Sitting around a warm and welcoming dinner table, the conversation shifts into a classic question: which came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case, however, the question regards Bushmills village and Bushmills Distillery. Whichever answer rings true, one thing is certain, Bushmills has been an institution of Northern Ireland’s incredible coastline for more than 400 years.
Whether you are a whiskey enthusiast or want to experience the origins of European distilling, this is the pilgrimage to make. Explore the north Irish coastline over a weekend to drink in the breathtaking natural landscape, learn about the days of smugglers to Scotland and, of course, tour and taste at the distillery itself.
Fly in from London or take a two-hour bus ride from Dublin to reach Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. From Belfast, wind along the Causeway Coastal Route toward Ballintoy Harbor near Bushmills-the little village set alongside the distillery. This winding route along backroads is incredibly scenic but requires a bit more time. Stop for photos of the green, lush pastures, the striking chalk coastline and a local pub for lunch along the way.
Once you reach Ballintoy, Game of Thrones fans will want to read the plaque before moving on to one of the area’s best attractions: Giant’s Causeway. Formed as the result of an ancient volcanic fissure explosion, the area consists of roughly 40,000 interlocking, hexagonal basalt rock columns. The Bush River, which has been the water source for Bushmills Distillery since 1608, also runs through this volcanic rock. Go just before sunset to watch the dramatic landscape change with the light for spectacular views.
Check into the Bushmills Inn located in the middle of the little village, and make your way to the bar for a pre-dinner cocktail. Order a 16-year Bushmills neat and try to find the secret library, though the bar itself is pretty cozy. Afterward, take dinner at the hotel for a rich and delicious meal followed by a truly local experience at the Bush House.
Wake up after a restful night at this homey northern hotel and head to Dunluce Castle. The medieval ruins sit atop a basalt outcropping and were once the seat of the MacDonnell clan. Though the chapel fell off into the sea, the castle is largely still intact and offers a beautiful view of the chalk coast. From the mermaid’s cave to ghost stories, this is a place you’ll want to visit with a guide, such as Mark Rodgers, to fully appreciate the history and culture of the site.
Photo by Wikimedia user Ardfern
Head to the Bushmills Distillery, just at the other end of the village for a tour and tasting. Granted a license to distill in 1608, Bushmills is the oldest whiskey distillery in the world. The distillery faced challenges ranging from taxes on its ingredients to prohibition in its markets, but they never changed directions or ended production. Plan to go before 1 p.m., which is the last available tour time. Enjoy a drink and a snack at the café next to the gift shop, and be sure to pick up one of the distillery exclusive bottles to take home.
After eating and re-hydrating, or with a pre-arranged bus transfer, head back toward Belfast for the night. Stop at the Dark Hedges, which have been featured in movies and television shows such as Game of Thrones, for a stroll among the dramatic, famed beech tree pedestrian avenue. Back in Belfast, enjoy dinner at The Crown, a historic 1820s Gin Palace with an incredible design both inside and out. Climb the stairs to dine, and order the smoked applewood mac and cheese or the fish and chips. Revisit the main bar downstairs for a beautiful and fun time before heading to The Merchant for the night.
Wake up and take a brisk walk to St. George’s Market, a covered market built in 1890. Today, there’s a wonderfully fresh restaurant above the market, Stock Kitchen and Bar, but continue inside to the main market’s tables. Local vendors sell freshly made pastries and coffees that are worth the indulgence. Pick up some aged Irish cheddar cheeses to take home while you’re here too.
Molly Harris is a freelance journalist. You can often find her on the highway somewhere between Florida and North Carolina or taking life slow in Europe.