1964 was a momentous year for all sorts of reasons. Among other things, the US passed the Civil Rights Act, BBC 2 began broadcasting, the Queen opened the Forth Road Bridge, Dr Martin Luther King Jr was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Beatles took America by storm. As a country, the UK was somewhat abruptly awakened from its grim post-war slumber and jolted into life by the cultural, and counter-cultural, revolution and movements of the swinging sixties. Political activism and sexual liberation were every bit as fashionable as British Invasion bands and mini skirts. As this new era of youthful optimism, modernity and, of course, unadulterated hedonism swept across the western hemisphere, two icons were born.
Arguably the most iconic car in British cinema, the late Sir Sean Connery’s Aston Martin DB5 burst onto the silver screen in the landmark James Bond film ‘Goldfinger’, complete with revolving number plates, twin front machine guns, and passenger ejector seat. Closer to home, a small, unassuming parcel of casks was quietly laid down at Bowmore Distillery on the remote Kildalton coast of Islay’s south shore. The whisky from these casks would go onto be bottled across five expressions over the course of 23 years, between 1993 and 2016, as the now highly coveted Black Bowmore series. Now, more than half a century since their conception, these two behemoths of their respective worlds have come together with the creation of Black Bowmore DB5 1964.
To some, the juxtaposition of an ancient Islay distillery partnering with a luxury motor company may seem strange, but it’s not the first time a whisky brand has seemingly gone off-piste with its choice of bedfellow. Glenmorangie’s ‘Beyond The Cask’ project has seen the Tain-based distillery team up with designers and craftsmen to create sunglasses, bicycles, and even surfboards using casks which were previously used to mature their flagship Glenmorangie Original 10 Years Old. Bowmore isn’t even the first whisky brand to partner with an automotive company; The Balvenie collaborated with Morgan in 2014 to produce The Balvenie Morgan, a four-seater roadster with a 3.7 litre V6 engine capable of reaching 62mph in a little over four and a half seconds. William Grant and Sons donated it to Whisky.Auction’s 2020 charity auction.
However, compared to these previous collaborations, the partnership between Bowmore and Aston Martin has a completely different feel to it. Aston Martin is perhaps the British motor company which most evokes notions of proper, old-fashioned glitz and glamour, with the DB5 in particular epitomising the twilight years of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It is a luxury brand which rarely missteps, and whose whole brand ethos is underpinned by effortless style and class, with an enticing element of danger not least helped by its continued association with 007. Indeed, the forthcoming film and 25th instalment of the James Bond franchise, ‘No Time To Die’, features no fewer than four different Aston Martins including another appearance of the fabled DB5.
Whilst almost all of you reading this article will be more than familiar with Bowmore in one way or another, the Aston Martin name is considerably more widespread and recognised by a far greater number of the general public. It is precisely this luxury position and global reach that Bowmore will undoubtedly benefit from. While there is no shortage of luxury single malts from the mainland, there hasn’t been a concerted effort by any Islay single malt distillery to compete in these upper echelons. Yes, all Islay distilleries (and I include the currently closed but soon to be re-opened Port Ellen in this) have their old and rare expressions which have eye-wateringly high price tags attached, but nothing to the tune of £50,000 which is what a bottle of Black Bowmore DB5 1964 will set you back.
Malt whisky enthusiasts, and specifically Islay whisky enthusiasts, certainly won’t be complaining. It has meant prices have stayed relatively accessible, rather than spiralling toward the unattainable. That said, Bowmore has put a flag in the Islay sand, so to speak, with this partnership. It appears to have set its stall out as Islay’s number one luxury malt and sees itself sitting at the global luxury market’s top-table; a market, it should be noted, worth hundreds of billions of pounds. So, if you fall into that consumer group, and are thinking about purchasing a bottle of Black Bowmore DB5 1964, what exactly are you getting for your money? It is as aesthetically striking a product as I’ve seen, with the handmade packaging constructed from the finest string-grain calfskin, and boasting a nickel-plated, bespoke solid brass latch and hinges. The bottle has been hand-crafted by Tain-based contemporary design studio Glasstorm, and incorporates a genuine DB5 piston into its construction. But to fully appreciate this product, we must first consider the history of Black Bowmore.
Amidst the Guy Fawkes bonfires and firework displays on the 5th of November 1964, the first spirit was created using a newly installed boiler at Bowmore. The arrival of this boiler signified a fundamental change in how spirit was created at the distillery; instead of direct coal fires, the stills were steam-heated. This spirit was filled into several first-fill Williams & Humbert walnut brown oloroso sherry butts which were then laid down to mature in Bowmore’s unique, and legendary, No. 1 Vaults. This strangely gloomy and eerily murky warehouse, where one wall sits below the water level of Loch Indaal outside, is a dunnage warehouse unlike any other. Its thick, damp atmosphere gives up very little to the angels and is ideal for long, slow maturation. It allows for the concentration of aroma and flavour, the seamless integration of smoke, fruit, and wood, and ultimately the creation of sublime whisky. Between 1993 and 2016, the whisky from this parcel of 1964 sherry casks would go on to be bottled over five iterations of Black Bowmore, ranging from 29 years old to 50 years old.
In 1993, 2,000 bottles of the 29-year-old First Edition were released, on sale for between £80 and £110. It’s an absurdly low price in today’s terms, but in the fledgling single malt category of the early ‘90s it was a brave statement.
Nevertheless, the bottles only stayed on the shelves for a few weeks before they were all snapped up. Clearly there was an appetite for ‘luxury’ single malt. A year later, in 1994, 2,000 bottles of the 30-year-old Second Edition were released, again at a similarly attractive price point. When 1,812 bottles of the 31-year-old Final Edition were released in 1995, the price had crept up ever so slightly, but only to £100-£150. Given that expression’s name, it was widely thought that would be the last we would see of Black Bowmore, however in 2007 the Fourth Edition was released. The whisky landscape had shifted hugely since the mid-1990s; old, rare whisky was viewed as an exclusive, much sought-after commodity, which was reflected in the £2,400 asking price for each of the 827 bottles of 42-year-old whisky. In the nine years between the fourth and (actual) final release of Black Bowmore, the 50-year-old Final Cask in 2016, things had changed once again. The advent and subsequent flourishing of the secondary market had pushed prices higher than ever before. Consumers, collectors and investors were locking horns on an almost weekly basis across a plethora of online
auction sites. Each of the 159 bottles were priced at £16,000 and Black Bowmore was definitely no longer just for opening, drinking and enjoying, but for collecting, coveting, and investing in.
With two ‘final’ releases already on the market, one may be forgiven for wondering where the stock has come from for this new expression. The depths of Bowmore’s archives contained 27 bottles of the Final Edition (the Third Release) and it is liquid from these bottles which has been repackaged as Black Bowmore DB5 1964, with 25 being retailed and the remaining pair staying with the distillery. The eagle eyed among you will have spotted that the alcoholic strength of the Black Bowmore DB5 1964 is marginally higher than that of the Final Edition Third Release. There’s no witchcraft or wizardry here, simply advancements in science. In 1995, ‘obscuration’ was not considered. This is a phenomenon whereby alcohol, albeit in very minute quantities, is masked or hidden by sugar and wood extractives meaning the reported strength is slightly lower than the true strength. Had this been considered in 1995, the strength denoted on the bottle would likely have been a touch higher, around 49.8%, rather than the 49% which was recorded at the time. Over the intervening 25 years, a small amount of evaporation from the archived bottles has resulted in a slight reduction in strength, meaning the Black Bowmore DB5 1964 comes in at 49.6%. Geeky minutiae aside, there’s no doubt Bowmore’s collaboration with Aston Martin has opened the brand up to a completely new demographic.
Looking to the future, Bowmore and Aston Martin have already promised to unveil new products, experiences and initiatives which from a whole-category perspective is likely a good thing. While I may not understand the rationale or impetus of the people buying such luxury whisky, the trickle-down effect on Bowmore’s, and the wider single malt market’s offerings, can only be positive. It remains to be seen if that then increases the collectability of ‘normal’ Black Bowmore bottlings, and whether the auction price of previous releases will be impacted. Regardless, we have a new audience looking at Scotch in a completely different light.