Whisky and Words Number 20: Bowmore 12

Bowmore's legacy
Bowmore’s legacy

Up next in our Island series is Bowmore 12. Bowmore certainly talks up its heritage on its packaging — founded in 1779, almost a century before the majority of distilleries on the island. Located on Loch Indaal (in the bight that nearly bisects Islay), the distillery is unique in that it has been in near-constant production since inception.

The Bowmore folks are proud of several key points: the balance of their whisky, the peatiness and smoke, and the use of their own malting floor. Note, however, like other distilleries (the Balvenie for example), modern production volumes outstrip the capacity of the island to produce barley or the old malting floors malt. At 2M liters produced yearly, Bowmore imports some of its malt. Still, the retention of their own floor malting shows a commitment to maintaining the old traditions and skills.

As for the flavors, Bowmore is, to this malt maniac, a fairly subtle introduction to both peat (in the guise of earthy flavors from the water) and smoke. I can’t argue with the packaging — the front side of the box says “Puffs of peat smoke and pools of honey, sharpened by lemon zest.” And I agree it is balanced. But on the whole, the Islay character of this ‘first malt’ is subtly played. Bowmore is no peat monster, and in fact, when I tried a bottle a year ago, I was disappointed. I was in the throes of peat-craziness at the time and Bowmore came across as a bit muted. This year, having tried a number of Highland and Speyside malts in the interim, I can appreciate the more light-handed approach to peated malt. So, if you are a fan of big, brawny smoke-filled drams like Laphroaig, you might give Bowmore a pass. But for the drinker of Highland and Speyside whiskies who is just starting to investigate the Island expressions, Bowmore 12 would be a good start. In fact, if you know someone who is interested in Islay whiskies, and they like Johnnie Walker Black, this is a reasonable step up from JWB in complexity and smoke.

Tasting Notes

Bowmore 12-year old Islay single malt, 40% ABV

Bowmore 12 "the most perfectly balanced" in the world. Well, is it just marketing?
Bowmore 12 “the most perfectly balanced” in the world. Well, is it just marketing?

Nose: Very light smoke, subtle earthy peat, citrus, prunes, dry cocoa.
Palate: Earthy peat, honeysuckle, a touch of smoke. Decent complexity, but not much depth. An easy drinker.
Finish: Fairly quick sweetness (sucrose) balanced with a touch of tannic bitterness, light smoke that lingers nicely and fades into just a touch of ash.
Bottom Line: This is not a phenol-boosted monster. The smoke in Bowmore is delicate and not accompanied by oil, iodine or diesel, as are some of the more powerful Islay malts, and thus the finish doesn’t linger quite as long. A lot of folks will think that is a good thing. It’s better suited for a summer evening on the porch than a cold blow huddling indoors. At $52 a bottle in my area, it’s competing with Caol Ila 12, Ardbeg 10 and Highland Park 12. Those expressions have more depth and more character, and I think they reward a more adventurous palate. But for a relaxing dram while chatting with friends or watching the game, the promise of “the most perfectly balanced” single malt is certainly delivered.

Whisky and Words: Island Malts

The blog has covered a number of blends, and also eleven unpeated, mostly sherry-finished single-malts (see sidebar for the list and links). They all share similar influences in their flavoring.

It’s the water, and a lot more

Jameson still, Cork (Photo: Stephan Schulz)

Some of those malts, Bunnahabhain* and Glenfarclas, for example, are notable for the taste of what the French would call terroir. Peat bogs, soil and rocks through which their water sources run flavor that water. In addition to the water, the spirit’s flavor is heavily influenced by the ingredients (mostly barley malt) and how they are treated at each step. In the preparation of what will become new make spirit, there is much attention to manipulating temperatures at each stage. The temperature of the wort is chosen to enhance the activities of enzymes converting sugars and later, to encourage fermentation. Variation in stages and their temperatures can affect flavor. One also reads of claims that the shape and composition of tuns, stills and washbacks will influence the flavor of the new-make spirit. Once distilled, the spirit meets the cask, where interaction with the oak (and its preparation, be it lightly toasted or charred) will have the second largest effect on flavor.

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