I have always liked Bowmore, but as vast swathes of modern Scottish distillates continue to merge in vanilla driven style these days I find myself loving its distinctive taste more and more. I think there is also something to be said for the way it has changed in recent decades, arguably those changes have been greater and more striking than at almost any other distillery. We all know what I’m on about. I’m talking about that surreal charge from the most glorious kind of tropical heaven sent whisky that it was up until around the mid 70s, through the mind boggling, perfume sodden weirdness of the 1980s until finally emerging as the super fresh, pristine, coastal beauty it has become today. Whether or not you like (probably not) that bizarre 80s style of Bowmore, I know I don’t, I think the most important thing is that it is precisely this kind of idiosyncrasy that keeps this one of the most fascinating and compelling distilleries in Scotland today. Certainly the current style of distillate it produces is, for me, one of the best in Scotland, it is clean, fresh, zingy, precise, expressive and provides a wonderful balance of coastal, peat and farmyard characteristics, at its best it can even show glimmers of its old 60s glory. I like to think of its 90s renaissance as something akin to what happened at Springbank, you might even call it the Springbank of Islay. But then again you probably shouldn’t because it’s Bowmore and Bowmore is very much its own distillery, something to be admired in these times of homogenization where distillery character seems to be a dying light in too many glasses.
I got six samples of Bowmore in the post recently that range from the late 80s to the late 90s so we’ll have a wee two parter tasting session in honor of that fact. For the sake of fun I’ve arranged them in chronological order rather than in the usual rising degrees of alcohol structure. First up is a 1987.
There has been a puncheon full of ink devoted to the subject of why Bowmore from the 1980s tastes the way it does. Accusations of the whisky smelling like Nocturnal Gallic Businesswomen are not unfounded in my view, although my experience with such matters is mercifully thin. In fact if I ever met a French prostitute I’d probably nervously tell her she smelled like Bowmore. Many theories have been posited as to why this style arose, they range from dodgy yeast strains, new condensers that scolded the spirit, badly run stills, poor wood management, added soap during the distillation and any other number of tinkering changes in the production process. I’m not going to go into too much depth because Dave Broom has already written an excellent and pretty definitive report on this subject for Malt Maniacs. What I find most fascinating however is the fact that Bowmore (or rather it’s parent company Suntory) have been unable to admit that there is actually a problem or that these characteristics even existed at all. They went so far as to threaten libel action against early writers who dared to suggest such things. Well I’m not arfaid to say their 80s output was flawed and tastes like a wrestlers armpit that’s been stuffed to the gunnels with lavender and bath soaps. What are they going to do? Come and get me?
Anyway, the fact that the style began to arise around 1979 and disappears around 1989 is very telling indeed. It was clearly a problem that was hidden within the precursors in the spirit. Precursors being the various chemical compounds, congeners and reactionary elements in the new make that are initially dormant but with time in cask become more and more apparent. Precursors are the essence of distillery character, they are the wax in Clynelish, the citrus in Bladnoch and the apples in Glenfiddich. Likewise they were the perfume in Bowmore. Clearly after 10 years of maturation someone in the labs said ‘hang on a second..’ and necessary adjustments were made to alter these elements in the spirit. These changes can be clearly tasted if you try a run of Bowmores from the late 80s through to the early 90s. Interestingly these notes have been found in various examples of Glen Garioch (and Auchentoshan some have claimed) from the same era but have long since disappeared from these distillates as well. I think what we should take away from this is the fact that Bowmore changed for the better and regardless of the fact it had a dodgy decade, it is now very much ‘on form’. In fact, many of the bottlings now emerging from the early nineties with good age behind them are starting to reach the status of minor masterpieces. Lets hope there’s much much more to come…
Bowmore 1987/2010. 22yo. Douglas Laing ‘Old & Rare’. Sherry Finish. 244 Bottles. 56.1%. 70cl.
Nose: Lavender, smoke and caramel at first, it’s not too intense but it is definitely of that 80s era. Very fragrant, floral and soft with odd notes of cheese sticks and cookie dough. These profiles are so weird that they can’t seem to help but be compelling, very masochistic whisky if you ask me. Now some nice notes of juniper and some faint touches of burned acrylic. Lets add some water: with water it becomes much smokier and a little more natural, those intense notes of lavender have died down and it is actually quite pleasant, leafy and fresh. Not bad.
Palate: Neat it is hot and intense with some massive notes of lavender soap, violets and perfume with chocolate, prunes, some fairly clean and pleasant sherry and dates. The soap is not too big but when combined with those lavender, violet and perfume notes it is just too much, like when you walk into a cloud of deodorant spray at the gym or something. More slight cheesiness, chalk, some drying oakiness, beeswax and rotten orange peel. With water: soap city, not good. Actually becoming unpleasant now.
Finish: Hot, prickly, floral and perfumy. A perfume burp?
Comments: I would say this is a good example of this extremely individual and bizarre make. 1980’s Bowmore is clearly not a spirit to everyone’s taste, but I think it should be tasted by everyone, if only for the experience. The difference between this and the make from the preceding and following decades is truly remarkable.
Bowmore Somerled 1990-2008. 18yo. 46%. 70cl.
Nose: It’s all cream and brine in big lolloping quantities at first, delicate notes of fresh vanilla sit comfortably with drier aspects like flints, salt, cotton wool, minerals, greek yoghurt, There is something of an ‘80s’ quality in here but it is so faint and minor you could be forgiven for thinking you imagined it. The whole is just a delicious and distinctive smelling 1990s Bowmore. Super-fresh, uber-pristine, very coastal and wonderfully expressive. The nose goes on with coal, tar, hints of marmite, hessian, earthy peat, farmyard, engine oil and some tinned peaches. Some intensely fresh notes of mineral, lemon, wet pebble and seashore at the back.
Palate: Slightly stinky at first with vegetal, earthy and farmy aspects but freshens out as you go moving into more coastal and citrusy areas. Almost a glycerol peat, it’s not huge, not as big as the peat tended to get in Bowmore after 93/94 but it is distinctively velvety and oily in the way it manifests here. I think the palate is not as complex as the nose although the flavours are very distinct and well formed, not to mention well balanced. The best thing though is that there is no shortage of distillery character here and it’s a great example of the natural beauty of this great distillery.
Finish: Long, lemony, salty, briny and all kinds of coastal, with a mouthwatering dry edge to it.
Comments: Just another top notch and very classy 1990’s Bowmore. One of the most distinctive makes around these days I think.
Bowmore 1990/2010 20yo. Dewar Rattray. Cask 272. 204 bottles. Fresh Bourbon. 50.2%. 70cl.
Nose: Pin sharp saline coastal notes at first on top of fresh butter, cocoanut and parsley. It’s almost a bit Laphroaigesque but for a tiny hint of (surprise) lavender, but the cask does the loudest talking with notes of pine sawdust and vanilla. A very creamy, quite modern and well composed Bowmore this one, I think the work is ‘textbook’. With a little time it develops some nice notes of fresh lime juice, salt and germoline. With water: Wow, it got much much fruitier, tinned pineapple, a little passion fruit, some banana, it’s very suggestive of old style pre 1976 Bowmore. Some more drying coastal notes like wet pebbles, seashore, seaweed and fresh oysters. Now it starts to become more herbal and medicinal with notes of yellow Chartreuse, Kummel, dried herbs and brine. Wonderful, complex whisky so far.
Palate: At full strength it is very consistent with the nose but there is also a marvelous chewy aged peat character and a whole load of grass, apricots, garden fruits, floral notes, cereals, plums, green tea and preserved lemons. An absolutely fantastic and flavour filled delivery, with a hint of 80s Bowmore floral character but it appears very restrained and balanced with all those other aspects. Juniper, juicy fruits, salt, green peat oils, jasmine tea, coriander, a real Gin like botanical character to this one. I almost hesitate to add water after that but … With water it doesn’t change too much but seems to stretch all those flavours out and soften them all, it feels like a more lazy version of the same whisky. More notes of green tea, homemade lemonade, green pepper, some gentle floral notes, orange blossom, more salt, still very good but maybe a bit better without water on the palate.
Finish: Long, saline, classy and very elegant. It seems to go full circle on itself and become a bit more ‘modern’ again with the cask giving up more notes of vanilla and cream.
Comments: This is a very entertaining and drinkable whisky, it seems to be ever changing and delivers a multifaceted showcase of all the various historical styles of Bowmore from the past forty years or so. It really is a lot of fun. It’s also one of those curious whiskies that you’ll need to pour two glasses of, one to nose and one to drink, the nose is better diluted but the palate is better neat. Anyway, it’s another great 1990 Bowmore, well done to Dewar Rattray for bottling this one.
Next time we’ll delve deeper into the latter nineties…