In the blend: Helen Mulholland, master blender at Bushmills
Helen Mulholland has worked at Irish whiskey distiller Bushmills for 27 years, having started with an apprenticeship placement as part of her university course.
Her work with the 400-year-old distillery began in the early 1990s and she worked her way up to the position of master blender, a title she has now held for 15 years. Mulholland was the first female master blender for the company and in Irish whiskey’s history.
She says: “I did a technology course and we had to do an industrial placement for six months to one year with a local industry. The Irish scene is very much dairy or meat, but there was one placement in the distillery, which was the one everybody wanted, and I was lucky enough to get that, and was then invited back after completing my degree.
“From the moment I arrived at the distillery I was drawn in. It is quite magical here from the moment you walk through those gates.”
The Bushmills distillery is a beautiful stone building in a picturesque setting, as described by Mulholland. It is located on the very north coast of Ireland and only a few miles from the Giant’s Causeway. There is now a busy visitor centre which attracts 125,000 people a year.
She says: “There is a real joy in seeing people visit the site, seeing what we do and talking to us. It is lovely to be able to interact with people; people who love the product.
“We already have a number of people coming to the area anyway but there is definitely a rise in whiskey tourism in Ireland and although we had to shut down to visitors for a while due to Covid-19, we are now seeing a buzz about the whole trail again, and that’s something that will continue once we get back to normality.”
Irish whiskey was on the up before lockdown began but the period since March 2020 has been “incredibly successful” for Bushmills, Mulholland says. “Irish whiskey is on a huge journey at the moment and it is a wonderful position to be in. We saw sales grow in the off-trade over lockdown, not only for our blends but also our single malts, indicating that people are actually making it an occasion and they want to trade up to the really finer things.
“There are new consumers coming into Irish whiskey. There is something for everybody in this category. With Bushmills our blends are a great introduction. Red Bush is a great way to start, and our Bourbon Cask whiskey too.
“Then there is something more complex with Black Bush single malts. The category allows for innovation and experimentation, and there’s a Bushmills brand for any kind of consumer. It’s great to see younger people coming into the whiskey market too.”
Mulholland says the part of her role she loves the most is working with different cask finishes, which is an area Bushmills focuses heavily on. For the sherry casks Mulholland and her team travel to Spain to have casks made to the company’s own specifications.
She says: “We have it seasoned with sherry that we pick ourselves and then we bring those casks back about three years later, so we have complete control. We use mainly sherry and bourbon casks for our blends and our malts but for our 15 years we use port casks and for the 21-year-old we use Madeira.”
Bushmills is a distillery that produces more than 5 million litres of alcohol a year but Mulholland explains it is still very batch-oriented and keeping original traditions is important.
“Because we are the oldest licensed distillery in the world, we are part of history. I am only looking after Bushmills as its custodian until the next blender arrives and it is really nice to work with this part of history. It is an unusual industry to be in in this respect.
“I also enjoy doing whiskey and food matching and it is fun doing the tastings. The 10-year-old works incredibly well with both chocolate and cheese, for example.”
Mulholland’s life outside of work is also heavily connected to nature and the outdoors. She says: “I live on a farm and my daughter and I do a lot of horse riding and we have fabulous beaches around the area for horse riding. It’s an amazing way of relaxing.”