Not far from where I live there is a big, old house. Built in the late 1800s, it is a crumbling gothic pile that was once the seat of local nobles. I have no idea when the last of their line left it, or how, but from the time my family moved to the area in the 1970s, the house was known to be cursed. Locals in what was then a hyper-Catholic rural area said that a previous owner hanged himself from one of the trees that lined the avenue into the property, and that was what damned it.
I was scared of it when I was a child – it sits on a steep hill and I used to sprint up the road to get away from the entrance as fast as I could. In the bad winter of 2010, my father’s car went into a tailspin on the hill outside the house and his car smashed into a bridge. A few feet more it would have ended up in the Dungourney river and he would most likely have died. He said once, half joking, that the house was to blame.
I was only in the property once, when my mother went to visit the woman of the house, who at the time was dying of cancer. I remember an old, dusty bedroom with thick air, a gaunt woman sat up in bed, and a little girl playing a piano in the corner of the room. The girl and I were sent off to play. She brought me down to show me the decrepit fountain outside – dozens of froglets had spawned, but the water level was too low for them to get out, and they just moved about in a swarm in the shallow, stale water, trying to escape.
The mother died shortly after. The family then moved to a renovated barn next door. Not long after that, the father died. The kids, two boys and a girl, moved away to be raised by relatives. The girl burned to death in a freak accident in her 20s. I heard one of the sons drowned but never had it confirmed. The other brother, I don’t know where he is.
The house sat idle for years, silent and empty, waiting. Eventually it sold, and with great fanfare it was renovated by the people who bought it and is now a B&B. Sometimes I get tourists calling to my home looking for it and I often feel like the hillbilly gas station attendant in a horror film, and wonder if I should warn them about what they are heading into. It’s cursed, I would whisper, and they would ignore me and some horror would befall them.
Of course, the real reason I want to tell them is because I like telling the story of the cursed house. I told my kids, with all the grand flourishes above, and they also now think the place is haunted. Everyone likes a scary story. They bring the promise that there is something else; that death is not the end, that we persist, rather than burn out, and be forgotten. And besides, I am always here for something a little darker. I’d go full goth in my attire if it wasn’t such a stupid look for a guy pushing 50. Nobody wants to dress like Danzig when they’re doing the big shop in Lidl.
To cater for the needs of emo seniors like me, Bushmills released The Sexton. It is a very slick, very stylish bottle; hexagonal to represent the columns of the Giant’s Causeway, all bedecked with images of skulls and ye olde fonts in gold and black. As affordable NAS single malts go, this is a remarkably beautiful bottle. I’m not sure about the website’s tagline of ‘You have a single life, drink a single malt’, but it’s not my place to tell them their copywriter needs to spend a little less time in the sun.
The Sexton has two brand narratives; for the casual fan, there is the overall steampunk, Victoriana, eldritch aesthetic. Brand ambassadors can waffle on about how sextons were the people who tended to the graveyards in the days of yore, spin some yarn like I did above.
If they are speaking to drinks nerds, they can change lanes and give them the unromantic, unadorned facts of The Sexton – a youngish four-year-old single malt from Bushmills aged exclusively in Oloroso sherry casks from the Antonio Paez Lobato family in Jerez, it retails for a reasonable 35-40 euro. It fills a gap – it’s not Black Bush, nor is it the ten (which you can pick up for a similar price) but it is a stepping stone for those who perhaps are drawn to its visual appeal.
Bushmills obviously put a lot of weight behind this brand as they appointed Alex Thomas as master blender to the brand (Helen Mulholland is the master blender of Bushmills). Thomas previously worked in a lumber merchants for ten years before taking a role as distilling coordinator at Bushmills, followed by five years as maturation manager before her current role. I don’t understand the strategy of giving one brand within a distillery’s family its own blender but perhaps there are plans to expand the range. It’s an enjoyable whiskey that comes with a lot of recommendations about cocktails; it is accessible and very affordable, and rapidly became the top selling Irish single malt in America after its launch in 2017. After sponsoring a nighttime photography competition and releasing a podcast of grim retellings of bedtime stories, The Sexton also recently doubled down on its commitment to all things dark by becoming the official drink of The Walking Dead.
There is a buzz about Bushmills in the last couple of years that is hard to ignore – massive expansions, a huge grain plant, super premium and super mature releases as well as The Sexton or the expansion of their broad array of blends. Their parent firm also bought out the rest of their contract with a Famous Irish Sportsperson, thus placing themselves a little bit further out from his blast radius. All this shows that in Becle, Bushmills appears to have found an owner that is willing to invest in it as others failed to do, and that the giant of Antrim is finally stirring. All it took was the right owner – after all, there is no such thing as curses.