The following may seem like a long-winded post, but if you’ve followed any of the recent (and not so recent) discussions on Bowmore and FWP, then I encourage you to read this in full.
Some background first: A few years ago, a couple of Bowmore fans in the USA (members of the PLOWED mob) noticed that one or two bottlings of Bowmore suddenly had a very pronounced and unpleasant perfumey nose that was completely contrary to the delicious and fragrant Bowmore nose that all loved and adored. This phenomenon was a varied and inconsistent affair, turning up in random and varied expressions. The PLOWED guys coined the term FWP (French Whore’s Perfume) to describe the phenomenon, and it has now fallen into common usage amongst internet-using whisky enthusiasts, (i.e. we here at the Whisky Magazine forum, Malt Maniacs, etc, etc).
FWP-tainted Bowmores appear to be restricted to the official distillery bottlings. As far as I am aware, none of the independent bottlings have been accused or suspected.
Now for my money, Bowmore has always had a fragrant, floral nose. Being a generally less heavily peated malt than some of its Islay colleagues, these floral, fragrant notes stand out from the peat, giving it an altogether different nose to, say, Lagavulin or Laphroaig.
In the last 12-18 months, several people were contributing to these pages and either querying or confirming an overly perfumed nose they’d experienced on their most recent Bowmore purchase. It appeared to be an international affair, with accused bottles turning up in the USA, Canada, the UK, Ireland, and several European countries, (i.e. Belgium, etc).
International, that is, except for Australia. I posted numerous times that neither myself, nor any of the serious whisky drinkers I knew in Australia had come across a tainted bottle. We are all very familiar with what overseas drinkers were referring to, but no one here seemed to be unfortunate enough to purchase a tainted bottle.
With this in mind, Tom, our Belgium correspondent and active Whisky Mag contributor, approached me and put forward a theory: Could it be that we here in Australia have been drinking FWP-tainted Bowmores, and simply not known it? Could it be that we are so accustomed to it, that we just accept that this is what Bowmore smells and tastes like? Could it be that our geographical isolation and southern hemisphere upbringing has instilled in our nostrils and tastebuds a different tolerance to perfumed whiskies?
Tom had a bottle of Bowmore Darkest which he believed was FWP-tainted. As far as Tom was concerned, the bottle was undrinkable, and, in order to research his theory, Tom kindly sent me a 200ml sample from his bottle of Darkest.
Coincidentally, I had recently finished a bottle of Darkest. My mission, therefore, was to explore this Belgium-purchased Darkest, and advise whether its characteristics were any different to the Bowmores I was familiar with. In other words, “Do you find this as undrinkable as I do?”
The sample bottle arrived, and I immediately “researched” the contents. On first impressions, the nose revealed an out-of-balance sherry trait, and perhaps a little sulphur. However, the peat was there, other aspects of the nose appeared to be in order, and there was nothing offensive in the nose. It certainly was not perfumed or over the top.
So on to the palate. Again, it struck me as being poorly balanced. Bowmore Darkest is not what it used to be, and I suspect the quality of the casks being used for the sherry finish has deteriorated significantly since the expression was first launched. However, it was still drinkable!
Then something strange happened. It was the early evening, and I stopped for dinner. I followed dinner with a sweet dessert. Later in the evening, about two hours or so after my last visit, I poured a fresh dram to investigate the whisky further. The nose was still as it was before….poorly balanced, a little harsh and sulphury, but no soap or perfume. Then I swallowed. This is where it got interesting….suddenly, the whisky seemed awfully metallic, and the aftertaste on the finish was horribly bitter. Unpleasantly bitter. I don’t know whether or not this was because of the sweet dessert my tastebuds had previously enjoyed or not, but nonetheless, the whisky was not a pleasant tasting experience.
Over the next few nights, I experimented a few more times – drams before dinner, drams after dinner, fresh palate, tired palate, etc, etc. After a week, I concluded as follows:
* There is nothing too unpleasant or overly perfumed about the nose. No hints of soap, or cheap whore’s perfume. (Or expensive whore’s perfume!). The nose had hints of acetone, and other sharp notes that suggested poor sherry wood.
* The palate is not good, but it is drinkable. The sherry is out of balance, lacquered on like a false coat of paint, and the malt is lost behind it. Good Bowmores still have a malty base that integrates well with the peat, but this is not a good Bowmore.
* FWP? I don’t think so. When the term first came into use, before knowledge of it became widespread, people complained mostly of a horrible nose, overly perfumed or soapy. This whisky did not have those characteristics. I’m a big fan of Bowmore, and it can be a floral whisky, but this was just a very bad bottle, due – I suspect – to very poor use of sherry. Given that the whisky is a no-age-statement, I also strongly suspect that there is a fair portion of young whisky in there. I base this suspicion on the harsher, volatile, metallic elements in the flavour profile.
Okay, those were my thoughts. But what about testing it with other knowledgeable palates? About a week later, I served some samples to two colleagues whose palates I greatly respect. One is the Laird of my whisky appreciation club, the other is an accomplished chef, food & spirit critic, and also the Australian Ambassador of the Islay Whisky Club. I did not tell them what they were drinking, so their reactions were not affected by personal bias or preconceived ideas.
Both men agreed that it was not a particularly good whisky. Neither commented on the nose being anything special or out of the ordinary, although both were unimpressed with the palate. One, in particular, thought the palate was a little harsh and unpleasant. Most importantly of all though, neither commented on the nose being perfumy, soapy, or unpleasant. When I revealed that the whisky was a Bowmore, one was nonchalant, the other was surprised, e.g. “Bowmores are usually so much better than this!”
We then discussed FWP in the context of what we’d just tasted, and came to the following verdict: No FWP, just a poor Bowmore.
So, what does this mean then? May I offer the following thoughts:
* I believe FWP does exist. I have no doubt that some people have experienced it, and it is a problem that Bowmore have to address. (Attempts by some to discuss the issue with the distillery have been met with denial).
* It is clear that Bowmore are bottling some pretty poor whiskies in some of their expressions. Having said that, in the last few months I have had generous tastings of Legend, 12yo, 17yo, and Dawn, and I found all four of these to be either good or fantastic whiskies. My last bottle of Darkest was poor, and certainly the bottle of Darkest that Tom sent me was very poor.
* As a distillery per se, Bowmore does not deserve the flak it receives. I regularly taste a lot of independent bottlings of Bowmore, and they are nothing less than absolutely stellar Islay whiskies. They are clearly capable of producing some bloody good whisky. I do not know why some of their official bottlings have been poor lately, but I suspect they face the same pressures and problems that many other distilleries face in trying to produce a consistent product.
* Some people have obviously purchased and tasted some of these poorer bottlings, and – together with the signature floral nose that some Bowmores exhibit – have concluded that FWP is the problem. In other words, people are assuming their bottle is FWP-tainted, when it isn’t really….it’s just poor whisky.
* Tom and I have discussed my thoughts prior to me posting this, and it seems we agree on the conclusion. No doubt some here will read all of this and dispute my thoughts, and that’s okay…..we’re all entitled to our opinion. However, I would like to state that I believe everyone involved in this particular experiment has been objective and rational about it, and – as the saying goes – the proof is in the pudding!
My personal thanks go to Tom for conceiving the idea, and for sending me the sample bottle to try. If anyone else has a bottle of Bowmore that they believe is FWP-tainted, I would welcome them to contact me and we can widen the research….hopefully for the benefit of everyone!
Finally, thanks for reading this very long post!