B

Bowmore Classic Collection

Born and bred on Islay. And messed up on the mainland?

Forgive our little Banksy enhancement of a current Bowmore slogan. But it does serve to underline the mystery as to what goes wrong at the distillery, between maturation and what you purchase at retail. You can also apply the same logic to Laphroaig, just down the road, which is similarly blighted by some inept official releases. Things have become so tragic and tiresome that some friends now refer to Islay’s greatest distillery as Boremore.

So, where have things gone wrong and off the rails? We’re all well versed in the minefield that are the 1980s and this distillery. The ultimate validation and need to try before you buy. Whenever Bowmore reaches the market, it isn’t cheap and without this ability, you could purchase a dud of Jura-like proportions. The twist is that since the turn of the millennium, the wonderful distillate is back and the indies are bottling quality casks that are starting to appear with increasing frequency. Albeit at higher prices, but we should all drink less and why not reach for something worthwhile and memorable? That was my motivation with the North Star Spirits 2001 Bowmore, which is one of my favourites from 2020.

Despite all the hardships that many of us have endured with the variability of all things Bowmore, we remain enchanted by the prospect of the distillery and its wares. The mesmerising concoction of peat and fruit that transcends many other outlets on Islay. When Bowmore is on form, the game’s a bogey for the competition. Which I suppose is why we cling to such fond memories and chase any incoming releases.

The Siren-like seductive allure of Bowmore perhaps explains why our Patreons voted for the Bowmore 18 year old to appear in our coverage. Each month we give our tremendous supporters the opportunity to vote in a poll and plug a gap, or return to a distant review. When we reached ‘B’ in July, Bowmore represented prime real-estate for such a vote. And when shopping to make it happen, I stumbled across the Bowmore Classic Collection that is available in various sizes and features the 12, 15 and 18. So, using some editorial freedom, we’ve gone from a single review to a vertical of the mainstays of the official range.

Many whisky drinkers would view the prospect of this trio, as a challenge and a possible descent into the turmoil of how not to bottle officially. The only official Bowmore’s that interest me nowadays (excluding the private jet trophy fodder) are the distillery handfills and these only tend to exist on the secondary market. The last couple of times I’ve visited the hallowed turf of Bowmore, such casks have not been available.

At least packs such as these allow you to make a tentative step into an official range. Today’s Classic pack retails for £22.85 on Amazon for the 5cl edition, or £47.95 for the 20cl version from the Whisky Exchange.

Bowmore 12 year old – review

Bottled at 40% strength, this release will cost £34.95 from Master of Malt, whereas the Whisky Exchange will request £35.95 and Amazon just £26.

Colour: caramel.

On the nose: a gentle peat greets you with a touch of saltiness and pine cones. Damp cardboard, more fresh dampness and milk chocolate. Sooty in parts, maybe cloves, but the whole thing feels underpowered and lacking drive.

In the mouth: a little sweetness before the core flavours of an earthy peat and more cardboard characteristics take over. Toffee apple, spent gunpowder and honey round off a very forgettable whisky.

Score: 3/10

Bowmore 15 year old Darkest – review

This release has just been replaced by a straightforward 15 statement, which is available for £52.90 via Amazon, the Whisky Exchange comes in at £59.95 and Master of Malt request £52.90.

Colour: artifical.

On the nose: at 43% strength this feels so gentle and timid. Toffee, walnuts, dried bark and a faint stream of sea salt. Honeyed oats, aniseed, coastal peat and the faint ghost of red apples from last season.

In the mouth:a little more body on the palate and strength. Still mainly salted cardboard with some earthy aspects, or mulch if you want to be more trendy. A little fudge sweetness from the sherry cask, but it hasn’t really delivered much more other than a cigar quality and some chocolate. Pretty dull.

Score: 3/10

Bowmore 18 year old – review

Bottled at 43% strength, this release retails for £77.90 at Master of Malt, the Whisky Exchange will ask £77.90 and Amazon at £75.94.

Colour: amber that looks a bit fake.

On the nose: Jeez, night and day compared to the aforementioned North Star Spirits 18 year old. It’s been obliterated, purged and sanded down, removing almost every trace of reasonable character. Ok, let’s delve deeper. A light toffee, more dried bark but this time lacking any real saltiness, and then chocolate towards the end.

In the mouth: really bad, really bad. Inept and muddled. There’s no real character here. Dankness as if it has been smothered in artificial colouring. Cold black tea, damp cardboard, smoke and a gentle peat.

Score: 3/10

Conclusions

Not a great selection by any stretch of the imagination. What surprises initially was the 15 year old nose that lacked complexity compared to the meagre 12. And the lack of progression as you venture up the ages. If anything, there’s a decline. Whether that’s as a result of expectation is arguable. To ensure further validity, I went back across a couple of evenings and my impressions didn’t drastically change whatsoever.

The whiskies are drinkable but lack character. Now, I’m not expecting 1960’s Bowmore in the slightest. But I do know what this distillery is producing thanks to the work of independent bottlers. I also know that other distilleries on Islay are capable of putting out a solid core range offering that doesn’t cost the earth or chases off inexperienced whisky drinkers with a bucket load of peat. While you can throw the 12 a lifeline as the entry malt, I’d have expected more expansive features as you progressed. Instead, there’s a real timid and frankly boring nature to all of these whiskies. And that’s a shame because 3rd party releases are showcasing it in a far better light.

There are commission links in the above article. As you can see these don’t have a positive or negative effect on our view. They just exist.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Greg B. says:

    A good summary of how I also feel about Bowmore, although you are easier on the Darkest 15 than I would have been. I find the 12 forgettable but inoffensive, and in my area it is one of the less expensive single malts on the shelf so it at least has that going for it. In that context it compares favorably to the 12 y-o Glenfiddichs and Singletons of the world. I had a bottle of the 18 a few years ago and found it disappointing for the price, with an experience almost identical to yours. It was a big step down from a 17 y-o I had managed to find at a whisky festival a couple of years earlier (I believe it was originally offered as a travel retail only item) which was absolutely sublime and easily the best Bowmore I ever had.

    It is the 15 Darkest that I simply cannot understand. I recall the original statement from the distillery when it was introduced saying that it featured a lot of sherry cask influence and so I expected to like it given that and the age. Nothing could be further from the truth however. In trying several different bottles over the years it never gets any better. It is always unbalanced, almost unpleasant at times, and simply not agreeable to me. I don’t know how they keep doing it – one would think that even by chance an occasional vatting would produce something halfway decent given the age. But it simply is not good, ever.

    I know Bowmore can produce some good whisky. Aside from the aforementioned and long-gone 17, I have had several of their Devil’s Cask offerings which are quite good. But their core range is hugely disappointing. One wonders what their management must be thinking to allow this to go on for so long.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Greg B

      Well put and we’re not alone with it comes to Bowmore. The frustration and also the desire to see and taste something better. A day that seems more out of reach than ever before.

      Cheers, Jason.

  2. Greg
    Greg says:

    Great article Jason!

    Bowmore’s quality downfall is surpassed only by Macallan’s. I’ll never understand how someone like Serge could rate these in the high 70s to high 80s. They are totally underpowered, boring, and worst of all overpriced. Which is frustrating given how great the IBs and hand-filled bottles are. Something is happening between the distillate going into the cask and being placed into the bottle.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Thanks, Greg, now that’s a topic for another article. Macallan? They’ve sold their soul. I won’t comment on other reviewers who are entitled to their own opinion. I’m sure they will also acknowledge the quality being released via the independent sector.

      Cheers, Jason.

  3. John
    John says:

    I’m glad I’m not alone with tasting cardboard in OB Bowmore. It’s something I didn’t really pick up in IB Bowmore and old Bowmore. Any idea where this comes from?

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Part of me wonders if it is the filtering or something in the post-production process. Also some poor sherry casks depending on the release and colouring. Lots of colouring.

  4. Avatar
    Robin says:

    Thx for the review. I’m looking for some accessible (in terms of price and availability) Bowmore that is actually worth trying.
    Any recommendations? (I’m from Belgium ;)). Ow and good indy Bunna as well.. My cabinet is 6 bottles short since this weekend as I finished up some left overs lately =).

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Robin

      Thanks for dropping by. The recent North Start Spirits Bowmore 18yo was cracking if you can find it. That’s been the one that’s stood out this year.

      Bunnahabhain is a more tricky as there are so many, but how many finishes? I’ll have to think of that one, as there hasn’t been one I could fully recommend recently. A handful of Cadenhead’s from recent years, including the young heavily peated are certainly worthwhile.

      Cheers, Jason.

  5. Avatar
    Smiffy says:

    It seems buying the stuff from an Indie is the only way to circumvent Bowmore’s self destructive sales regime. This does tempt me to buy a cask’s worth of new make and get it casked and stored with an indie (the 10 to 15 year wait will be worth it).

  6. Avatar
    Welsh Toro says:

    I’ve witnessed the tragic decline of Bowmore in my own lifetime. I used to pick up the odd bottle. The last one I bought was a manzanilla cask 18 year old at cask strength a few years ago. That was good and reasonably priced but limited. Even that did nothing to address the aimless direction of a former glorious distillery. I don’t know how much influence the parent company, Suntory, has on the distillery but when I look at Suntory owned whisky brands I see nothing exciting or, should I say, products not firing on all cylinders. Independent Bowmore can be very good but usually very expensive and in the top category of independent prices. It’s a distillery that’s largely forgotten about by the whisky community and it’s obvious why.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi WT

      Yes, it is a tragedy and many don’t know what Bowmore is capable of, or was once. Still, the indies who can afford the prices for a cask, report very good things. While the newbies probably wonder why we’re all paying over the odds for a whisky from that distillery…

      There is a heavy hand being deployed somewhere within the chain at Beam Suntory. The liquid result isn’t pleasant and sums up so many underachieving distilleries within their portfolio.

      Cheers, Jason.

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