Bowmore lays claim to being the oldest operating distillery in Scotland (Littlemill opened sooner, but has been closed since 1994). Located on the island of Islay, Bowmore was created after the laird of Islay, Daniel Campbell the Younger, decided to create a model village on the island in 1770 centered around the church that had been completed the year before. Because of the favorable conditions, David Simpson founded the distillery in town about a decade later in 1779. The distillery became one of the main sources of revenue for the village, which meant that the residents' fortunes waxed and waned with those of the distillery. After passing through a number of different hands over the centuries, Bowmore is now part of the Morrison-Bowmore mini-conglomerate, which also owns the Lowland distillery Auchentoshan and the Highland distillery Glen Garioch, which is all owned by the Japanese drinks company Suntory.
One of the Bowmore's more interesting features is that it is one of the few remaining distilleries to have its own traditional floor malting facilities. While insufficient to supply all of the distillery's needs, it does mean that Bowmore's peat has a different character from other Islay distilleries, which mostly source their malt from Port Ellen.
Bowmore 12 Year
Nose: rich smoky peat over caramel, herbal/vegetal notes, woody licorice, a little bacon, coffee, dry malt, a bit ashy, salty/creamy, light sherry and floral notes. After adding a few drops of water, the focus shifts towards the oak and peat, with the sherry and malt retreating, retaining the bacon and caramel while losing the floral notes.
Taste: sweet all the way through, pepper and floral/violet notes come in right after the sweetness and stay throughout, muddled fruit and sherry arrive mid-palate, with fresh oak, ashy/vegetal peat, and a bit of bubblegum emerging at the back. After dilution, the palate loses a lot of heft and complexity, especially up front, with mild malt leading into heftier oak, pepper, and peat.
Finish: sweet malt, peppery, light oak, peat and sherry, bitter/astringent, floral
I have somewhat mixed feelings about this whisky. It's bottled at a fairly weak 40% with chill filtration, which doesn't endear it to me. Sometimes it really seems to hit the spot, with a nice mixture of gentle peat, floral notes, and sherry. Other times the whisky, especially the palate, just seems too tepid. I feel like some of this could be alleviated with craft presentation - increasing the bottling strength to 46% and skipping the chill filtration. I like the flavors, I just want them to be bolder. This is especially true given that Bowmore 12 generally runs above $50 here in Oregon, which makes me expect more from it - a lot of whiskies in that price range have upped their game. They also have Bowmore Legend, a younger NAS bottling, to hold down their entry level prices, so the 12 Year has room for improvement. The 'gentle Islay' moniker isn't bad, I just don't want it to be so gentle that it falls flat.
Nose: very savory sherry, subdued herbal peat, berries, caramel, a little bacon, woody licorice, pencil shavings, smoother than the 12 and much lighter floral notes (though more comes out with time). After adding a few drops of water the malt moves forward while the sherry moves back, while the bacon and fresh wood notes edge out the peat.
Taste: less sweet than the 12 but smoother, more sherry - but not very fruity, savory overall, pepper and peat comes in early - keeping it on the bitter side of bittersweet, not very floral, something a bit minty throughout - with time there is more undergirding sweetness. After dilution the palate becomes creamier but flatter, with the peat retreating in favor of malt and sherry, and some raisin notes peeking out.
Finish: doesn't have a lot of strength or hold - sherry, mild peat and oak, fruity floral, a bit of malt, lots of pepper
Darkest is both older and more sherry-driven than its younger sibling. Interestingly this doesn't seem to up the sweetness - the sherry is much more in a savory than a sweet mode. The slightly higher bottling proof at 43% is noticeable and gives it a bit more heft, but craft presentation could definitely help here too. The flavors weren't quite distinct enough to really get my pulse racing, though I generally liked what it had to offer. Another case where I think they could have a contender, but it doesn't move me enough. Adding to the case, Bowmore 15 is almost twice as expensive as the 12 around here, which once again leads me to expect more from it. There are plenty of whiskies around now with a peat/sherry theme that would get my money before more of this.
Bowmore 18 Year
Nose: clearly older, heavier oak, sherry and ripe berries underneath bourbon barrel notes, underlying malt, more august peat, dry herbs, integrated floral notes, popcorn, fatty bacon, purple. After adding a few drops of water, the malt gains some ground and becomes toastier, with the oak, bacon, and peat subsiding a bit while the floral notes become more prominent.
Taste: sherry, malt, pepper, and oak all hit at once, initially sweet - then bittersweet, purple, mild peat at the back twined with oak tannins, chocolate raisins mid-palate, floral notes seem a bit out of place here, fruity bubblegum. After dilution it becomes sweeter but flatter, with less sherry and pepper but a bit more tannic oak at the back - however the overall structure remains much the same.
Finish: malty floral, peppery, light oak and peat, bubblegum
Bowmore 18 unfortunately reminds me of another 18 year old whisky - Glenfiddich. In both cases I feel like they have picked casks that have extracted a bit too much oak, purely because this is what they think buyers of older, more expensive single malts expect. Without the heavy dose of tannins, the more subdued, oxidized peat could be really lovely. There's definitely more integration of the flavors here, which is a very appealing quality. But the oak just keeps poking at me, disrupting an otherwise pleasant experience. Again, there are other old peated whiskies that I would turn to before this one, both in terms of flavor and price.
My generally feeling about Bowmore's core range of whiskies is 'almost'. I think they have some really solid single malt to work with, but the final products just don't quite hit the mark. A little tweaking of the recipes and improved presentation could take them from 'meh' to 'wow' very quickly. This does make me really interested in trying some of Bowmore's cask strength expressions as well as single casks from independent bottlers. I want to like Bowmore, I just need more of it to be present.