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Bowmore (pronounced: boh-MOR) is undoubtedly one of the most famous, collectable, drinkable and fascinating distilleries operating in the world today. It is exactly the sort of distillery that delights collectors and drinkers alike because its whisky has been bottled both officially and independently for several decades now and it has gone through several distinct eras of production during this time.
Current capacity: 2 million litres
Stills: 4. 2 wash and 2 spirit.
Water Source: Laggan River
Peating levels: Varied through the years but currently around 35ppm
As an Islay whisky Bowmore obviously betrays its location quite distinctly, but as we will see, its differences can be vast. There have been several historical examples of Bowmore from the 19th and early 20th century appear at auction over the years but as with all these old bottlings we should always be cautious of their authenticity. Bottlings of Bowmore generally start in the fifties and sixties and range right though to the present day, it is one of a handful of distilleries from which it is possible to find literally hundreds of different expressions.
1950s-1972: The great years. Peat, oiliness, complexity, dryness and (famously) immense tropical fruit character.
For Bowmore fans this is THE era. Production at Bowmore during these years was characterized by old school methods such as coal fired stills (until conversion in 1964 to steam) use of worm condensers, fermentations that would often last in excess of a week, use of old refill casks and stunning quality sherry casks. The malting of the barley was also all carried out by hand at the distillery burning local peat by hand. This helped to create a stunningly beautiful house style that was intensely laden with tropical fruit. It is this character in particular that sets these old Bowmores apart from almost all other whiskies, there are no other distillates that display fruit character in quite the same way. The oily, phenolic peat was also crucial as it provided body to the whisky and helped balance the intensity of the fruit. Examples of Bowmore bottled during these years are available if you have the pocket for them and they are often particularly beautiful. Leaving aside bottle maturation they often display less intense fruit than the aged bottlings and more minerally, coastal dryness. There are many aged bottlings available from the sixties and and some from the fifties, both official and independent and they are more often than not stunning (although as with all distilleries there are some notable bad exceptions). Famous examples are the official Black Bowmores and Bicentenary bottlings from the 1964 vintage. Also the 1955 40yo and many other 68s and 64s can be utterly stunning. There are also very famous Italian bottlings done in the 80s from 1965 and other years, and famously the Samaroli Bouquet series. If you enjoy intensely fruity expressive whisky then this era at Bowmore will knock you out.
1973-1976: A gentle change. Still very fruity but less oily with a softening of the peat character.
During these years the whisky produced at Bowmore was still of a high standard but was characterized by a noticeable taming of its previous qualities. As with all distilleries modernization played a part but, crucially at Bowmore, it was the dramatic increase in production levels that would contribute to what some might argue was a compromise between quality and quantity. Curiously there are remarkably fewer bottlings from this era than any other for some reason, although this may change as older stock is depleted and stock from these years ages further.
1977-1991: FWP (French Whores Perfume). Complete change, lavender, violets, less peat, more medicine, perfumed and fragrant.
These years represent a complete change at Bowmore and the subsequent product is one of the best examples of love it or loathe it whisky. During the late seventies as modernization took hold there were shorter more intense fermentations, coupled with new, quicker distillation regimes that brought a new lightness to the Bowmore style. There were also new energy saving condensers installed on the stills which had a tendency to scald the spirit vapors by being too hot. Many people loathe this style of Bowmore, it is often characterized by intensely floral, lavender and perfume notes with the peat often taking a background role. There are exceptions to this but they are not the norm, you really need to enjoy this particular style of whisky to enjoy Bowmore from these years. There are many examples from this time available and more bottlings will continue to arise from these years for quite some time so age may tame these flavours but so far it hasnt yet.
1992-present: Rebirth. Dryer, very coastal, much heavier peat, aromatic, some fruit and very fresh.
During the early nineties they experimented with peating levels and also ways of burning peat in the kilns at the distillery, they continue to produce up to 40% of their own malt. This led to an increase in peating levels and to a process of crumbling the peat bricks before burning them, this greatly enhances the phenol levels released during drying. These changes have seemingly eradicated many of the qualities that defined 80s style Bowmore. The spirit is subsequently much heavier and back to a very traditional Islay style. It is also very aromatic and coastal with a real Atlantic freshness about it. Examples from refill wood display a minerality driven dryness that is very in keeping with a much older style of Bowmore. There are many bottlings of younger Bowmore from this era available today at excellent prices and they are almost always excellent quality too, the whisky is very consistent. Hopefully this quality will be maintained for the foreseeable future.