No. 1 Vaults of Bowmore
No trip to Islay could possibly be complete without a visit to Bowmore. I’m not speaking about the village, though the distillery is nestled right along the coastline of the beautiful little settlement, but of the distillery that has perched on this hallowed ground since at least 1779. It is Islay’s oldest distillery and one of the oldest in Scotland. Of course, that all rests on the presumption that you buy into the marketing hype. As we know, we only have to look as far as Bushmills a few dozen miles across the water to recognize that a claim of longevity does not necessarily make it so. The records from these times are maddeningly vague. Especially for a malt geek.
But let’s not spend too much time on the whos and wheres and whens of history. The point here is simply to share a bit about a place that has become synonymous with the legendary malts from this iconic Islay distillery. The birthplace of drams like the Gold, White and Black Bowmore (in each of its iterations) and several stunning examples of whiskies from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Y’know…before the low road led us to that bumpy stretch of time wherein the distillery was more renowned for its lavender and lilac influence than the deep, tropical fruits that helped define what the world’s greatest whiskies really were.
A visit to the No. 1 Vaults is only possible through the highest ended Bowmore tours. You’ll pay for the privilege, but you’ll also experience something few others will. The warehouse sits down at the water’s edge where the waves kiss the walls and share their oceanic influence with every ebb and flow and gust of sea-sprayed wind. Inside the walls are moldy and spongy, dank with black growth fed by the fumes of aging barrels. The ceilings are low…the aisles are narrow and the smells are…well…let’s just say you need to experience it for yourself.
There is an element of disillusion that comes into play though nowadays. A stroll through the casks slumbering herein shows that the warehouse is home to malt not much older than its teen years. Unless, of course, the best of the best is squirrelled away in the darkest and dankest of nooks and crannies. Who knows? I think we all like to imagine this mecca teeming with stunning casks stenciled with distillation dates from the ’60s and ’70s. Alas…none that I saw.
I visited the distillery in September of both 2016 and 2017. The 1998 bourbon barrel (Cask #514) below was there both times, and stunning in each of its tastings (at 18 and 19 years of age respectively). The sherry butt that we contrasted with in 2016 was an absolute fireworks show. Deep and rich, redolent of jammy fruit and just the right amount of smoke. The kind of malt I could have seen developing into a new incarnation of the Black Bowmore in another 25 years or so. Sadly, that butt was peeled out for bottling sometime between visits and has now been replaced by the one fro which I’m sharing notes here (Cask #2071). This latter is a stunner too, but not in the same league.
To be honest, I was just fortunate to be there in back to back years. If you can make the journey over, do so. And if you get to taste these barrels as they evolve, please share your thoughts.
Bowmore 1998 19 y.o. Cask #514 (Bourbon Barrel)
Nose: An absolute soft fruit bomb. Peat as an afterthought here, really. Pear. Vanilla. Creamy custard. Soft sugar cookies. Roman nougat. Crème brulee. Soft spices, moving on medium. Apple.
Palate: Easy white fruits again. Soft threads of vanilla and syrupy fruit cocktail. Orange and cherry notes are bold and forefront. Soft oak. White cake. Scones.
Thoughts: Stunning bourbon barrel. Again…if left for a few more years…wow. Of course, the price would have been reflective, but I shudder to imagine what this could have been, considering what it already is.
Bowmore 2002 15 y.o. Cask #2071 (Sherry Butt)
Nose: Big, bold sherry meets peat a la Laimrig or Devils Cask. Hints of eucalyptus. Licorice. Rich jammy fruits. Faint coffee notes. Dark chocolate (and maybe milk chocolate too). Cherry cordial. Dunnage warehouses (of course). Minerally. Salty.
Palate: Creamy fruit notes (jammy, but think fresh cream on top of it). Compote or coulis. Sweet smokiness and a very appealing oiliness. Chocolate. More jams. Dried fruits. A hint of tea.
Thoughts: Brilliant barrel. Not as brilliant as the last, but still exceptional. This one plays to everything I love about Bowmore.
– Images & words: Curt