46% ABV, non-chill-filtered, single malt Irish whiskey that has been matured at the Old Bushmills Distillery for between four and six years before finishing in ruby port pipes for up to 21 years. It is one of the best whiskeys I have tasted in my lifetime – a bold statement, but true! You can really savour the influence of the wood and appreciate the craft of whiskey making.

The 30 Year Old is for the sherry cask fans out there – the smooth palate of figs and dates, followed by praline, orange peel and vanilla truly needs to be tasted to be believed! Bottled at 46% ABV and non-chill-filtered, this sublime whiskey has been matured for 14 years before being finished in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks for 16 years.

Can you take us through a regular day of a Master Blender at Bushmills? If there even is such a thing 😉

The wonderful thing about my life in whiskey is that no two days are the same for a master blender, which is great – variety is, after all, the spice of life. I can be in the warehouses with the casks in the morning, then in the afternoon I could be in the lab preparing blends. The next day I could be travelling to one of our wonderful cask suppliers to pick the next casks we need.

For me, the best part of the job is creating whiskeys that will bring new consumers into the wonderful world of Irish single malts. The single malt category deserves to grow, and my dream is for Bushmills Irish Whiskey to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue when they order a drink.

I love nothing better than walking around our warehouses, drawing samples to see how the casks are maturing. I get to constantly experiment with so many different profiles that continue to fascinate and inspire me – even after twenty years. My parents always told me to find a job I loved, and I would never work a day in my life – and how right they were! This is a passion and a love that I get to experience every single day, and I hope my story will inspire others to embark on a similar journey.

At Bushmills you make blended whiskey and single malt. Which parts of the process take place at the Bushmills Distillery for both styles of whiskey?

We always say, ‘We’re not good because we’re old, we’re old because we’re good.’ For over four centuries, Bushmills has never wavered in its quest to craft the finest whiskey possible -doing things the right way, insisting on only using 100% Irish malted barley, always triple distilling in copper pot stills.

The Old Bushmills Distillery is one of the few ‘grain to glass’ distilleries in Ireland, which means our whiskey is crafted with care in small batches on one site. Our process includes all the critical stages of production including, malt distilling, maturing, blending and bottling. We produce a triple-distilled, light, delicate spirit which is extremely complex and contributes to our distinct quality house style which has stood the test of time, so one of my tasks is to retain that while enhancing it into something new.

Do you have a favourite part of the distillery where you love to be more than anywhere else?

I love the Stillhouse – the heat, the aromas, the clear liquid on the start of its journey, but my favourite area has to be the warehouses – where I draw liquid from a cask and have that first taste. It is almost a magical experience. To walk in there in the morning and experience the peace – it’s good for the soul. It’s so quiet, and with those beautiful aromas around you, it is like the angel is sharing back. There’s something truly phenomenal about drawing liquid from a cask that hasn’t been opened before.

Bushmills Distillery Irish whiskey single malt Alex Thomas master blender Mister Cocktail
Photocredits: Albert van Beeck Calkoen / Mister Cocktail

Which expressions of Bushmills have you helped create? And which one of these is your favourite?

I have been working at the Old Bushmills Distillery for almost two decades and in this time, I have had a hand in shaping every one of the expressions we have released. Within this last year I had the opportunity to release the Bushmills 25 and 30 Year Old Single Malts. We are so proud of the mastery and expertise that ensures every cask is at its freshest and most flavourful to mature our Bushmills whiskey. It means our 25 Year Old bursts with intense hedgerow dark fruit and a luxurious honey sweetness and it ensures our 30 Year Old boasts an exquisite and enticing raisin, fig and praline richness. Even though it takes a lifetime of skill to make something great, it takes an obsession to make something legendary.

We also recently launched the 4th series of the Causeway Collection, a celebration of our passion for single malts. These expressions are the fruits of over four centuries of Bushmills whiskey-making tradition, each expertly crafted and nurtured over decades. This year’s collection features nine rare cask-finished Irish single malts, carefully selected from Bushmills’ unparalleled aged reserves. It has been an honour to work with such rare whiskeys.

Do you have an all-over favourite Bushmills, and can you tell a bit why this is your favourite?

I particularly love to linger over our Bushmills 16-Year-Old Single Malt as I relax and mull over the day that’s been, but every whiskey has its perfect time and setting. That’s one of the amazing things about the range at Bushmills – we have a whiskey for every occasion.

How would you describe the influence of the surroundings (Giant’s Causeway, coast etc) on Bushmills?

The legendary landmark, the Giant’s Causeway, is just a stone’s throw away, which has inspired Bushmills’ whiskey-makers for centuries. So much so, Bushmills’ new distillery has been named after it, the Causeway Distillery. The designers sought to pay homage to this natural wonder on the distillery’s doorstep with a visually arresting structure made of local basalt and limestone, incorporating interlocking and geometric features.

The quality of our ingredients is vital to the quality of our whiskey and water is critical to the process of creating Bushmills Irish Whiskey. Ours is drawn from Saint Columb’s Rill, a tributary of the river Bush which runs from the Antrim Hills through the same type of basalt rock that makes up the Giant’s Causeway and passes through Bushmills before reaching the sea at Portballintrae on the north Antrim coast.

Is there a new project you are working on that you can tell us a bit about?

At Bushmills we will continue to innovate in our relentless pursuit of perfection. We want to give people a real experience when they are drinking Bushmills, which is why premiumisation continues to be a trend and a priority for us.

We are seeing significant global demand for our prestige single malts, and developing this segment remains our long-term focus. Keep your eyes peeled for some new innovations coming soon.

Alex Thomas Bushmills Whiskey Irish whiskey Mister Cocktail Albert van Beeck Calkoen
Photocredits: Albert van Beeck Calkoen / Mister Cocktail
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