Sunday, 10 August 2014

Johnnie Does Bowmore

Monday 18 August 2014 - 10:00am

Price: £6.00

Ever since I had my first taste of peated whisky (Lagavulin 16, to be precise), I knew that one day I'd find myself washing up on the shores of Islay, with a view to exploring the origins of this wonderful liquid.


Having managed to schedule eight distillery tours over five days (no mean feat, I might add) I found myself beginning my peaty whisky pilgrimage on a Monday at 10:00am at the doorstep of Islay's oldest whisky distillery. Now I'm not usually one for drinking ante-meridiem but, for the purposes of education, I decided to make an exception. Time constraints meant that I had to settle for the basic tour but, considering the heavy schedule, my liver was to thank me come Friday afternoon.

Bowmore on the rocks

The tour kicked off with Lesley, our wonderfully chipper guide, leading us to the malting floors. Bowmore malts approximately 25% of its own barley, with the rest imported. The workers turn the barley using a combination of machine and hand plough. Although there were a couple of wooden malt shovels in evidence, these appeared to be more for decoration purposes. At the time of my visit the malting floors were empty, more than likely due to the distillery recently coming out of its silent season.

A quick peek at the, again empty, kiln wasn't as disappointing as it sounds. There was a lingering smell of peat smoke in the air which briefly had me considering locking myself in there and claiming squatter's rights. That smell is the reason I came to Islay in the first place. Magic. Bowmore whisky is, Lesley informs us, peated to around 26ppm and is a great whisky for those not suited to the likes of Laphroaig and Ardbeg.

Once the barley has been dried, it gets passed through their 1966 Porteus roll mill and the product is then poured into a bloody enormous grist bin, 8 tons of product to be precise. After being pumped into their shiny, copper mashtuns and hit with three water cycles (63.5c, 85c & 100c) the mix gets transported into one of their washbacks, each named after one of the distillery owners. Inside these washbacks, the yeast does its business and turns the whole affair into a dirty, milky mixture called wash. More on that later in the week.

Harking back to simpler times?

From there the wash hits the stills (2 wash and 2 spirit), some magical, steam-fired witchcraft occurs and the once dirty, milky wash is turned into spanking, new-make Bowmore spirit, ready to be encased in oak barrels.

It's all incantations and sacrifices, I tell you

Once in barrels, some of the spirit is kept on the island and allowed to mature below sea level in Bowmore's vaults. As part of the tour we were allowed into the hallowed 'No.1 Vaults' to have a look at what lay within.

There be gold in them thar hills

"You keep her talking, I'll get the van"

Lesley informed us that not all of their whisky is matured on Islay and none of it, hand-filled aside, is bottled there. The barrels are sent to the group's Springburn HQ in Glasgow and bottled on site. Due to demand, she continued, Bowmore puts none of its whisky into blends and no longer sells barrels off to independent bottlers. With Bowmore 12 being exported to 44 countries worldwide, she advises, every drop is needed for their single malts.

After a quick Q&A session in the No.1 Vaults, we were whisked off to the bar area, where a dram of the Bowmore 12 awaited and we were bid farewell. Alas, a momentary taste was all I could manage as a monumental whisky experience lay ahead at one of Islay's south coast heavyweights.

To be continued..........


The Tour: B
Informative, detailed and led by a guide exhibiting more enthusiasm than I do at work on a Monday morning.

The Drams: D
Just a small measure of the Bowmore 12 on offer (in a tumbler, no less) but served at tables commanding a beautiful view over Loch Indaal.

The Shop: A
This is where Bowmore shines. Plenty of whiskies on offer; Luxury, Travel Retail, 'fill-your-own' and Distillery Exclusive bottlings. Glen Garioch and Auchentoshan were also represented. Although the shelf space in the shop is mainly for whisky, some merchandise is also available, meaning you can stock up on souvenirs for your non-whisky drinking pals.

Overall: B-
A good place to start. Even the basic tour gives you a great feel for the history and ethos behind Bowmore. If you're a fan of the whisky, you're going to want to book one of the premium experiences as the basic tour, even compared to similarly priced tours at other distilleries, offers very little in the way of sampling. There is, however, a bar on the first floor that'll allow you to pick and choose your way through the range, should you so desire. Bowmore, I'll be back.


Friday, 1 August 2014

Wish You Were Here

Whisky Discovery Tasting #4 - Travel Retail Exclusive

Having thoroughly enjoyed the first three events, episode 4 of the Whisky Discovery tasting saga takes me into undiscovered territory and I find myself checking out the shelves of the (no longer duty-free) duty-free aisles. Better still, as we're in the relaxed surroundings of Bedford's Embankment pub, I don't have to worry about nervously filing past the rubber-gloved, fat-fingered Customs guard either.

The good folks at Whisky Discovery have outdone themselves once more and have prepared, for our delectation and delight, a series of single malt whiskies that are only available in Travel Retail outlets. Perfect for aerophobes and stripsearchophobes alike.  

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Flight WDT4. We have started taxiing towards the runway. Please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position and ensure your seat belt is securely fastened as we prepare for take off.

The Glenrothes Manse Reserve - 43% - c.£33

Creamy and light with floral, almost perfumed, highlights. Pale honey and oaty biscuits; are those Hob-Nobs I can smell?

Rich Tea biscuits and gentle spice. A tad on the light side but very drinkable and, dare I say it, refreshing. A hint of sweet cider, perhaps.

Very low-key but fruity. Not particularly long.

I promised myself I wasn't going to use the dreaded 'S' word but this is almost backing me into a corner. It's not going to blow you away but, for this price, it would make a welcome gift for the casual whisky drinker.

The Balvenie 16 Triple Cask - 40% - c.£70

Bananas all over the shop. Coconut and a little bourbon vanilla. Richer than the Glenrothes with some cherries and almonds.

Very gentle to begin with but develops nicely with a fair amount of wood. Some more cherry in the mix and hazelnuts make an appearance nearing the finish. It's certainly rich but a little bit confused.

Long and warming with woody spice and bitter honeycomb.

This is a step up in richness and complexity from the Glenrothes but I find it a little muddled. I fully admit I'm not the best person to review this as I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Balvenie. I must say, however, that the general consensus of the other tasters (including Agent X) was that this is a winner. Each to their own.

Balblair 2004 Bourbon Matured - 46% - c.£45

Lightly sanded wood with citrus and some classic bourbon notes. Coconut and lemongrass make an appearance after a while.

Lemon sherbet to begin, with a dash of pith and some bitter wood. Less coconut than on the nose but it's there.

A little flat. Spice, wood and an impressive length but not particularly interesting.

At first, I was mightily disappointed with this; I expect a lot from Balblair and this wasn't cutting it. However, after a drop of water, what a difference. Like most Balblairs I've tried, water separates the flavours and amplifies the experience and the longer this stayed in the glass, the better it got. The citrus, the wood, the vanilla, the floral elements; they all stood up and did their thing. A very good whisky. Keep an eye out.

Aberfeldy 18 - 40% - c.£78

Light sherry is the first thing that jumps out, with beeswax and wood to follow. A little patience brings a dash of double cream, honey and supple leather. This is a very pleasant surprise.

Sawdust and lemon sorbet. Verging on lightweight to begin with but, as it develops in the glass, there's a subtle creaminess and it starts to show a little backbone. There's a waxy, chewy leatheriness that puts me in mind of armchairs and dusty old books.

In a word, interesting. Sweet and drying in turns with warming spice. Long and entertaining.  

I didn't expect this from Aberfeldy. Having only tried the 12 from the distillery bottlings, I figured this would be a bit of a throwaway. On the contrary; this was the only whisky I went back to at the end of the night. I poured myself a rather generous slug and spent the next 20 minutes thoroughly enjoying every drop. Probably a little steep at £80, although you do get a full litre. I quickly offered Kat a tenner for the rest of the (4/5ths full) bottle. Oddly enough, she politely declined. Grrrr.

Highland Park Harald - 40% - £60

Oooh. Robust and spicy with a little nip on the nose; strange, considering it's only 40%. Sherry, smoke and a wee bit floral to boot.

Light, woody and heathery with billowing smoke. Nowhere near as sweet as I expected but nicely balanced and reasonably complex. Very enjoyable.

Classic HP finish. Sweet, drying and smoky. Medium-long and leaves you wanting more.

This has Highland Park written all over it. I mean... well, I know the bottle has, but... what I mean is that this tastes like Highland Park. Yeah, I know it is Highland Park and so it should taste like... Look, yeah? This has a classic Highland Park profile; If you like Highland Park, you'll like this. Possibly a little on the pricey side though.

Isle of Jura Turas Mara - 42% - c.£43

Sticky toffee pudding, butter, vanilla and pickled gherkins. This noses like a bourbon at times although not quite so full-on.

Dry, crisp and winey at first. Develops into bitter cocoa but there's a viney sweetness there too. Winey and viney but bitter and sweet. This is a little all over the place. Dave informs me that it's a mix of several cask types, which makes sense.

Bourbon-esque and spicy. Quite long with a gentle, woody finale.

This is quite odd. Tasted blind, I would never say Jura. It's not muddled and I wouldn't say that the flavours cancel each other out but your tongue never really settles on any flavour for too long. It's utterly fascinating. Not great, mind, just fascinating.

Bowmore 17 White Sands - 43% - c.£80

Prickly and fruity with peat and a nice earthiness. Smoke with a glimmer of barbecued fish, sea-spray and molasses.

Nicely drinkable, although that could be my palate waving the white flag. Bags of tropical fruit with slabs of toffee and fudge. Peat, naturally, but not bitter in the slightest. Warming and chewy. Very nice indeed.

Warm and lingering with grapefruit, smoke and polished wood. Imagine putting out a burning grand piano with a bucket of Lilt and you get the picture.

I love peat. I love fruit. I love Bowmore. Unsurprisingly, I loved this.

Well, what an eye-opener. Far from being a dumping ground for crap, overpriced, NAS releases, there are some gems to be prised from the aisles of the airport booze section. 

Another great evening from the folks at Whisky Discovery, my thanks to them for broadening my horizons once more. Check out their Facebook page for upcoming events and you can also catch up with both Dave and Kat on Twitter.