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Single Cask Nation Bowmore 1989

Ah, Bowmore.

This distillery reminds me – a Chicago Bears fan – of serial quarterbacks who occasionally showed flashes of undeniable raw talent, but whose overall career was marred by questionable decision-making resulting in boneheaded errors. (Brits: kindly substitute Paul Gascoigne or any other naturally gifted but self-sabotaging footballer, and you’ll get the thrust).

The five Bowmore examples reviewed here on MALT (since scoring came into effect) have averaged a 4.8. That data point doesn’t tell the full story, however. These have ranged in rating from a 2 to an 8. While I usually don’t get hung up on the numbers, I believe this spread tells the story of Bowmore. Like Longfellow’s little girl with the little curl: when Bowmore is good it is very good indeed, but when it is bad it is horrid.

The best bet, as with other Scotch whisky distilleries, seems to be foregoing official bottlings in favor of independent bottlers. It’s my good fortune that an independently bottled Bowmore of respectable age found me serendipitously, courtesy of the always generous folks at Single Cask Nation. Obligingly sending me a care package full of Wild Turkey single barrels, Jason Johnstone-Yellin slipped in a sample of this Bowmore for laughs.

This is from 1989, which is near the end of what has been termed the FWP era of Bowmore. You could Google the acronym, but let’s paraphrase by saying it evokes the eau de toilette of a Parisian lady of the night. You get the drift.

It’s not a term I find particularly funny or especially descriptive, so I’ll not be using it going forward. This distinct aroma – call it what you will – was reputedly the result of changes to the production processes at Bowmore, which imparted floral and soapy notes of a nearly chemical pungency to the distillate.

So, something to be on guard for. What else should I expect? This is an Islay malt, so I’ll be looking for a touch of peated smoke and some seashore nuances. Unlike much of Bowmore’s output, which is matured in ex-sherry casks, this is from a bourbon barrel. I’m keen to try an unblended offering from this distillery, and one which has not had the customary heavy overlay of sherry, for better or worse.

This is cask #1986, an ex-bourbon barrel. It was distilled in March 1989 and bottled in May 2019, 30 years old, at 44.1%. 150 bottles were produced. This retails for $395.

Single Cask Nation Bowmore 1989 – Review

Color: Pale straw

On the nose: Roasty, toasty, rich, sweet goodness, albeit in very delicate form. Marshmallows charred over a campfire; crème brûlée, vanilla custard, egg yolk, lemon zest. Also roasted lamb loin with mint sauce. There’s a very faint maritime nuance to this in the form of a gently saline note that underpins – yet never overwhelms – the other aromas. I guess there’s a bit of lavender soapiness in there, but mostly I’m enjoying the assorted other aromas too much to care.

In the mouth: A gentle one, this. Palate starts with a dilute woodiness, like a black tea stirred with a cinnamon stick. This becomes slightly tart at midpalate, before transitioning into the meaty nuttiness of unsalted cashews. It finishes ashy, with only a wispy residual aftertaste of lemon curd.

Conclusions

The glory of an ex-bourbon barrel! Nary a worry about sulfur or knackered fourth-fill casks. The nose impresses the most, being composed of abundant flavors in an intricate aromatic latticework. At times this is so evanescent, it seems more like a spring breeze blowing across a dewy meadow. At no point did this conjure images of streetwalkers or houses of ill-repute.

The palate doesn’t live up to the nose’s promise, however. It’s worth noting the low bottling strength, which is evident in the fairly sedate mouthfeel. There’s a little creamy texture to this and some distinct flavors, but nothing like the layered scents that greet the first sniff of this dram.

How to score it? I’m not the type of guy that would normally splash $400 on a Bowmore of any age. It’s worth noting that the distillery’s officially-bottled 25 year old (43%) fetches $550 near me. Assuming this is as good or better than that, it’s a comparatively good deal if you’re in the market for something of this age from Bowmore.

Score: 5/10

Thanks once again to Single Cask Nation for the free sample, which you can see did not affect my review or score, and the photograph.

CategoriesSingle Malt
Taylor
Taylor

Taylor's a native of Chicago. After heading to university in Scotland, he graduated from drinking Whyte & Mackay and Coke to neat single malts. He's also a keen fan of Japanese whisky, having visited the country regularly over the last several years, where he was able to assemble a decent collection before prices went batty.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Mark, I asked this same question prior to writing the review. According to Jason Johnstone-Yellin, “No real reason for the low strength. That was the natural strength of the cask we sampled. Low number of bottles suggests it was never re racked also a chance it had a slight leak. All speculation!” Hope this helps.

  1. John
    John says:

    Hey Taylor,

    Interesting review. But what is it with Bowmore, whose reputation is not so great, that gets people to still try it? I really don’t get it.

    I like the FWP part hehe. I just learned a new reference.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      John, Jason (Rover) and Mark could tell you about the glories of Bowmore in the days of long ago. I think people stick with it in an attempt to recapture some of that magic. Also, there’s a limited number of Islay distilleries and they all have their partisans (don’t believe me? write a review of an Islay whisky with a low score and brace for the pitchforks). Cheers!

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Bart, we have some fairly uncompetitive pricing in the U.S. relative to what you’d pay in the U.K. or E.U.

      If you can believe it, it’s about to get worse due to tariffs. An attempt to make bourbon great again, perhaps?

      In any case, enjoy what you’ve got!

  2. Avatar
    Greg B. says:

    I had heard of the FWP syndrome many years ago but through good or dumb luck I have never experienced it. It was a cause celebre a decade or more ago, however. I have mixed feelings about Bowmore. Their standard-issue 12 is not to my taste and the Darkest is completely unbalanced. However I somehow lucked into a travel retail 17 some years ago which was sublime, and some of their Devil’s Cask releases in recent years have been not bad at all. Pricing seems all over the map, with some things seeming a relative bargain while older variations are very/overly expensive in my view. Their inconsistency means it is something I never buy without a chance to try it beforehand.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Greg, I have heard variations on these themes from several people. There’s a sense of frustration with Bowmore. They show flashes of brilliance but then manage to mess it up through greed, incompetence, or some combination thereof. It’s fun to dream about what would happen if someone took over the distillery with an eye toward just making the tastiest whisky possible, consistently, and at a reasonable price. As you point out, though, in the meantime savvy shoppers will have to try before they buy. Cheers!

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