BUSHMILLS, BEER, BREAKFAST AND BATTERED IN BELFAST
I don’t get asked on many press trips and often miss the ones that come my way because I am on the road for my own little endeavours. However, when I got a mail from one of the people foolish enough to pay me for my musings asking if I would represent them on a trip to the Bushmills distillery in Northern Ireland, I jumped at the chance.
The Six Counties (go on, see if you can name them. It’s a bit like naming all Seven Dwarves. There’s always one that gets away) was one of my favourite stops on last year's EATING FOR BRITAIN tour of the U.K and any opportunity to head back again was one I was never going to turn down.
I have visited many distilleries in my time, but never one in Ireland. The Bushmills distillery is definitely one of the more interesting ones I have been shown around. It is set in the small town of the same name about an hour from Belfast where whiskey (always with an “e” in Ireland) has been made since the early 1600’s
Our tour was made even more interesting because our guide was Master Distiller, Colum Egan, who showed us some parts of the distillery, which are not normally open to the public and then led us through a tasting of the range. It wasn’t all to my taste, but I did come away promising to buy myself a bottle of Bushmills Black, their premium blended whiskey which was far more within my price range than my other favourite, the 21 year old matured in Oloroso barrels.
After the tour, the handful of other journalists on the tour persuaded me to join them for a few pints of Guinness at The Harbour bar in the nearby town of Portrush. In a “you couldn’t make it up” scenario, the locals decided to have a bit of a sing song on our arrival, leading to the unlikely sight of three florid faced pensioners being joined by a group of American visitors in impromptu renditions of traditional Irish folk songs and a slightly squawking version of Mr Cash's “Ring of Fire”. The Man in Black is still whizzing around in his eternal resting place as I type.
Inevitably the next morning, most of my companions were a little bit jaded and I decided to perk them up with a proper “Ulster Fry”. On my journey last year, I was lucky enough to meet Peter McKonkey of The Georgian House in Comber, just outside Belfast. His was the finest breakfast I found in the whole of the UK (go and try it and tell me that I am wrong) with superb ingredients sourced from all over Ireland. He did not let us down and by a little before midday, the group was pushing back their chairs, rubbing their bellies and declaring that they would probably never eat again.
They were lying. After our breakfast, we spent the next night enjoying ourselves in Belfast’s pubs, clubs and the bar of the cocktail bar of The Merchant Hotel (one of the very best in the world) Although I hit the hay pretty early on, some of my younger companions partied quite hard and, the next day, were in need of even more restorative stodge.
As luck would have it, around the corner from our hotel was one of Belfast’s most famous chippies, John Long. It’s an odd looking place, the windows of the building covered in protective grating and the door clad in a steel coating. It was empty when we arrived, but soon began to fill up with locals enjoying the enormous portions of cod & chips. It wasn’t the best fish & chips my friends could have tried for their first experience of the genre. The batter could have bubbled up a bit more and the chips needed to be a little less soggy. But, they were not bad, all cooked as they should be in beef dripping and, with the addition of some “bread and spread” I was also able to guide my new friends through the rudiments of fashioning the perfect chip butty.
Fortified once more, the rest of them went off to watch the rugby at a local bar, downing even more Guinness I am sure. I, well I went back to the hotel and back to bed for a few hours. You see there is another very valid reason I don’t go on too many press trips.
I am just too bloody old to keep up.