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A Special Bowmore Experience
Bowmore is a funny brand in many ways. It’s popular at the premium end of things where owners Beam Suntory are gleefully running partnerships with Aston Martin in a bizarre attempt to persuade us that strong alcohol and flash cars are natural bedfellows. Among drinkers, however, it doesn’t seem to enjoy the best of reputations. An abundance of low-strength bottlings and an over-reliance on artificial colouring isn’t the best way to win over the purist whisky nerd, it turns out.
I can understand that point of view but for my part, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for Bowmore. It was the first Islay distillery I ever visited – appropriate, since it’s also the oldest – and the village in which it resides is my favourite place on the island. Not only is the village ideally placed in a central location, it also has a lovely selection of dining and dramming options as well as stunning views over Loch Indaal. In addition, Bowmore is one of the few Scottish distilleries to retain its malt floor and kiln. If you time your visit just right, you can smell the distinctive aroma of peat smoke drifting across the harbour.
Personally I think the distillery’s core range is better than many people make out although it would certainly be nice to see it presented with a more natural colour. Bowmore is certainly capable of producing better. Of that, there can be no doubt. Some of the hand-filled distillery exclusive bottlings I’ve tasted over the years have been exceptional and I was a fan of the old Tempest expressions which have sadly been discontinued. To put it another way: when Bowmore is good, it is very, very good.
My wife and I recently found ourselves in Bowmore during Fèis week. We were on the island to help out with the Islay Whisky Academy Open Day but had some free time the following day. We decided to spend our time relaxing in Bowmore, having a nice cuppa, a wander round the shops, some nice lunch and of course, a few drams at the distillery. We noticed some of the 15-year-old Fèis bottlings were still available and, after tasting it, we decided to buy one.
Matured in first-fill bourbon casks, this whisky shows a different side to Bowmore. A little more akin to those Tempest bottlings I used to enjoy. By the time we had paid up and wandered outside, the full heat of an Islay summer was beaming down on us. Naturally we wandered down to the small stretch of beach that lies behind the distillery and it wasn’t long before we both had our shoes off, walking ankle deep in the glittering waters of Loch Indaal.
As we stood there basking in the glory of it all, we remarked to one another that the only thing missing was a nice wee dram. Then it dawned on us. We had a dram. We had a bottle of Bowmore. By sheer coincidence we had also purchased a mug and water jug from the distillery shop. Before you could say “investment ruined” we had the seal broken and the cork off the bottle. There we shared a dram with water sparkling and dancing around our feet. I could have sworn the distillery at our backs was watching on, proudly admiring our work.
I’ve had some great dramming experiences in my time but that one will stay with me until I shuffle off this mortal coil. The feeling of the Sun on my face, the water lapping against my legs, the sand between my toes and the smell and taste of the whisky became interlinked; all one overwhelming sensory experience.
This is what people mean when they say whisky tastes better in the place it was made. Although, perhaps it’s not that it tastes better, it’s just that it starts to make more sense. Through experiencing the atmosphere of the place, you gain a greater understanding of the whisky’s character. You begin to fully grasp why it tastes the way it does and you appreciate its subtleties all the more for it.
Smell: Bourbony vanilla. Buttercream. Honey. Malty. Nutty. Toffee popcorn. Orange and peach. Apple juice. A squeeze of lemon. Marmalade on toast. Werther’s Originals caramels. Cookie dough ice cream. Some subtle seaside notes. Distant oily smoke.
Taste: Big arrival of sweet bourbon. Caramel. Toffee. Tinned fruit cocktail. Pineapple juice. Melon. Sea salt. Black pepper. Dry roasted peanuts and almonds. Cashews. Malt & grist as it moves into the finish with sweet smoke and a peaty tang.
Thoughts: This is an excellent whisky. Perhaps more refined than other Islay malts. Certainly less in-your-face. A wonderful balance has been struck between nutty malt, an abundance of fruit, sweet bourbon and briney smoke. No one element overshadows another.
Islay peat can be too much for some people but here it holds back, bubbling under, always there but never breaking the surface – until the finish.
I find myself wondering if Bowmore shouldn’t be doing a bit more with bourbon casks. So much of their core range puts the marketing focus on sherry but I’m beginning to think this whisky might actually be better suited to the former. Its coastal, smoky nature seems to show through with a bit more clarity when presented in this way.
Value for money: Complex, interesting and delicious. A brilliant Bowmore. That said, I don’t think anyone could argue that Fèis bottlings are a bit of a rip off. The standard 15-year-old will cost you between £50 and £60. This 15-year-old was £135. Now, I know it’s limited edition – if 3000 can really be called limited – and I know it’s bottled at Cask Strength but the truth is, it costs what it does because of the occasion, not because of the contents. Still, we all know what we’re letting ourselves in for here and I was lucky enough to be able to taste it before buying and therefore knew I would enjoy it enough to warrant paying the price. That’s all any of us can do in such an inflated market. In any case, I doubt I’ll remember how much it cost in years to come but I know I’ll remember popping the cork for the rest of my life and that alone made it worth it.
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