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Chapter 11: Small is Beautiful; "Bushmills: 400 Years in the Making”

The EiffeI Tower, entrance to the Paris Exibition of 1889.

Size mattered. Old Bushmills was small and the very thing that a generation earlier had made the North Antrim distillery so vulnerable, meant it had a better chance of surviving. The distillery didn't have huge warehouses and massive overheads, so it was able to weather the growing storm, while at the same time cashing in on the extra business generated by the crack down on poitin makers.

At the same time as the Coffey revolution was convulsing the industry, Bushmills starts to stand out from the background babble of history. Names and dates come into focus and we finally get a real impression of what was going on in the North Antrim distillery.

On 20th August 1860 the Old Bushmills distillery was sold for the princely sum of £500. Details are sketchy: we do not know if Mr James McKibben, the man who did so much to organise the business, was still behind the firm, and we are not completely sure who bought the distillery.

It changed hands again pretty quickly and by 1881 the place was in the hands of Corrigan & Company. The recently widowed wife of Mr Patrick Corrigan, one of the partners, pushed to have the distillery registered as a limited company, in an effort to secure her future. Six years later the distillery had an office in Belfast.

Public records are an incomplete and often unsatisfying source of information. They are limited and biased as they only record when a company is sold, goes bust, or does something else that impacts on any revenue the Crown might extract. When it comes to this period of history, it seems that good news is 'no news'. Apart from the registration of a trademark in 1883, Old Bushmills makes very little impact in any official papers.

It is safe to assume that the distillery in Bushmills was getting on with doing what it was best at—making whiskey. It is obvious, from the awards that suddenly start to pile up, that in a period of rapid change and uncertainty, the distillery was producing some very good whiskey. From the Grand Prix at the French-British Exhibition of 1908, all the way back to the distillery's first major award in 1883, when Old Bushmills won a Gold Medal for Pure Malt Whiskey at the Cork Industrial Exhibition, this was a period of unparalleled success.

When the telegram announcing the win at Cork arrived at the distillery, there were huge celebrations. "The announcement of Saturday evening in Bushmills was made the occasion of public rejoicing, tar barrels being burnt and the flute band promenading the streets." After winning the only Gold Medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1889 the distillery very proudly issued a series of sketches featuring the Shah of Persia. Strangely none of the illustrations feature the other hit of the exhibition, the Eiffel Tower.

Some of the awards and medals won by Bushmills whiskeys in the late 19th century, printed in a 1904 distillery pamphlet



Two illustrations commissioned by Bushmills 
featuring the Shah of Persia at the Paris Exhibition in 1889.

 

Fire buckets in Bushmills' old warehouse n°2

 


Written by Peter Mulryan

 

The text is an excerpt from "Bushmills: 400 Years in the Making" (pp. 37 - 41), written by Peter Mulryan, published 2008 by Appletree Press Ltd.



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