For a while back there, we lost Bowmore. A classic whisky, from a classy distillery, had become consumed by perfume and arguably bad judgement from either the owners or the distillery team. Whatever the reason for the FWP effect, enthusiasts know to tread carefully when exploring the Bowmore’s for the 1990s, particularly the official releases.
Then at the turn of the millennium, a noticeable improvement prompted a seismic shift towards quality. Word of mouth began to filter around that Bowmore was back, and there’s nothing better than personal recommendations. The wise picked up a few bottles from independent bottlers before the masses realised, and the remnants were obliterated.
Searching online retailers confirms the availability of post-2000 distillate to be at a premium. Instead, screens are fully of the lacklustre official expressions and independent bottlings from the 1990’s. These, as we know, should always be approached with caution. Adding to the minefield are the asking prices that range from £300-£500 for a bottle—clearly a price too high for many of us and the Stooges who openly asked for gimme danger. I’ve certainly noticed that regular bottlers such as Cadenhead’s and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society have dried up lately. Those infamous #3’s at the SMWS have been replaced by a parade of Ardmore and Caol Ila: solid substitutes, but not a first-team challenger.
Where else do you turn to for that Bowmore fix? The only avenue for the official expressions consistently of late is the bottle-your-own at the distillery. Not an accessible option for most, and whenever friends visit Islay, I always try to persuade them to drop by and do me a favour. A recent trip to Islay from such friends proved unfruitful, as the cask wasn’t ready. Undeterred, I was kindly given the remnants of an earlier Bowmore hand fill purchase to hopefully enjoy. It also grants us the opportunity to talk a little more in theory about this distillery but instead we’ll talk about the attraction of taking home a bottle of your own.
The domain of the bottle-your-own is in theory the wonky, decrepit, ropey footbridge that links the official realm to the independent bottlers. For many years, several distilleries chose to expand the chasm rather than to bridge it. Building modern cladded fortifications—Macallan warehouse-like—they rebut and repel any sense of realism that a more natural and master-blender-free product could somehow be ridiculously superior. Such releases, or the option to purchase, could in theory devalue and scuttle their own invincible armada of iron-clad behemoths decorated in e150a and watered down to the legal minimum of 40% strength.
Only the smaller entities such as Deanston, Glen Moray and their ilk have embraced the format, not only to reward visitors, but at the same time, to showcase something different from the message and the norm. They believed that the option to bottle your own is valuable and beyond mere a financial sense; it showcases experimentation and a fun dynamic sadly missing from the corporate corridors of power that dominate scotch today.
The arrival of whisky tourism across Scotland has been (ironically) heralded by some of the above institutions, prompting a sudden acceptance from several distilleries under the leadership of Diageo that single cask hand fills are high in demand and extremely lucrative. This year’s Speyside and Highland festivals accordingly offered more single cask “bottle your own” options than a Spanish regional olive oil competition.
Money talks and it always has. Corporations are slow to change and as stubborn as a naked Mark being forcibly removed from a field of barley.
And yet the format should be seen as a beacon for any distillery and embraced with a big warm cosy ambassador hug as the central beating heartbeat of why a distillery exists, and as of the amount of effort that goes into producing the liquid that we all adore with glee. Take two examples in Auchenthoshan and Glenfiddich, both of whom I often lovingly refer to as Auchentosham and Glenfuddich. This is a reflection of their fairly inept official ranges, which are dominated by some of the practices about and too much tinkering from whatever laboratory of blenders are employed. I accept that the markets and style of whiskies that they are pursuing require a certain style of whisky, a consumer that bands around terms such as “grassy” and “smooth” whilst swirling the contents of a tumbler filled with ice (and they might as well be drinking Haig Club at times) prefer a certain style of whisky.
The bottle-your-own options at these two incumbents are a glowing beacon in a suffocating smog of marketing, branding, colouring, 40% ABV and over-engineered expressions. It shows that less is clearly more—a fountain of promise and hope, albeit clad in a wooden barrel, and at times the most fiddly of steps to walk away with your own bottle. The effort is quite often worth it, and there is hope for such distilleries to embrace a more natural presentation and showcase more of a ‘naked’ style… but not to Mark’s extremes.
With everyone jumping on the bandwagon and more visitors to Scotland than ever before, it comes as no surprise that admission prices are increasing. The days of picking up such a full-sized bottle for circa £50 are at an end. In fact, there seems to be general acceptance that a bottle will cost in the region of £100 for a basic cask matured, bog standard expression. This is a reflection of the market and the general apathy around whisky nowadays with such bottles proving profitable online via the secondary market.
One such profitable distillery for speculators is of course Bowmore. Alongside its Islay neighbour Bruichladdich, both can offer visitors the chance to take home a special memento, with the Laddie being reduced to a 50cl size for £75. So much so, it’s a rare sight to see such things open nowadays and instead these bottles populate auction sites. This Bowmore was distilled on 10th March 2009 and bottled 29th June 2016, from a Virgin Oak Barrel (#1567), at a strength of 59.6%.
Bowmore Hand Fill 15th Edition – review
Colour: bashed copper.
On the nose: salty with seaweed and memories of my gran’s coal bunker are revived. Wholemeal bread, cinder toffee and bbq ribs. Stewed fruits, honeycomb and engine oil.
In the mouth: a pleasant texture with salt and peat in abundance. Punchy with smoked haddock, more toffee and chocolate. Honey, liqorice, burnt toast with plenty of smoke, green tea and a peppery finish.
An interesting opportunity to try an official Bowmore in a virgin cask. To a certain degree a success, but not as wonderful layered and balanced as some of the aforementioned. Next time I’m on Islay, I’ll try and see what’s happening at the distillery as this series continues.
My thanks to Mally for giving us a break.