My first couple of exposures to Bowmore were generally positive, but noted the limitations of their standard bottling proof. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I picked up a new bottle for a tasting I held last year. But Bowmore did seem like the least aggressive way to represent Islay peat, so I took the plunge. Since then I've been working my way through the bottle.
As always, this is bottled at 40%, almost certainly with chill filtration and coloring.
Bowmore 12 Year
Nose: dominated by dry mossy peat with a layer of wood smoke, plastic and cigarette ash notes around the edges, pine needles, fresh lumber, tropical fruits mixed with clean malt, shortbread cookies, herbal chocolate, a veneer of sherry, warm caramel with a hint of cured meat - everything becoming cleaner and more sherried with time. After adding a few drops of water, the oak becomes more assertive and the peat becomes earthier, the malt is more submerged, and the sherry nearly disappears, with some dark chocolate coming out.
Taste: moderate sherry sweetness up front that is rapidly balanced by oak tannins, with an undercurrent of cigarette ash emerging around the middle, then fading into clean malt, polished oak, and a rising tide of mossy/slightly decayed peat. After dilution, the flavors are more integrated, presenting a united front rather than unfolding in turn, the initial sweetness is more malty than sherried, some dark chocolate emerges around the middle, and the peat at the back is sharper (possibly because of the oak).
Finish: mossy peat over clean malt accented by sherry residue and polished oak
Once again, I am disappointed that Suntory has consistently let Bowmore's core range stagnate at low bottling proofs. This whisky could be so much more with craft presentation, but as is the spirit doesn't shine the way it should.
Bowmore should be rated highly by whisky geeks (despite the FWP era) given that they still produce a significant amount of their own floor malt and retain tight control over the rest of the mechanically produced malt they use, rather than buying Port Ellen malt like most of the distilleries on Islay. They have a highly regarded Master Blender in Rachel Barrie, who has also done solid work for Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch after a successful stint for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. Since 2004 Bowmore hasn't sold any of its malt to blenders, which puts it in a fairly small clutch of distilleries such as Bruichladdich and Benriach who are similarly focused on single malts.
But that success is exactly why the core range is what it is - as long as they maintain good sales, there is no incentive to change. We can grumble, but a lot of people enjoy Bowmore just the way it is. The Islay distilleries that closed or were sold on to new owners during the 1990s (Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain) are the ones that now put out their whisky with craft presentation as they needed a boost to stand out from their peers. The ones that chugged along during the lean years (Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Caol Ila) have left their core releases largely unreformed as there has been no incentive to mess with successful formulas. This is also visible within the Suntory/Morrison-Bowmore stable - Bowmore and Auchentoshan maintained relatively steady sales during the slump and have basically stayed the same while the lesser known Glen Garioch has gotten a significant reformulation and bump in bottling proof. So I suspect that it would take another major shock to shake them out of their complacency. In the meantime I'll be sticking to indie releases of Bowmore.
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