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.


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