The Islay Series – Distillery #7: Bowmore

The 7th distillery in the series focuses on Bowmore, which is the second oldest distillery behind Glenturret. Bowmore is known for its stellar core range as well as some of the most celebrated aged whisky offerings in the industry.

Bowmore is located on the South-Eastern shore of Loch Indaal on Islay, in the village which shares the same name as the distillery. The village itself is the capital of Islay and is located in the centre of the island.

The distillery is located on the southern shore of Loch Indaal and is also exposed to the sea.
The distillery is located on the southern shore of Loch Indaal and is also exposed to the sea.

The distillery was founded in 1779 by a local merchant, David Simpson, and thus became the oldest distillery on Islay. It remained under his control until 1837, when the distillery was sold to James and William Mutter from Glasgow.

James Mutter, the head of the family, was a businessman who had a number of farming interests. He was also the Vice Consul to the Ottoman Empire as well as Portugal and Brazil, which was made possible through their respective consulates in Glasgow.

Under the direction of James and William Mutter, the distillery introduced a number of new and innovative distillation techniques and processes and also underwent several periods of expansion. This continued until 1892, when the distillery was sold to a consortium of English businessmen under the guise of Bowmore Distillery Company Ltd.

The distillery underwent a further series of changes in ownership in the intervening years, most notably being under the control of Distillers Company Limited (DCL, the predecessor of Diageo) in 1929 and William Grigor and Sons in 1950, before being purchased by Stanley P. Morrison in 1963 for a sum of £117000.

Morrison would go on to found the company Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd., which acted as the parent company of the distillery. The distillery remained under Morrison Bowmore’s sole control until 1989, when Japanese spirits conglomerate Suntory purchased a 35% stake in the parent company. In 1993, the distillery released one of the most legendary whiskies ever made, Black Bowmore.

Another two versions were released in 1994 and 1995 respectively, during which time Suntory assumed full control of Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd. and in the process took ownership of Bowmore as well as Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch distilleries and the McClelland’s brand of single malts.

In 2014, Suntory merged with Beam Inc. in a £16 billion merger which brought the distilleries belonging to Suntory (Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch and McClelland’s) under the same umbrella as those owned by Beam Inc. (Laphroaig, Ardmore and the Teachers blend).

Bowmore is one of three Islay distilleries which retains a functioning maltings floor.
Bowmore is one of three Islay distilleries which retains a functioning maltings floor.

Bowmore is of the belief that the entire whisky process should remain as traditional as possible, while allowing for some modern conventions in order to simplify the distillation process. The distillery is one of three on Islay (the other two being Kilchoman and Laphroaig) to retain a functioning maltings floor.

The malted barley is first soaked before being laid out on the floor to dry. It is turned once every 8 hours in order to allow for even germination. Once it has reached the optimal germination level, the malted barley is brought to the kiln to be roasted.

The kiln at Bowmore roasts the barley over a peat fire, giving the malt its signature peaty flavour.
The kiln at Bowmore roasts the malted barley over a peat fire, giving the malt its signature peaty flavour.

The distillery sources 30% of its barley requirements from various farms on Islay while acquiring the rest from commercial maltings company Simpsons on the mainland. The barley acquired from these sources are all peated to 25 ppm phenol.

In the case of the locally sourced barley, it is slow roasted in the kiln over a peat fire for up to 14 hours in order for it to achieve the desired phenol specification. The barley is then brought back to the maltings floor to cool before being transported to the mash tun for mashing.

The mash tun at Bowmore.
The mash tun at Bowmore.

The distillery sports an 8 tonne stainless steel mash tun which mashes the malted barley three times at temperatures ranging from 84 to 100 degrees Celsius in order to extract the sugars from the barley. The wort that is produced is then transferred to the underback for holding before being transferred to the washbacks for fermentation.

The view from inside the underback at Bowmore.
The view inside the underback at Bowmore.
The washbacks at Bowmore.
The washbacks at Bowmore.
The view of the sea from the washback room.
The view of the sea from the washback room.

The distillery has six washbacks which are all made of Oregon pine and named after the six most notable owners of the distillery prior to its full acquisition by Suntory. The washbacks are able to conduct six short fermentations of 48 hours and seven long fermentations of 62 hours per week when run at full capacity.

The wash that is produced from the washbacks is then transferred to the three wash stills. The wash stills each hold up to 65% of their capacity and distill the spirit first.

The wash stills at Bowmore.
The wash stills at Bowmore.

The spirit vapours collected at the end of the run in the wash stills are then transferred to the spirit still, which is filled up to 92% capacity. The straight shape of the lyne arms and the use of copper for the condensers is crucial for the spirit to be imbued with the necessary character that Bowmore desires for its whiskies.

The spirit stills at Bowmore.
The spirit stills at Bowmore.
The spirit safe determines when the spirit is to be collected for maturation.
The spirit safe determines when the spirit is to be collected for maturation.

The spirit that is run through the spirit still is then collected at between 61.5 and 74% abv, which represents the middle cut or the ‘heart’ of the spirit. The middle cut is the range which the distillery is able to work with in order to create their whiskies. The new make spirit is then transferred to the casks for maturation.

The distillery uses a variety of casks ranging from ex-bourbon to ex-sherry and even some artisanal ex-port and ex-mizunara casks for their maturation purposes. The filled casks are transported to the warehouses located around the distillery, with the No. 1 vaults holding some of the oldest and most precious casks owned by the distillery.

The casks which are stored in the No. 1 vaults are the ones which experience the largest amount of interaction with the sea as it is located on the edge of the water. As the floor of the warehouse is also below sea level, the waves which batter the sea wall of the warehouse deposit a fairly large amount of sea salt in the gaps, which eventually end up residing on the tops of the casks and thus imbuing the whisky with a distinctly coastal and maritime flavour profile.

Bowmore traditionally does not bottle its whisky on site, instead choosing to move the casks ready for bottling to their facility at Springburn in Glasgow. Once the bottling process is done, the majority of the whisky is then distributed worldwide while some of the whisky makes its way back to the distillery. The distillery has a well established range of core and travel retail expressions which cover a range of styles. The whiskies which represent the core range are as follows:

1) Bowmore Small Batch Reserve (bourbon matured)

2) Bowmore 12 Years Old

3) Bowmore 15 Years Old Darkest (Sherry matured)

4) Bowmore 18 Years Old

5) Bowmore 25 Years Old

The majority of the core expression is created by vatting varying amounts of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry whiskies together in order to produce a particular style. The duty free range of whiskies evolve with time, but are currently as follows:

1) Bowmore Springtide (Oloroso sherry matured)

2) Bowmore Vintage 1984

3) Bowmore Black Rock (matured in first-fill sherry casks)

4) Bowmore Gold Reef (matured in first-fill bourbon casks)

5) Bowmore White Sands (matured for 17 years in ex-bourbon casks)

The duty free range used to contain the Bowmore Mariner 15 Years, which has sadly been discontinued. This particular expression is my favourite release from the distillery as it is a bourbon matured release with a strong maritime palate.

During my visit to the distillery, I went for the Craftsman’s Tour (£55 per person) which allowed me to experience the entire distillation process as well as gave me the privilege of entering the No. 1 vaults, which are the oldest whisky warehouses in all of Scotland and date back to the 1700s.

The door which leads into the No. 1 vaults.
The door which leads into the No. 1 vaults.

The standard tour (£6 per person) only brings visitors into the entrance hall of the warehouse but the Craftsman’s Tour allows visitors to step into the heart of the warehouse itself and sample some of the whiskies aging in there.

A very version of the Bowmore bottle.
A very version of the Bowmore bottle.
A glimpse of the casks within the warehouse.
A glimpse of the casks within the warehouse.
The cask on the top right dates back to 1965 and is the oldest cask left in the distillery.
The cask on the top right dates back to 1965 and is the oldest cask left in the distillery.

Unfortunately, Bowmore prohibits photography within the inner sanctum of its warehouses and so I was unable to take any pictures of the casks there. I did, however, notice that they had ex-Mizunara oak casks in the warehouse and enquired about them.

My tour guide mentioned that the distillery had acquired them from Yamazaki distillery (another of Suntory’s flagship gems) and that the casks had once contained 12 year old Yamazaki whisky. The distillery had filled these ex-Mizunara oak casks with 20 year old Bowmore and their aim was to age the spirit till it reached 25 years of age and then bottle them for sale.

As the distillery had purchased the casks and filled them 3 years ago, this means that the spirit would be ready for bottling and sale sometime in 2017, so I strongly recommend that people keep an eye out for this gem when it arrives on the market as it will be a rather limited run and will definitely cost at least £2000 each.

During my time in the warehouse, my tour guide provided me with samples of a 14 year old whisky from an ex-bourbon cask and a 17 year old whisky from an ex-sherry cask. I was also able to try some freshly made new make spirit, which was an experience by itself. I was also presented with a hip flask filled with Bowmore 15 Years Old Mariner by my tour guide (I had mentioned earlier that it was my favourite and that I was sad to see it discontinued), which was a very nice gesture on her part.

The reviews for these aforementioned whiskies can be found here: https://whiskymate.wordpress.com/2015/04/26/whisky-review-7-bowmore/

With 7 of the 8 distilleries having been profiled, this is definitely a case of saving the very best for last. My final post in the Islay Series will focus on Bruichladdich, which is one of my favourite distilleries. I look forward to sharing the tale with all of you. Until the next post, have a wonderful week ahead.

Slainte!

Brendan

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