I have a very mixed history with Bowmore. When they come out right, they can be a nearly transcendent balance of malt, peat, and fruit. When they fall flat, they're downright awful. That track record is even more mixed when it comes to cask picks from K&L Wines - the 11 Year Exclusive Malts cask they picked up a few years ago was a horrific mess. But when this cask went on sale the price was finally low enough for me to go in on a bottle split.
This whisky was distilled in 2001, filled into a refill sherry cask, then bottled in 2016 at 54.4% without coloring or chill filtration.
Hepburn's Choice Bowmore 14 Year/2001 for K&L
Nose: rich Bowmore malt with a solid but not overwhelming layer of dry peat, sherried fruits sit underneath alongside freshly treated lumber and sawdust, gentle floral overtones, coastal notes, vanilla, and almonds in the background. After adding a few drops of water the oak gains ground and becomes roughly equal in intensity with the malt, the peat becomes ashier, and a little bacon comes out, but it retains distinctly Bowmore character overall.
Taste: big sherry sweetness up front, quickly overtaken by a wall of oak tannins with a bit more of an edge from the dirty/earthy peat and a touch of black pepper, overtones of tropical fruit and berries in the middle, fading out with prickly tannins over sherried richness. After dilution the oak and sherry become more balanced and spread out across the palate, giving it a distinctly bitter cast, the peat becomes a bit ashier
Finish: bitter, almost astringent, oak tannins, sherry residue, dirt, earthy peat
From the specs, this sounds almost exactly what I like - an independently bottled full proof Bowmore from a sherry cask. The younger sherry cask from Exclusive Malts of the same vintage blew me away, but was too expensive ($100) for me to justify. The Hepburn's Choice cask was older and more attractively priced, but ultimately turned out to be over-oaked, which goes a way towards explaining why it was so cheap compared to other sherried full-strength Bowmores of comparable age.
I feel like this might appeal to fans of Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 005 - a group of which I was not a member. The strong oak and sherry seem similar to what that was bringing to the table, albeit in a somewhat softer mode despite the almost equally high alcohol content. Speaking of which, this reads far lighter than its actual ABV, making me think of something in the 46-50% range than the bruiser it claims to be.
With all of this said, I think this whisky will appeal more to fan's of Bowmore's Devil's Casks releases - a review over at The Whisky Jug bears this out. But I was also curious if dilution would tame this cask into something more enjoyable for me.
Diluted to 50%
Nose: kind of closed - balanced sherry, peat, and oak, savory but indistinct overall, growing a bit stronger with time in the glass
Taste: big rounded - but not overly intense - sherried savory/sweetness up front, berries, sliding through prickly oak tannins to a more rounded and aromatic woodiness near the back, hints of peat going into the finish
Finish: juicy oak, sherry residue, very little peat, but kind of dirty
This strength is a kind of reverse-Goldilocks - there is little it offers that can't be found more effectively at full strength or 45%. The palate is superior to the nose, but never completely comes together. The difficulty is finding the remaining peat means that there isn't enough counterpoint for all the oak.
Diluted to 45%
Nose: lots of oak, barrel char, dirty peat smoke underneath, vanilla, a little green and floral, hints of sherried malt underneath
Taste: mild sherried sweetness up front, quickly picks up significant oak - becoming more aromatic and savory around the back, a little floral starting around the middle, green/vegetal peat and dry sherry shading into vinegar fading into the finish
Finish: long-lasting, savory oak, juicier sherry, slightly sweet malt, a little peat around the edges
This whisky becomes fairly peculiar at this strength. The oak is even more dominant on the nose, edging out almost everything else. At the same time the big aromatic twist going into the finish on the palate shows what the oak can be and reminds me a bit of Ben Nevis. Overall this is the least Bowmore-like strength since the peat is so hard to find, but it's appealing in its own way.