It’s been a while since I reviewed a Single Malt Whisky… Mostly because I’ve been drinking the same five or six over and over again, and (at least where I live) there aren’t many available in stores that I haven’t had at least once. Well, it seems that without even really wanting to, I’ve become something of a peat purist, and locked myself into a pattern of Talisker, LaPhroaig, Lagavulin, LaPhroaig, Ardbeg, Talsiker, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, etc. I think you get the picture.
So go ahead and slap me for skipping Bowmore until now, because I clearly deserve it.
Bowmore, besides being the first distillery on the Isle of Islay, happens to produce one of the gentlest, most nuanced, and most complex whiskies of the lot. Unlike Lagavulin, with its mildewed canvas and rotting crab shells, or Ardbeg, with it’s electrical-fire-in-a-glass brutishness, Bowmore comes to the party wearing a dinner jacket and a sherry scarf. The peat does not get top billing in this cast, though it is definitely there… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start at the beginning. Unless you’re tasting it blindfolded (and why would you?), the first sense engaged in any whisky encounter is sight. Bowmore delivers right out the gate with a handsome bottle and matching outer box. Both the label and the box have the feel of a premium business card -thick, textured paper with slightly embossed lettering. Black on white with gold/copper foil accents. At just under $50 for a 750ml bottle here in Virginia, it makes a handsome gift for a coworker celebrating any anniversary under 20 years, hint hint (North of that, you’d better break out The Macallan 18-YO at a minimum. Don’t be a scrooge). The color is exactly the sort of rich copper you’d expect of a whisky aged (at least partially) in sherry casks -or, in this case, from the addition of caramel coloring. Tsk tsk.
In the glass, she’s oily and thick, with prominent tears and legs, though not syrupy or overtly flabby. You should expect a decent amount of weight and heft on the palate, but not so much that you’d mistake it for a trip to Jiffy Lube.
The nose is all sugar top notes -honey, treacle, the crystals you find on the mouth of a bottle of REAL maple syrup (not that disgusting HFCS shyte that come in plastic microwave bottles), and a hint of butter- all generously shot through with lemon. There’s heather and wet straw, steam from a horse’s nostrils on a damp morning, a hint of a blacksmith’s forge, somewhere off to the right, and a huge, rough-hewn oak table with lots of scars from people sticking their dirks in it while gnawing ripe meat off the bone. Underneath all of that is the smoke. More soot and char than acrid smoke -definitely present, but not swinging from the chandeliers or bellowing about “building a wall”. If I may be so bold, this is probably what Islay had in mind before LaPhroaig and Lagavulin decided to turn peatiness into a dare.
In the pie hole, she’s all art supplies. Freshly-sharpened pencils, pastel chalks, raw canvas, linseed oil and an old easel, wax (a hint of Crayola), and just a fingerprint or two of turpentine. The smoke and char comes through here like it does in Ardbeg, just not as violently. As with Big Green, we’re licking an anvil after someone just pounded out a broadsword on it. The sweetness I was led to expect from the sherry notes on nosing seem to have been scolded into behaving themselves somewhere between my nose and my taste buds, because it’s not stealing the show at all. Rising to the top, it’s all citrus and clover.
Not a huge, lingering finish, and I’m actually a bit grateful for that in this case. This much complexity could easily wear out its welcome, and let’s face it, that’s not what we’re paying for here.
Given all the dings most Single Malt snobs would knock Bowmore 12-YO for -the 40% ABV, the phony color, the sub $50 price tag, and the subdued peat- I think it’s safe to say this is one seriously underrated Islay expression, and it just earned a permanent “reserved” space on my shelf. At the very least, if you’re just tip-toeing your way ’round to Islay, start here.