Master blender Helen Mulholland is responsible for creating the range of whiskeys produced at Irish distillery Bushmills. Here she tells Kirsten Amor about experimenting with acacia, why the spotlight will soon shine on blending, and the big changes afoot at the distillery.
‘Every day in my job is slightly different. I think it’s going to become even more varied in the future, because we’re continuously looking for innovation, we’re looking for something different to be doing. That’s what I love about my job – we’ll be looking at different cask formulations, different woods, and there’s a whole world to be explored out there. It’s a hugely exciting place to be at the moment.
‘Blending is going to come closer to the forefront of the industry, and we’ll see all these new expressions coming out.
‘In particular, the Bushmills distillery exclusive with the acacia finish has been a real pleasure to have worked on. My passion is different types of wood. I had a look around and found the acacia wood. It provides a whole different flavour – there’s a lovely warm spicy note – and it was perfect for our whiskey. Also, it’s actually produced at a higher strength and is non-chill-filtered, so there are a whole lot of different areas that we’re starting to explore.
‘This is a really exciting time for Bushmills at the moment. We have the new warehouses coming up; we’re always looking long term, and the amount of time it takes for us to actually produce our product to increase our sales. We have to lay down our stocks many, many years in advance. So the new warehouses and indeed a new distillery will allow us to double our capacity, and make all these investments on our future sales.
Branch out: Bushmills has plans to build additional on-site warehousing
‘But really, it also allows us to bring in a huge amount of innovation to the industry, and focus on new product development.
‘The future of the Irish whiskey industry is going to be focused on luxury brands and a huge amount of innovation, like how we’ve started a new trend with our Steamship collection. It’s actually the fun part of working for a company like Bushmills, in that we can provide something for everybody. There’s worldwide growth in Irish whiskey, and we want to produce something that anyone can enjoy.
‘When Bushmills was bought by Proximo [in 2014], they brought in this joy of introducing new variants, and it’s been a real pleasure to work on these, such as the Bushmills acacia exclusive, not to mention the huge amount of investment they have provided for Bushmills.
‘I’ve been at Bushmills for over 25 years. I started working here as part of my university course – we had to do an industry placement and I’m a food technologist by education.
‘From the moment you walk through the distillery doors, the white-washed buildings, the stone buildings – it is love at first sight. It’s a magical, magical place.
New approach: Innovating with new cask types is one of Mulholland’s passions in her role as master blender
‘I worked in the small laboratory, where we ran a small-scale distillery. We took the malted barley and produced a spirit, and from that we could tell how it would run on the big distillery. I joined the distillery after I finished school, but left again to complete my masters. My thesis was on the maturation of whiskey; that started my whole journey into flavours. Afterwards I returned to Bushmills, and was appointed master blender by Diageo when they took over the distillery from Irish Distillers [in 2005].
‘It is an honour and pleasure to work as master blender because I’m only looking after Bushmills for a short amount of time; we’re only custodians here. Bushmills is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world, and you find you’re a real part of the history there.
‘The role of blender comes up maybe once in a lifetime – we tend to stay. It’s really unfortunate for other people because you’re there for 20 years or so, and there’s very little movement in these divisions. With the great expansion in Irish whiskey however, they’re now opening a huge number of skills in the industry, and the huge growth is providing a huge amount of employment, and that’s great to see.
Early days: Mulholland began her career in the Bushmills laboratory before moving to the main distillery
‘After 25 years, you initially think very little changes in the whiskey industry. While the whiskey hasn’t changed in the slightest, actually what you see is the number of different distilleries in the area that are increasing their warehousing, or the high-speed bottling lines now – and the visitor centres. At Bushmills, we receive around 100-120,000 visitors a year, and seeing the expansions, the people coming to visit Ireland and the knowledge of people, is quite amazing.
‘I’m hugely delighted and honoured to be the first woman initiated into Whisky Magazine’s Hall of Fame award [in 2018]. When I first started working in the whiskey industry, there were initially very few women working in the roles of blender and distiller, but this has changed. I am sure that as more women come to the forefront of the industry, this will change further.’