Playboy.com headed to Ireland for the Bushmills Live Music Festival.
Colum Egan is something of an Irish national treasure. It’s not easy to tell at first glance: With his humble disposition, easy smile and strong laugh, one could be forgiven for assuming he’s any ordinary Irishman. But Colum is the master distiller of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, sitting at the helm of one of Ireland’s most distinguished and storied wares for over 10 years running. In many ways, he is an ordinary Irishman, but then again, he’s also part of Irish history.
Here at the Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, he’s not the only Irish treasure to speak of. Since 1608, Bushmills has called this place home, making it the world’s oldest working distillery. The grounds are laden with stories and hold the brand’s most closely guarded secrets. One can imagine it is not opened to the public lightly.
Which made last month’s Bushmills Live Music Festival a very special event.
This June, for the first time in history, the Old Distillery was opened to the masses. Music fans were invited to a day of good tunes, good friends and good drink, and Playboy was there to get a taste of how the Irish make merry. We’re happy to report their affairs go down as smooth as their liquor.
“Thanks to Bushmills, my best friend and I got even closer, listening to awesome music in a place unlike any other,” said Cassie McLean, a Brooklyn resident who won a trip to the fest through a contest with her roommate Jessica Pribush. The two could be seen constantly beaming, obviously soaking in every second; as Cassie put it, “This experience means the world to me.”
The festival proved to be unique, with intimate acts on the bill over stadium hits. Snow Patrol closed out the fest, but they’re from Belfast and as much a part of this region’s history as Bushmills itself. It was a rare opportunity to see the headline act in a modest venue playing to a hometown crowd.
Standout performances included Irish and U.K. folk from Marcus Foster, whose raspy vocals made his acoustic strumming boom, and Foy Vance, whose soulful croon was somehow both somber and uplifting. Wooden Wisdom, the unlikely DJ duo of Elijah Wood and Zach Cowie, eschewed MP3s for their impressive taste in hard-to-find rock records. There was even a bit of punk presence, with indie band General Fiasco in tow.
At most music festivals, one can find oneself awash in a sea of sweat and instinct as folks jostle for better views and breathing room. With only 400 in attendance at Bushmills, however, the experience was quite the opposite. Much like their famous product, Bushmills Live was enjoyed with good friends in an intimate setting. On those merits, the festival excelled in spades.
Of course, any trip to the distillery wouldn’t be complete without a tour and some education. The day before the fest, contest winners were privy to an in-depth walkthrough with Colum, the chance to blend their own whiskey and a special trip to one of Ireland’s most beautiful natural attractions.
“It’s hard to put words to this whole experience; it was completely surreal,” agreed Fiachrá Duffy, an Irish contest winner. “Everything from the friends I made to meeting the bands, seeing the performances, having the tour around the Bushmills distillery and getting to blend our own—it was just fantastic.”
As one would expect, Colum was more than adept at showing off his work. From barley to barrel, step by step, we learned how Bushmills is made. A picturesque man-made lake sits on the property, providing for the distillery’s massive water needs. Its barrel storage warehouse sits above a drainage system, and in the event of a tragedy, the town below would be saved from a glorious malt bath. Insights like these brought perspective on where our liquor actually comes from and how it gets to our shelves.
Afterwards, a whiskey toast was made at Giant’s Causeway, a near-supernatural site on Ireland’s northern coast. Produced by a volcanic eruption 50 million years ago, the formation rolls into the sea with thousands of interlocking columns of rock. From a high vantage point, one can take in the breathless views for hours, surrounded on all sides by rolling hills and these odd, beautiful rocks.
“It was a mindboggling thing just to be out there on the rocks with the sun shining and the sea breeze coming in; the views—it was a surreal experience,” said Fiachrá.
Whiskey on the rocks, on the rocks—and on the most beautiful rocks in the nation, at that? This is the Irish spirit, where good company, good countryside and good drink are never in short supply.