When Bushmills Irish Whiskey’s master blender Helen Mulholland began her career over 25 years ago, she never would have imagined that doing virtual tastings with a global audience would be part of her career. “It is a very different and strange atmosphere, because you’re so used to working in venues and having people close to you and creating that memory with your friends,” she said in a phone interview. “Even before you start the tasting, there’s that interaction with people where you get to know each other, whereas with Zoom and interactive tastings, you’re by yourself and it’s really difficult to not have that interaction with people. I actually love answering questions throughout the tasting because you feel so much more part of the whole thing and it’s much more intimate.”
Sitting in front of a computer screen in front of about 20 assembled wine writers, on the other hand, does not make for an intimate experience in the slightest. On the table is an assortment from the distillery’s portfolio, ranging from the baseline Original to the 21 year old (“Ah, Christmas,” Mulholland exclaims. “It’s all dried fruit, spice, orange, and that warming sensation in your mouth when that spiciness is coming through.”)
Helen Mulholland, master blender for Bushmills Irish whiskey.
As we sniff, swirl and taste together, there are so many variables out of Mulholland’s control — ones that would very much be the purview of the distillery in an in-person site visit. The glassware, temperature, opening of the bottles, pour and many other elements, all of which factor, however minutely, into the tasting experience, are left up to the writer, and Mulholland can only guide from a distance.
“It does take a bit of getting used to, ceding that control,” says Mulholland. “Normally, people will automatically taste at the same time and smell at the same time, but it’s because people are so relaxed and in their own environment they are doing their own thing.”
In a way, however, this method of tasting may actually be truer to the end product and end use of each bottle, since control of the product leaves the distiller’s hands after the bottle is sold. “This is the way that people do use your product. You may be seeing it in a more normal situation,” says Mulholland. “We’re getting used to the fact that people are actually tasting it the way they want to taste it in the comfort of their own homes. And it is a much more relaxed tasting in that way.”
The event I attended was Mulholland’s first virtual tasting, but she’s been running them at the Bushmills distillery for over 20 years. She started at the company with a Masters of Science as a lab technician, and attributes her moving into the job of blender as due to timing. “The blender role does come up once in a lifetime — we tend to be there for twenty, thirty or forty years. The company was prepared to take a chance on a woman at that stage, because I was the first female master blender in Bushmills history, and indeed, Irish whiskey itself,” she says. “So I was incredibly lucky the company never had any doubts and that allowed me to do what they had trained me to do.” In 2018, Mulholland was inducted into Whisky Magazine’s Hall of Fame, who wrote that she had “a nose in a million – a nose that truly understands all the intricate notes, aromas and flavours of whiskey.”
Over the years, Mulholland has witnessed a shift in how the consumer interacts with Irish whiskey, even at a brand as established as 400 year old Bushmills. “When I started, Irish whiskey wasn’t in the glorious days that we’re in now. It was an industry where we were running the distillery five days a week instead of the seven, just trying to build stock so that we were there whenever the knowledge and the influence of Irish whiskey would once again pick up,” Mulholland remembers. “Throughout my career, it has been a joy to see the Irish whiskey sector being rebuilt and reloved.”
Part of the resurgence of Irish whiskey has been due in part to the fascination with brown spirits that rose in 2000 and kept going, as well as a drive to higher end products (witness the rise in the price of single malt scotch and cult followings of American bourbon). “A lot of our whiskies are matured in bourbon casks, so that whole industry works on flavor profiles, and we’re incredibly lucky that the high aged malts are now coming into their own. And the premiumization is really becoming a part of, or a big driver for, the industry,” says Mulholland.
After 26 years in the industry, Mulholland still loves that moment of stillness entering the distillery in the morning. “It’s a fabulous life, you know. It’s a fantastic job. Walking into our warehouses, with this wonderful aroma from the angel’s share — it’s dark and cold, and it’s where the casks live and breathe,” she says. “And every time I go into the warehouse, there is that feeling of joy and the excitement of what you’re going to find. The cask is a living, breathing thing, expanding and contracting, and everything is working to create this beautiful whiskey. And it is an absolute joy, every single day.”
I’m a Toronto-based freelance writer who has spent the last 18 years traveling the globe as a magazine editor, and a lifetime consuming and exploring the world’s most