Bushmills Sherry Cask Reserve Single Malt

Not having had a lot of luck with the main Bushmills’ expression (although Black Bush is certainly decent and drinkable), I was intrigued when I came across a higher-end sherry cask travel retail exclusive single malt at an international airport duty free. It wasn’t cheap though, working out to over $100 USD in currency conversion for a bottle.

This was of course the first of the new “Steamship” series from Bushmills, a collection  of three permanent special cask-matured expressions, beginning with the Sherry Cask Reserve. The name of the collection is inspired by the historical SS Bushmills, built in 1890. Apparently, this steamship traveled the world, and transported refilled spirit casks from all over, and back to Ireland during her active service.

Bushmills Sherry Cask Reserve is pure single malt whisky, not a blend like the cheaper Bushmills.  While it is a no-age-statement (NAS) whisky, it is matured exclusively in Oloroso sherry butts.  That certainly sounds at least minimally promising – although it is disappointingly bottled at the minimum strength of 40% ABV.

Fortunately, it was on promotion in the store, so I was able to sample a generous pour while waiting for my flight. This also gave me a chance to compare it directly to Black Bush side-by-side (which I have had before, and was also available for tasting).

I will reserve my usual discussion of the Meta-Critic scores for Bushmills to the end, as I was not tracking this whisky in my database at the time of sampling (and so, had no pre-existing bias going in).

Here is what I found in the glass (well, plastic cup):

Nose: Definite sherry presence, more so than Black Bush. Classic raisins and figs, along with brown sugar. But still not quite as sherry-rich as I was expecting, suggesting to me that  they are probably using second (or later) refill casks. Classic Bushmills apple cider. Vanilla and cinnamon. Malty, with some lighter grassy notes (no grain, of course). No burn either, consistent with the low ABV. No real off notes. Certainly off to a decent enough start.

Palate: More on the apple and pear notes now, with somewhat lighter sherry fruits (i.e., more golden raisins as opposed to figs or prunes). A bit of spice (baking spices), which is nice, and that rich brown sugar note persists.  Complex for a Bushmills, but it still seems a bit simple overall – and with the typical watery mouthfeel of this brand. This really should have been bottled at a minimum 46% ABV to give it some character.  Still, it is pleasant enough to sip on, and has more depth than Black Bush.

Finish: Short. Longer than other Bushmills (notice the repeating refrain?), but still not very long by the standards of other all-sherry cask-aged whiskies. A simple persistent sweetness lasts the longest.

All in the all, this is probably the first truly decent Bushmills that I’ve had.  It would make a good introduction for someone interested in experiencing sherry finishing, without jumping right into a sherry-bomb. But I really think the casks used here have seen too many previous refills – they just seem a bit tired. And I can’t fathom why they bottled this at such a low 40% ABV.

Overall, the flavours kind of remind me of the entry-level Dalmores. That analogy is pretty apt in another sense as well – like most Dalmores, I find this expression is over-priced for what it is.

The only reviews for Sherry Cask Reserve I’ve seen among my Meta-Critic reviewers are Jonny of Whisky Advocate (who gives it medium-low score), and Jim Murray (who gives it a veryy low score).  Personally, I’d rate it higher, closer to the overall average for an Irish whisky in the database (~8.4-8.5).  To put that in perspective, here’s how the Meta-Critic scores play out across Irish whiskies, and the Dalmores already mentioned:

Bushmills 10yo Single Malt: 8.18 ± 0.29 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Bushmills 16yo Single Malt: 8.49 ± 0.48 on 17 reviews ($$$$)
Bushmills Black Bush: 8.37 ± 0.39 on 22 reviews ($$)
Bushmills Original Blended: 7.67 ± 0.46 on 17 reviews ($$)
Bushmills Sherry Cask Reserve: 8.16 ± 0.43 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Dalmore 12yo: 8.42 ± 0.27 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore Valour: 8.06 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Green Spot: 8.48 ± 0.36 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Green Spot Chateau Leoville Barton: 8.80 ± 0.38 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Knappogue Castle 14yo Twin Wood: 8.30 ± 0.31 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 12yo: 8.73 ± 0.41 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Redbreast Lustau Edition: 8.72 ± 0.30 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast Mano a Lámh: 8.65 ± 0.37 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Teeling Single Grain (Wine Cask Finish): 8.51 ± 0.31 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Writers Tears Red Head Single Malt: 8.4 ± 0.41 on 3 reviews ($$$)

There are too few scores right now to give this a meaningful interpretation. At the end of the day, I would expect this to do at least as well as Black Bush (i.e., I found it noticeably better, side-by-side). And again, I think the scores for the entry-level Dalmores are probably a pretty good indicator as to what to expect for this expression in the end.

I wouldn’t recommend purchasing a bottle at the current travel retail price, but if someone gifted it to me, I’d happy to sip on it periodically.  Best suited for when you want a little flavour, but nothing too complex or challenging. Black Bush is much better value for money, though.

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