So after a slightly shaky start this morning (you may have guessed that the pristine looking cup of coffee posted on the blog this morning was put there merely to taunt me by Mike, our online editor) I arrived in Ireland to be greeted by a charming young PR lady and a driver to make the short hop over from Belfast to Bushmills.
On arriving at the (absolutely beautiful and highly recommended) Bushmills Inn hotel, we had a light lunch and were whisked away to the distillery for a tour.
I have to confess that despite dozens of visits to Scottish Distilleries, I've never visited a real working Irish whisky distillery before. Like many of you I've rolled through the Jameson's visitor centre on more than one occasion, but never actually set foot inside a real producing distillery in Ireland before. Overall impressions - pretty similar to Scotland with the obvious exception of what goes on in the still room.
Fermentation uses fresh distillers yeast, and lasts for approximately 60 hours.
[One of the USA finalists trying as hard as possible not to fall into a Mash Tun.]
The still room is a pretty epic setup - pictured below is distillery manager Colum Egan complete with film crew.
Spirit is taken off the final set of stills at a pretty heady 85% abv, and filled into casks at about 63%.
There was a large variety of wood on display in the filling house (most of it fresh in), and all rebuilt casks. The scale of the operation is what strikes you the most here - on exiting the filling house, 5 gargantuan warehouses lay out over the fields to my left (apparently they're having to build a new one every 9 months at the moment).
[H is for hogshead, P is for port, and 2 is for second fill]
[Wasn't me guv, honest]
Bushmills has its own bottling plant, a necessity in Ireland, as there aren't dozens of distilleries around to share resources. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the videos you're about to see are those of probably my favourite place in the whole world.
Like many blokes, I have a perhaps unhealthy fascination with factories (put me in front of 'how it's made' for an afternoon, and that's me set), and the combination of factories and whisky was almost too much. Enjoy.
Once we were done in the bottling plant, we made the short hop over to the second most popular tourist attraction in the area, the Giant's Causeway.
With a glass of Bushmills waiting for us, this was perhaps one of the most awe inspiring sights I've ever seen.
Being a very clear day, it was possible to see the south coast of Islay (all the more poignant as only a few months ago I'd looked over the water from the other side, and been delighted to see the very shore on which I was now standing).
[you can just about see it in the distance ]
With Colum's toast ringing in our ears...
When you drink Bushmills, you go to sleep.
When you're asleep, you don't commit any sins.
When you don't commit any sins, you go to heaven.
So let's all drink Bushmills and go to heaven!
...It was time to head back to the hotel for dinner, and a brief opportunity to meet the contestants. I won't overly bore you with life histories, let's just say that the Germans were duly admonished by the comedian compering for leaving their towels on the sun-loungers, the contestants from the Republic of Ireland were both Slovakian (!) and the lovely couple from the UK grow their own Naga Jolokia chillies (and the husband, Tom, chose bushcamp over keeping his job!).
I grabbed Colum in the bar for a drink and got his refreshingly honest view on how to drink Bushmills - "any way you want to" he says, with a glass of Bushmills and lemonade in his hand!
[Ben and Colum in a very warm bar! ]
So overall? Day one? Very well organised, thoroughly enjoyable, and absolutely knackering. I'm sitting in the bar putting the final touches to this, and I think Rob Allanson had just walked in fresh from his Whisky Mag deadline - so if you'll excuse me, I'm off to grab another dram. Maybe even with Ginger Ale this time. Mmm...