The Bowmore distillery on Islay was built in 1779 - or at least that's the claim made by their
marketeers. This would make Bowmore one of the oldest working distilleries in Scotland.
It actually took three years before it was acquired by a company with the (now Legendary)
name of Sherriff's Bowmore Distillery Ltd. They ran the operations on Islay until 1950
when Bowmore was purchased by William Grigor & Sons Ltd. from Inverness.
However, the records from this early period of the whisky industry are often quite vague.
So when the very first Bowmore malt whisky was distilled is hard to determine accurately.
Bowmore's owners during the 19th century included one John Simpson, as well as William
and James Mutter. In the year 1922 the distillery came up for sale again.
A little over a decade later, in 1963, the Stanley P. Morrison Ltd.
company bought Bowmore. They made huge strides in modernising
the distillery, increasing the number of stills to four and even adding
a visitor centre - one of the first in Scotland. This proved that they
had a good nose for marketing, even in the 1960s when the single
malt market was still relatively small.
The marketing of Bowmore became even more sophisticated after Suntory from Japan
bought Bowmore's parent company in 1994. Apart from the Bowmore distillery, Suntory
also owns Auchentoshan in the Lowlands and Glen Garioch in the Eastern Highlands.
This 'portfolio' of 3 very different Scotch whisky distilleries gave Suntory a lot of flexibility,
but during the 1990s they didn’t use those opportunities. Quite the contrary, in fact...
Before they took complete control of the company in 1994, Suntory (which would later
morph with Jim Beam into Beam Suntory) had already acquired a 35% share in 1989.
Perhaps the growing ‘Japanese’ influence could be blamed for some changes that were
made at Bowmore and Glen Garioch at the time. The character of the spirit changed,
moving in a more ‘floral’ direction. This change was not welcomed by most clients at
the time (still mostly Europeans and Americans) who described this new trait as ‘FWP’.
FWP is short for “French Whore Perfume” - and most people didn’t use that term as a compliment...
The aroma is quite unmistakable and
many people with more refined noses
and palates find it simply revolting.
This lead to questions being asked
by concerned fans. However, those
were simpler times (or at least some
people were under that impression),
so the 1990s Bowmore management
simply denied there was any problem.
After some fans were persistent in their complaints and shared them with others, Bowmore even
threatened them with legal action if they discussed the FWP matter further on the world wide web.
Needless to say, this didn’t help - it even made matters worse and damaged Bowmore’s reputation.
However, time heals all wounds. The original 'problem' originated in the 1980's and was corrected
at some point during the 1990s. The FWP spirit sort of worked its way through the system and you
shouldn’t detect the unsavoury FWP trait any more in bottlings that were released in recent years.
That being said, the time that Bowmore was a ‘primus inter pares’ alongside the premier single
malt whisky brands from the 1990s like Macallan and Springbank may be behind us for good.
A relatively large part of the whisky that is produced at Bowmore is bottled as a single malt whisky,
either as official bottlings in their extensive range or (a small minority) as an independent bottling.
The rest is used in blended whiskies like Rob Roy and Black Bottle.
Even when you are a good distiller, it eventually becomes difficult to produce an even better whisky.
Making an even more expensive whisky is relatively easy in comparison, especially if you're the one
making the price tags as well. Bowmore has been flirting with the premium segment for a while now.
Bowmore distillery lies on the Eastern shore of the
Loch Indaal bay on the isle of Islay in the Hebrides.
From the distillery grounds, you can clearly see the
Bruichladdich distillery at the other side of the bay.
They can’t use salty sea water to make whisky, so
the distillery draws its fresh process water from the
small Laggan river nearby.
Bowmore is one of only a few Scotch malt whisky distilleries that still has its own maltings facility.
Seeing those in action might be a good excuse to visit Islay. However, the three malt floors are able to produce
only a third of all the malted barley that Bowmore needs. So, the rest is acquired (mostly) from mainland Scotland.
Another fun fact for visitors: one of Bowmore’s old warehouses was located in Bowmore’s town centre.
This became increasingly inconvenient. Another inconvenience for the population of Islay was the fact that the
sea surrounding the island isn’t really suitable for teaching children to swim. The nearest swimming pool was
60 kilometres away on the mainland. In a move that created lots of goodwill, Bowmore donated the warehouse
to the local community who turned it into the MacTaggart Leisure Centre - which also includes a 25 metre
swimming pool which is heated by excess heat from the distillery. An excellent local initiative!
2) Two companies that have owned the Bowmore distillery in recent years are familiar names;
Sheriff’s and Morrisson. The William Grigor & Sons Ltd. company from Inverness who owned
Bowmore between 1950 and 1963 didn’t manage to build such a reputation during their reign.
3) A relatively large part of the malt whisky that is produced at Bowmore is bottled as such.
The rest is used as an ingredient for blended whiskies like Rob Roy & Black Bottle.
5) The phenol contents of the malted barley for the Bowmore malt whisky averages out
at 25 PPM (approximately). However, I imagine that this wasn’t always the case; Bowmore
bottlings released in the 1960's (and earlier) have a much lighter, more 'floral' style.
4) The malted barley from Bowmore’s own floor maltings is broken before it is dried over
a very smoky fire. This might be the source of the predominantly smoky character of the
recently distilled Bowmore releases, if it wasn’t for the fact that Bowmore actually sources
most of their malted barley from the mainland - unlike some other distilleries on Islay.
Bowmore’s own floor maltings can only supply 35-40% of their needs.
7) Bowmore distillery is located near the town of Bridgend. A flint arrowhead that was found near Bridgend
dated from circa 10,500 BC. This makes it one of the earliest pieces of evidence of human presence in Scotland
that have been discovered so far. Incidentally, Scottish engineering has made quite some progress since then.
6) Compared to Bowmores from the early noughties, the malt whiskies from the 3 distilleries
on the Southern 'Kildalton' shore of Islay (Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig) often display
a more ‘organic’ style of peatiness with traits like leather, broth and sweaty socks.
1) Stanley P. Morrisson bought the Bowmore malt whisky distillery for 117,000 GBP in 1963.
2000 - Bowmore joins the growing group of Scotch
whisky distilleries that offered 'finished' expressions
of their regular whisky. They released the bordeaux
finished 'Dusk' in 2000 and one year later the port
finished 'Dawn' was added to the portfolio.
2009 - The perfumy 'FWP' trait seems to have
'worked itself through the system' by now - at least
as far as younger official releases are concerned.
Older single cask bottlings might still be tainted though.
2010 - Many brands release a 40 year old official expression in 2010 (Balvenie, Bruichladdich and Highland Park,
to name but a few) and Bowmore is one of them. Some people might argue that the extravagant packaging of this
deluxe bottling provides a fresh excuse for a comparison with the perfume of French prostitutes...
2015 - The steady stream of No Age Statement releases keeps pouring from the Bowmore distillery.
Fresh (re)releases this time around: ‘Tempest’, ‘Devil’s Cask’ and Mizunara Finish. There still are SOME bottlings
with an age statement in the portfolio though - and a new 50yo bottling is released as well.
2012 - Bowmore is releasing several new expressions each year by now. Many of them are discontinued
again not long afterwards, so there would be little point in listing them all here. That being said, 2012 was the
year that the ‘100 Degrees Proof’ and ‘Springtide’ (no age statement) were pushed into the limelight.
2007 - The distillery starts an overhaul of their entire
range, focusing more on the duty free travel channel.
The 'Dusk' and 'Dawn' expressions are discontinued
and an 18yo Bowmore is launched.
Bowmore NAS ‘Small Batch’ (40%, OB, Square Carton, 13:11 346 L132541, Bottled +/- 2014)
Nose: Smooth and quite mellow with some subtle floral notes - a memory of the ‘classic’ profile.
Then the peat emerges. Not uni-dimensional as before, but complex with loads of organics. Some greens.
Taste: Very pleasant! Not nearly as smoky as many earlier OB’s, but much more complexity too. Islay mild.
A touch of pepper in the middle and some liquorice in the finish. Over time it grows noticably sweeter.
Score: 85 points - much better than I expected from a NAS bottling from bourbon casks. Kudos to Bowmore.
Bowmore 15yo ‘Darkest’ (43%, OB, Square Carton, 13:13 324 L132495, Bottled +/- 2014)
Nose: Quite sharp. It’s in the ‘sherried’ style, but remains quite superficial for at least a few minutes.
Then it softens up. I could detect black currants and perhaps raspberry. Just a touch of smoke this time.
Its saving grace comes after some 10 minutes, when it catches a ‘second wind’, even without adding water.
Taste: Some smoke and some fruits, but not very well integrated. Unfortunately, a touch of perfume as well.
Score: 79 points - more complex and not as bad as some ‘Darkest’ batches, but this one lacks integration.
Bowmore 12yo (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Serious and smoky with a sweet undercurrent. Phenolics from the "industrial" side of the spectrum.
After a few minutes some very subtle organics emerge. There are some subtleties, but you have to work at it.
Taste: Smoky and sweet start, matches the nose very well. I like smoke - but this is perhaps a tad one-sided.
Very smooth on the surface, but the heavy smoky undercurrent determines the tone of the conversation.
Score: 82 points - I like this batch much better than some overly perfumy batches from the late 1990's.
That being said, the flowery notes DID offer some much needed counterbalance to the smoke.
Bowmore 2001/2012 (53,6%, Maltbarn, ex-Sherry Cask, 175 Bottles)
Nose: Wow! Rich, sherried and complex. Fruits, nuts (walnut, hazelnut) and smoke. Shoe polish.
Very expressive. Ash and the faintest whiff of oil - but it doesn't bother me here. Some nice rough edges.
And it grows more complex with time. I got 'industrial oil', 'bicycle shop' and rubber after a while.
Taste: Sweet and salty - quite a unique combination. And liquorice, which I usually find in Laphroaig.
Dirtier and much more lively than the Bowmores I've tried years ago - the best one I've had in a while.
Score: 87 points - the best Bowmore I've tried in a long time - like an old school "Kildalton" malt whisky.
Bowmore 20yo 1990/2010 (50.7%, Signatory Vintage / Prestonfield, C#1065, 294 Bts.)
Nose: Light, sweet and peaty. Some lighter fruity notes emerge after a few seconds. Plums. Honeyed.
Taste: Salt and sweet; more smoky than peaty. Long, dry and hot finish. Pleasant mouth feel.
Score: 83 points - it hung around 81 or 82 points for a while until I found some organics in the nose.
Bowmore 15yo 'Darkest' (43%, OB, Sherry cask finish, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Smoke and some leather. Smoke remains the dominant impression for a long time.
Very sherried - but it's the harsh, smoky and woody site with none of the fruits to counteract the dark side.
Taste: Lots of smoke. Ashes. In fact, one might say that it's unbalanced. It almost reminded me of Loch Dhu.
Score: 71 points - did Bowmore strive for this profile to compete with Laphroaig? If so, they failed.
They did get rid of the perfumy elements. However, now there seems no 'soul' left - just smoke.
Bowmore 26yo 1982/2009 (53.4%, Master of Malt, Refill Sherry Hogshead, 195 Bts.)
Nose: Light start with a whiff of sour apples. Sorrel. Something very faintly medicinal in the background.
After a few minutes of breathing it improves greatly when some organics join the mostly smoky profile.
Taste: Smoky and very hot start. Medicinal. It sweetens out in the centre, but the smoke remains dominant.
Score: 84 points - there were some rough edges, but I LOVE the medicinal traits that emerge.
Bowmore 10yo 'Tempest' Batch #1 (55.3%, OB, First Fill Bourbon, Bottled 2009)
Nose: Toffee & Caramac sweetness. Some organics evolving in the background. Meaty. Spices?
A lovely complex whisky; not one type of peat, but a wide variety, ranging from organic to medicinal.
Taste: Solid, feisty, smoky start with some sweetness in the background. Hot, smoky centre and finish.
Very nice medicinal aftertaste. Not quite as complex as the nose, but it's a solid foundation for the nose.
Score: 83 points - A very nice 'comeback' from Bowmore; and not a trace of the 'perfume' from the past.
Bowmore 36yo 1972/2008 (45.4%, Signatory Vintage CS Collection, Sherry Butt #3890, 540 Bts.)
Nose: A rich sherried profile. Dark and tarry. Not as expressive as the colour would suggest at first.
Sulphury notes and some faint burnt elements. Sharper after a minute. Some farmy notes as well.
Taste: Smoky start. Dry, smoky centre that grows a little sweeter towards the finish.
There are quite some tannins in the finish. Medicinal aftertaste - which is a good thing...
Score: 84 points - nice complexity; but the sulphur keeps it from the upper 80's for me.
I should add that this one is complex enough that others could easily rank it in the upper 80's.
Bowmore 1991/2005 (59,6%, Scotch Single Malt Circle, C#575)
Nose: Whooah… Interesting nose with antiquity and leather that suggests this is an oldie.
Almost like a Brora. Lovely, lovely, lovely... That sentiment was confirmed during round 2; excellent stuff.
Taste: Sweet wood on the palate with some gorgeous tannins. Some peat in the finish as well, it seems.
I didn't think it was Brora anymore during another try (too smoky) but I dis feel it deserves an extra point.
Score: 91 points - even though it's quite extreme; one of the surprises of the Malt Maniacs Awards 2006.
Bowmore 1994/2008 (56.3%, Berry Brothers & Rudd, Cask #1681)
Nose: Restrained. Slowly opens up a bit, showing more phenols over time. More smoky than peaty.
Taste: Hot start, but it takes a while for the peat to come forward. Camphor? Hot again in the finish.
Score: 79 points - partly because this one doesn't really respond to water.
Bowmore 12yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2002, Tube, L378 205M 11:31)
Nose: A little sherry and a little smoke. Subdued fruity notes. No obvious perfumy notes.
All in all it's not very expressive, although it got some leathery notes and 'medicine' with time.
Taste: Starts out a tad sour and bitter for my tastes, but then there's a flash of peat.
The peat disappears just as quickly as it arrived, leaving a smoky, long and dry finish.
Score: 78 points - but it might have limped into the 80's with more power on the palate.
Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me, but I think the 12yo used to have more depth.
Bowmore 15yo 'Mariner' (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2000, Tube, Batch B180B)
Nose: Smoke, sherry and a hint of fruity perfume; typically Bowmore. Pepper? Oxidation changes,
Fortunately, it opens up with more peat after a minute. Sweeter and nuttier.
Taste: Bitter start, before it grows peatier. No sweetness. Chemical and perfumy. Breaks apart pretty quickly.
Hot. Unbalanced. Sherry and smoke. The perfume element seems to have grown stronger over time.
Score: 80 points - recommendable, but just barely. The sourish, winey finish felt at war with itself.
Bowmore 1965 'Full Strength' (50%, OB, Bottled 1980's)
Nose: Wow! This smells like a heavily sherried Speysider. Dark fruity notes. Sellery. Clay.
Great wood. Subtle smoky notes - like a garden bonfire. Something metallic. Stock cubes.
Wonderful sherry. Very complex - many elements I can't quite get my hands on.
Taste: Smooth, fruity start followed by sweet liquorice. Good wood. Dry Burn.
Strong fruity centre. Long smoky finish. Fabulous mouth feel at 50%. Very complex too.
Score: 96 points - this is absolutely fabulous. Without a doubt and by far the best Bowmore I ever tried.
Maybe this was the profile they tried to re-create with the Bowmore Darkest? If so, they failed miserably...
This profile is so extreme that it might scare away sick women and children. (Granted, one or two 'emotional'
points may have crept in there because this was the bottle Serge and I found in a little old Pizzera in Italy in 2003.)
My own tasting notes for some expressions of Bowmore malt whisky are collected on this distillery profile.
Those were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Bowmore I've tried over the years, but the notes should
convey how I felt about those whiskies. However, these tasting notes only reflect my purely personal opinion.
Your tastes might be different from mine - so it would be prudent to check out some other opinions as well.
Serge Valentin’s Whiskyfun website offers tasting notes on thousands of whisky bottlings, including Bowmore.
The Malt Maniacs Monitor provides opinions of several other aficionados on over 15,000 different whiskies.
But perhaps you'd like to read a little bit more about whisky in general or single malt Scotch whisky in particular?
In that case, you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky - 10 chapters filled with (almost)
everything you need to know in order to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky. Or, if you’d like
to dig a little deeper, the Whisky Lexicon offers more detailed information on a bunch of whisky-related topics.