Look, guys: sometimes I'm not always right, and sometimes I drag my friends into it. The Red Bush is a case in point.
A while back I reviewed the equally unfortunately-named Black Bush. I found it to be a blended Irish whiskey of surprisingly high quality for the price, and I'd cheerfully drink it at any time. A few months later, I brought the Black Bush to a rooftop party and it similarly impressed a few drinking friends of mine. I told them, "Hey, if you like the Black Bush, apparently there's this thing called the Red Bush that's basically the same product, but finished in Bourbon barrels instead of sherry." Both them and I went out to buy Red Bush on the basis of that understanding.
So, was my description truthful? Well, yes and no.
On the "yes" side of things, the Red Bush is indeed Bushmills finished in bourbon barrels. Unlike the rounded fruit of the Black, there's more vanilla and nutmeg that develop in the tasting experience. These qualities marry well with the house style of Bushmills, which aims to deliver a creamy, honey-forward whiskey that doesn't ruffle any feathers.
Everything else, though? It's a significant step down. The Red is aged for about 4 years, from what I can dig up online, whereas the Black is aged for at least twice as long. The Red has a malt/grain split of 30/70, whereas the Black more than inverts that ratio to 80% malt and 20% grain, according to Josh Peters. Similarly telling: the Black has a cork, and the Red has a screw top. And look, I'm not going to be one of those high-fallutin' types that lets a screw top spoil his enjoyment of any beverage, but side-by-side it's another clear indicator of the Red as "lesser than."
Taste-wise, there's a bitterness in the Red that doesn't exist in the black. While the vanilla and nutmeg are nice components, there's an aspartame-heavy artificial sweetness that creeps into the development that tends to be a defining feature of young, column-stilled grain spirit. On the finish, you're left with a hint of honey butter and banana bread, but again that chemical sweetness lingers.
What I'm getting at is that with Bushmills turning in such a respectable performance with the Black, I thought the Red would be equivalent, and it definitely wasn't. Putting all the pieces together, I think they're using the RED / BLACK differentiation in a way that piggybacks off of Johnnie Walker, in that the Black is suitable for drinking on its own, and the Red is mostly shit you'd use to mix with.
Also descriptive: the Red Bush is an exclusive to the USA. As one reviewer once said—and I hate to say it, but goddamn if it isn't true—when was the last time the citizens of any foreign nation praised us Americans for our developed palate? Basically, the trend is to make everything taste like vaguely like bourbon, since the Scots and the Irish figure that (at least as a collective) we're all a bunch of rip-roarin', root'n toot'n Cowboys. Give the people what they want, right? I wager the Red is a way for Bushmills to move under-performing barrels by positioning them at a customer base that isn't sophisticated enough to taste the poor quality. Frankly, it tastes like I'm right.
In a baffling mismatch of price-to-value, I've purchased the Black Bush for about $23 and the Red Bush ran about $17. I mean, if I told you that for an extra six bucks for a fifth of blended whisky that you could both double the age and the malt content, you'd be a fool not to spend the extra amount. From the perspective of pure mathematics, I'd argue you're getting four times the whisky for only a 40% increase in price. That's like getting to wave a magic wand at something and turning it from shitty to not shitty.
The one saving grace of the Red Bush? It actually does work as a superb mixer. I substituted it into a variety of bourbon and rye-based cocktails (mainly variations of the Manhattan), and it went over like Gangbusters. Still though, I bought it to have straight, and straightaway it disappointed. Friends, you know who you are: sorry about the rec. My intentions were good.