Of the eight distilleries operating in Islay, Bowmore was the first to produce single malt whisky in 1779. Situated on the island named the Queen of the Hebrides, it remains one of a decreasing number of distilleries still to produce its own floor malted barley which is laboriously hand turned using traditional tools today. Spending on average 40% more on wood casks than average distilleries, the focus is firmly directed into producing single malts rather than blends, and achieving only a lightly peated malt, contrasting with many other Islay producers; as such Bowmore has long been recognised for its distinguishing balance. Alisdair Dickinson of Morrison Bowmore distilleries (also responsible for Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch) took us through some key expressions in the range.
Bowmore 12 Year Old
Composed from two proportions of single malt aged respectively in North American Bourbon oak and Sherry oak casks, the two spirits blended together resulted in two combined distinct flavour profiles. The former casks lent familiar vanilla notes along with tropical coconut and banana, the latter a distinct nutty dryness. Only very mildly peated, that the two cask profiles could be so easily distinguished showed the precision and balance that Bowmore is famous for.
Most whisky enthusiasts will be familiar with the method for tasting; nosing the dram carefully, often in short, staggered sniffs, before taking an amount onto the tongue and breathing air into it. Alisdair suggested a technique certainly new to me which improved the nose hugely; whisky being spirit, a proportion of the nose is composed of ethanol which masks some of the pure fruit flavours. We were encouraged to place our tongues behind our teeth while nosing which opens the mouth only slightly; this reduced some of the burn of the ethanol, allowing us to smell the fruit aromas more clearly. Certainly something worth trying again!
The intense, burnished bronze colour of this dram, known as Bowmore’s ‘darkest’ betrayed its twelve years spent in Bourbon casks, then further time in Oloroso sherry casks. This extended time in cask made for an astonishingly smooth whisky with hardly any ethanol burn. A combination of the Bourbon and Oloroso finishes lent rich sweet flavours of toffee, cocoa, figs, cinnamon and much more; rolling notes that suited the accompanying pieces of dark chocolate perfectly.
Again Alisdair offered a new inventive technique for removing the ethanol nose; he suggested covering the glass with one’s hand before swilling the dram around. The oily proteins of the whisky were evident in purer form upon the palms.
Alisdair suggested we compare the 18yo immediately after the 15. Where the 15 started with a smoky punch on the entry, followed by the softer rich flavours and a sweet touch at the finish, the 18 opened – inversely – with upfront tropical fruit of pineapple chunks, syrup and cedarwood. As opposed to the 15 year old’s richness, here was a cleaner, precise dram revealing countless layers only gradually unfolding one after the other, with the smoke reserved to the back of the palate. Again the prevailing smoothness and brilliant balance were evident.
Tempest 10 Year Old, Batch 4, 55.1% ABV
Two limited small batch releases; comparing them directly here demonstrated how despite similar maturation conditions, individual casks have potential to develop their own unique life and character.
Batch 3 was a truly fiery affair living up to its tempestuous name, showing distinct notes of sea salt, citrus peel and tang, with plenty of pepper and spice spotted by most tasters. Batch 4, being the same age and with only slight difference in ABV, also aged in first fill Bourbon casks, was altogether mellower, sweeter and more restrained. Nuttier, milkier notes of pistachios, crème caramel and even pine nuts ensured a gentler dram.