Another notification pops up on my trusty handheld device; more often than not battered by the onslaught of incoming this and that. The finger of power swipes left or right to confirm their ultimate destination, but this message is about whisky and that warrants a moment to consider its contents.
Fellow enthusiasts are on Islay, and more specifically, the eternal frustration that is Bowmore distillery. Somehow still managing to be Islay’s greatest distillery despite the whirlpool of disappointment that it often churns out. Deep down many of us still have a fondness for this rogue producer. Badly represented at retail with official releases watered down, coloured and chill-filtered to create an inoffensive and benign existence. Many still cling to the outer walls of the famous warehouse in the hope that something special, maybe even just enjoyable will escape into the wider world. But this is old news if you’ve been a regular reader of Malt these past few years and the truth hurts, sometimes.
There has been a transition in the Distillery Exclusive format in recent years away from offering something special as a reward to travellers. The new destination seems to be more of a short-term fix with finishes and escalating prices. Perhaps easier to manage and sell than the whole theatre of rolling out a single cask and allowing visitors to bottle it themselves. I always prefer the pomp and ceremony of filling your own bottle; a wonderful moment and memento to treasure.
Such moments are becoming increasingly more expensive and during my distillery visits in 2019 and a little of 2020, I turned away from several such options. There do remain some valid exponents of the genre including Tomatin (despite some criticising recent price increases) and Glenfiddich has always done a good job for visitors. There are others such as GlenDronach, but pricing continues to be an issue for many and a large portion of these purchases end up on the secondary market. One good thing about the whole COVID-19 scenario is that it has forced distilleries to embrace more online possibilities. Where able, to sell such distillery exclusives online to a wider audience such as Bruichladdich and warm a few weary hearts in the process.
Another twist on the genre is that of the distillery exclusive; good to go straight off the shelf. That’s what we have here. Bowmore does offer its own single cask bottling option but I’ve failed on my visits to the distillery to purchase a bottle. Such a release is like bees around honey to the flipper and auction faithful. The drinker unless you’re canny, or have friends nearby, will often be left empty-handed.
The pre-bottled edition can be launched in larger numbers and without the fussy necessities of handwritten labels and a member of staff guiding the purchaser through forms. There’s also no need to wait on the distillery manager picking out a cask to bottle either. I suppose it devalues the distillery staff, who quite often will pick out gems opposed to someone at HQ looking at a spreadsheet and profit margins. In retrospect, that’s a shame. I still recall the Manager’s Choice at Glenmorangie years ago with some real gems to be had.
So, with all that said and done, we’re at Bowmore and you’ll be asking who the heck is David Simson? Good question. A distillery such as Bowmore offers a rich history of possible contenders to name bottles after including that fella Aston Martin, who was a bit shallow and flashy. David founded the distillery in 1779 and given the audacity of distillers at that time, the general historical consensus is that he was distilling prior to coming out being official. The date is impressive. More so, if you consider that most Speyside distilleries and the big hitters of whisky today, didn’t become legal until the introduction of the 1823 Excise Act.
Most whisky enthusiasts believe that is when Scotland really took off in terms of distilling and while that’s partially true of today’s modern age, with many of the protagonists still with us, there was a generation of distilleries prior to a new influx. For a sense of what went before including Bowmore then look towards Kennetpans which was by the 1730s the largest distillery in Scotland. A wonderful site that still exists and is finally receiving some much needed tender loving care.
Anyway, back to David himself and for further information, I referred to But the Distilleries Went On by Ian Buxton which focuses on the history of Morison Bowmore. Sadly, this book seems to be out of print and now retails on the secondary Amazon market for £50-£100. It’s not worth that by any stretch of the imagination and given the niche focus, you might stumble across an unsold copy at a bookshop. David’s name first pops up via Killarow on Islay during the 1760s, which is near Bridgend and has been lost to time – not to be confused with the Bridgend distillery.
In 1766, Simson moved to Bowmore and from Ian’s research, he was a man of many talents, which was a necessity to exist in the Highlands performing the roles of a ferryman, postmaster and of course, distiller. Negotiating a lease from the laird of the island, he set about establishing Bowmore although there is strong speculation that the distillery was re-established in 1825 by John Johnston. And the rest, as they say, is history…
This distillery exclusive is of an edition of 6000 bottles bottled at 50.7% strength. Matured in both Oloroso (15 years) and Pedro Ximenez (5 years) sherry casks. I understand there was a stampede for bottles when announced from travellers and locals alike. This release sold out fast than you can shout free money and has since departed the shores of Islay for the secondary market.
Bowmore 20 Year Old David Simson – review
On the nose: sweet peat, some salt but mostly mossy with cherry and a metallic note. Cranberry jam, cinnamon and a paraffin residue. Coconut, a cold-pressed cacao orange bar, honeycomb and orange peel. Time I felt was beneficial to help open up the dram. A splash of water also unlocked hard-boiled candy and some toffee.
In the mouth: lacking the vibrancy of the nose this is more wood-orientated. Mossy peat, peppery and some soot. Cranberries, red apples, tobacco and cloves. A hot dark chocolate with a touch of dryness on the finish.
The first tasting wasn’t anything massively exciting. Returning to this over the course of a couple of days not only confirmed its drinkability, but also its charms. I’m enjoying what I’m drinking, but the contents aren’t sweeping me off my feet. This is a well-rounded, sherry-focused Bowmore. Having a split has worked out extremely well and it won’t last too long. A fitting tribute? Personally, I don’t really care, as distilleries pillage their history with greater aplomb than any invading force. But it does underline the fact that Bowmore can do better when it wants to and should revisit its core range.
There is a commission link in the above article if you want to track down a copy of the aforementioned publication. Thanks to the lads for coming through with this split and photograph.