It's all Go-more (Bowmore)
Islay's meant to be all about tranquillity. But when Ian Buxton visited Bowmore it was anything but
Islay is supposed to be quiet. Very quiet. The island’s image is of great peace and tranquillity; empty open spaces, washed by clear skies, a deep silence broken only by the cries of distant seabirds. Indeed, Bowmore’s latest corporate DVD is an elegiac tribute to Islay’s special tranquillity, vividly contrasted with the “thundering roads” that dominate our increasingly urbanised lives.
Islay, it reminds us, is a special place, its solitude having almost a spiritual quality, a soothing balm for our hurried existence. Islay is supposed to be quiet.
Well, it wasn’t when I was there. Apart from my visit, Bowmore’s manager Ian McPherson (known to one and all as Percy, though no-one seems to know why) had to deal with a group of industry panjandrums from the Keepers of the Quaich, led by former company owner Brian Morrison; a VIP visit by long-lost Ileach Dr Thomas Baillie, now of Philadelphia (of whom more later); the usual quota of visitors, most of whom seemed determined to get lost; a TV crew from RTE in Dublin; a maintenance gang of painters and the band of the Grenadier Guards.
Oh, and he was trying to fit in some distilling as well, if none of us minded. I may just have imagined the busied bandsmen, but you get the picture: Islay’s whole population might as well have dropped in for tea (and probably did) such was the pleasant air of energy and bustle.
Perhaps he was hiding from the crowds, but Ian (a.k.a. Percy) found time to walk with me round Bowmore’s whole operation and then retire to the famed No 1 Vaults to pick out a few very special casks with which to tantalise our readers. But let us begin at the beginning.
Bowmore distillery, one of the oldest in Scotland, has stood on the shores of Loch Indaal on the Hebridean island of Islay since 1779. Things were evidently pretty lively in the whisky business in the late 18th century.
Just a few years after Bowmore opened, local cleric – the Reverend Archibald Roberson – was moved to complain: “This island hath a liberty of brewing whisky without being under the necessity of paying the usual excise duty to the government. The quantity therefore of whisky that is made here is very great; and the evil that follows drinking to excess of this liquor, is very visible in this island.” Not so quiet then either, it would seem.
However, Bowmore evidently prospered despite the competition and, by 1825, had expanded sufficiently to justify spending £65 on building an eight mile long new lade to supply water to the distillery.
I only mention this because, with minor re-routing, they’re using it still, though disappointingly for city slickers they don’t call it ‘the new lade’. Various owners came and went (the curious can follow their progress on a series of metal plaques mounted above the washbacks) and Bowmore continued to prosper.
In 1963, Stanley P Morrison Ltd of Glasgow acquired the distillery for £117,000 and its recent history began. (Incidentally, note that just 40 years ago you could buy an entire distillery for £117,000. On current trends, it won’t be long before someone pays that for a single bottle of obscure malt.) Stanley P Morrison Ltd became Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd and, in 1989, the Japanese Suntory group took an interest, which developed into full control when the Morrison family sold out in 1994.
However, under their essentially benevolent and far-sighted ownership, things have gone from strength to strength. Like its sister distillery Auchentoshan (see Whisky Magazine, Issue 28), Bowmore has invested in demanding quality control systems; driven hard for exports; picked up an impressive cabinet full of competitive awards and innovated in wood management and finishes for their malts.
But interestingly, my visit began with a blend – the company’s Rob Roy brand.
“Try this,” said Ian/Percy “I think you’ll like it.”
And indeed I did, though I will confess to not knowing this whisky before my visit. It’s an obscure and hard-to-find dram but broad hints were dropped that this may change. Judging by its rich, malty taste it’s an expensive drop to produce, so it deserves wider success.
If ever you visit the distillery (and you should), put a bottle of this in your suitcase. Take a tip from me: if the distillery manager drinks it, you’re on pretty safe ground!
And, after that, we took off round the distillery. Bowmore is open to the public, with tours available year round for a modest £2.
It attracts around 5,000 visitors annually and is a great ambassador for the industry. The distillery is freshly painted, spotlessly clean, sensibly laid out and obviously well cared for.
The team of guides are friendly and well informed (see our Mystery Visitor’s report in Issue 26) and you see everything.
The biggest thrill though, is probably the floor malting and traditional peat kiln. Bowmore still maintains its own floor malting and produces around a third of its requirements by this method.
There are 3 floors, each holding 7 tons of barley, which remains on the floor for 6-7 days, being painstakingly turned every four hours, day and night.
After that, it spends 42 hours drying in hot air after 18 hours over a peat smoke fire.
Compared to near neighbours such as Laphroaig and Lagavulin, Bowmore is relatively lighted peated at around 20-25 parts per million of phenol.
Interestingly, the rest of the malt comes from 16 farms (all in Scotland) totally dedicated to Bowmore’s needs, the distillery’s quality control and traceability systems being so strict that every ear of barley can now be traced back to the source of the seed, the date of its sowing and the conditions of the harvest.
Environmental and quality concerns at Bowmore are such that they have redesigned their boiler system to recover lost energy and the peat burning has been controlled so that the same amount of the richly aromatic smoke is produced with around one-third of the peat used just a few years ago.
The result, of course, is that less fuel is consumed and this unique resource will last three times as long; good for the island and good for our kids.
On to the mill, a good sturdy Porteus model in traditional red; past the copper covered mash tun, once the property of the Jura distillery, and through to the Oregon pine washbacks.
There we caught up with the VIP American visitors, Dr Thomas Baillie and his wife. Now a senior research scientist in the pharmaceuticals industry, Dr Baillie was paying a sentimental visit to the land of his ancestors.
“I was born in Mill House,” he explained to us, “when my father was the manager here. I expect it’s all gone now.”
The manager looked alarmed.
“Well, I sincerely hope not,” he said.
“I’ve laid out my best suit for the Keepers’ dinner tonight and it won’t do to have it crushed.”
Ian/Percy it seems, still lives in Mill House, a fact that both Dr Baillie and I found moving and curiously reassuring.
There are two pairs of stills, around 25 years old, by Forsyth’s of Rothes. The real curiosity in the still house is the spirit safe, by Robert Armour & Sons of Campbeltown, which must be all of a century old and still going strong.
That and the view of Loch Indaal, which of course is timeless. I spent some of my time looking over the calm, clear waters to Bruichladdich and beyond.
What must folk from, say, Slough make of this when they realise you can live and work with a view that, with its thousand subtle changes, would daily refresh the spirit. (No disrespect intended to Slough, but Betjeman did have a point.)
After that, we left the daylight behind and moved to the No 1 Vaults.
This is the one you see in all the brochures, and where the tours go. It’s right on the edge of the distillery, its wall being the sea wall and lying below sea level.
This is where the celebrated “Queen’s Cask” lay from August 1980 until it was filled last year – bottle number 631 was auctioned for charity this September at McTears for £9,200.
At last, we’d found somewhere quiet and the serious work could begin. We were here to assess sample casks from the trilogy of 1964 limited edition wood finishes begun earlier this year.
A former marketing man myself, I was not surprised that we were joined – just as the first cask was broached – by the company’s marketing manager, Matthew Mitchell. Some visceral instinct brought him unerringly to our sides as our glasses brimmed over and a glorious aroma began to fill the already heady air.
Well, readers, we nosed for Scotland. Great treats lie in store for those of you prepared to part with the £1,000 per bottle this whisky will retail for, assuming for a moment that you ever drink the stuff (as the distillery would strongly recommend).
Most, I fear, will be destined for collections – for ever tantalisingly on display, yet never to be touched.
It’s a curious and bitter-sweet fate that awaits these ancient malts – too valuable to drink; unfulfilled, yet within reach of their destiny; objects of an admiration that can never be fully consummated.
I, however, drank my samples and don’t regret it for a moment.
My memory calls up an immense complexity, that unwound with water to reveal notes of (in no particular order) liquorice, Dundee cake, peaches, kiwi fruit, ripe melons, lemon, hints of mint and faint distant traces of peat, like smoke on a breeze, once caught then hauntingly gone.
And that was just the first cask – a second-fill oloroso, at around 46-48% abv.
A second cask, this time first-fill bourbon, had us gasping in admiration.
“Is this whisky?” we wondered, such was the beguiling cornucopia of flavour. Cream; pear drops; melon (again); rich, dark grapefruit on the very edge of full-blown ripeness and carrot cake were revealed in turn.
We stood, slightly in awe. For whisky lovers, I realised, it doesn’t get any better than this.
We were confronting the Holy Grail whilst standing in the Vatican; watching George Best in his pomp at Old Trafford; saluting the Bruce at Bannockburn.
Ian/Percy, of course, had a job to do:
“I’d better get off now and see how the painters are getting along” and so we left the spirit to rest a little longer.
It’s hard to see how it can improve, though obviously I might need a second visit just to be sure.
Owners of less well-endowed wallets can enjoy a wide range of Bowmore at different ages and in a variety of finishes, all widely available and, to a lesser or greater extent, financially accessible.
The signature style, and my recommended starting point if you don’t know Bowmore, is the 12 Years Old. It’s a remarkably long and complex dram, less aggressive than some of its island counterparts, with the smokiness balanced by heather honey sweetness.
Then there is Legend (widely available in the UK) and Surf, seen just in Duty-Free; Cask Strength (big and bold – it does exactly what it says on the tin); Dawn, Dusk and Darkest, all twelve years in bourbon and then finished, respectively, in claret, port or oloroso casks for a further two years; then 15, 17 and 25 Years Old.
Some of the last stocks of 30 Years Old with its attractive direct-fired label can still be found, but is being snapped up by shrewd collectors.
Perhaps the most energetic of these is Dutchman Hans Sommer. Owner of some 193 different bottlings of Bowmore he is nevertheless on the lookout for more.
At his home in Doetinchem he maintains a Bowmore museum and his website, at http://home.planet.nl/~sir.bowmore/home.htm is a veritable shrine to this very remarkable whisky.
After just over a day at the distillery I began to understand his passion. I left Bowmore with many a backward glance and a yearning for casks left unbroached; the salt air of Loch Indaal and the dry humour of the ‘Ian who is known as Percy’.
Like Dr Baillie, I felt I had reached home, where they turn wood to gold and smoke lies on the water.
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