The Sexton Single Malt Irish whiskey, which is produced at Bushmills in County Antrim, is now highly rated in the US, long the most important market for golden spirits.
Sales of the unique whiskey, the creation of master blender Alex Thomson, are set to grow even faster in this market in the year ahead.
The whiskey continues the rich and successful heritage of distilling in Northern Ireland and particularly in Bushmills village and the Bush river, which have been associated with distilling since the 17th century. The first commercial Bushmills whiskey was launched in 1784.
Made from 100 per cent Irish malted barley, The Sexton is then triple distilled in copper pot stills, a long-standing feature of Irish whiskey and unlike Scotch, which is double distilled. The triple distilling provides a richer flavour and much smoother taste.
The Sexton liquid is then aged in Spanish Oloroso sherry casks, imparting a rich and fruity character. It was named among the best Irish whiskeys in the US last year.
The casks are carefully selected by Alex Thomson for maturing the spirit and the creation of a distinctive flavour. The whiskey comes in a very eye-catching hexagonal bottle, too, reflecting its production close to the iconic Giant’s Causeway.
The whiskey is owned and distributed worldwide by New York’s Proximo Spirits, a division of Cuervo of Mexico, the market leader in tequila, which is also the parent company of Bushmills.
Irish whiskey is now one of the fastest-growing spirits categories in the US, according to drinks market analyst IWSR. Over the past five years, volume sales of Irish whiskey increased at a 13.4 per cent compound annual growth rate. IWSR forecasts the category will continue to grow in the coming years.
Nearly 4.9 million nine-litre cases of Irish whiskey were sold in the US in 2019, generating $1.1 billion in revenues for distillers, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.
In the past 10 years, the number of distilleries operating on the island of Ireland increased eight-fold.
These distilleries are embracing historical styles and leaning towards uniquely Irish distilling techniques.
In 2010, there were only four distilleries in Ireland, including Old Bushmills, producing and selling Irish single malt and blended whiskeys. By December 2019, the number of operational distilleries had increased to 32, according to the Irish Whiskey Association.
These include The Sexton, Echlinville, producer of the historic Dunville’s in Kircubbin, and Rademon, which had announced plans to produce a single malt. There are now around 15 either operating or planned in Northern Ireland.
Among the most notable of these are Hinch in Ballynahinch, Killowen in Rostrevor, Mourne Dew in Warrenpoint and Matt D’Arcy in Newry. This remarkable renaissance has been the defining story of Irish whiskey over the past decade.
Master blender Alex Thomas, who was born near Ballymoney, has already seen the Sexton become among the most successful whiskey launches in the US.
She learned her craft at Old Bushmills Distillery under the expert mentoring of master distiller Colum Egan and Helen Mulholland, the master blender, and is deeply appreciative of the knowledge and experience they imparted.
“I learned a huge amount about the craft of whiskey distilling, its history and traditions from Colum and Helen during my time with Old Bushmills,” Alex says. “It’s a tremendous and stimulating place to work. I love working there and get a real buzz every time I enter the complex,” she adds.
Alex honed her distilling skills at Bushmills over 16 years and qualified as a master blender in 2012 before being chosen by Proximo Spirits to create a new Irish single malt aimed initially at the strategically important US marketplace.
“It was a great honour to be tasked by Proximo to create a different single malt,” Alex continues.
“My objective was to develop a whiskey that everyone could enjoy and that paid homage to those who came before us.
“In addition, my aim was to produce a whiskey that would represent the changing face of Ireland – capturing the heritage and provenance of the past and the optimism and creativity of the future,” she explains.
Reviews from respected whiskey reviewers indicate that Alex has achieved her objectives, especially in terms of taste.
Tradition also underpins the brand. “The name Sexton means custodian of sacred objects, or more simply put, the caretaker of precious things,” she explains. “What better name for the whiskey?”
The Sexton, distilled in copper pot stills to a recipe created by Alex, was launched in 2017 and is now being rolled out globally. It’s a measure of the extent of her meticulous control and outstanding professionalism that she even sourced the barley from Irish growers.
She also knew the whiskey had to stand out in a fiercely competitive market. “When I started in the industry there were only three Irish whiskey distilleries. Now there are over a dozen.
“I knew that the whiskey had to be exceptional and that the branding needed to be bold and to make a statement,” she adds.
She’s clearly succeeded in both objectives.