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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Single Malt Report: THREE(!) Bowmores

So far I've posted about only single malts distilled in the Highlands and Speyside regions.  These regions make up 75-90% of the single malt labels you'll see at the bars and liquor stores in the US.  They're the highest producing Scotch whisky regions due to their rivers and climate.  These malts are also the starting point for most of us Scotch lovers.  Their often creamy, mellow, vanilla, and dried fruit notes suit the American palate very well -- so the distributors load our shores with the Glenlivets, Glenfiddichs, Macallans, Balvenies, and Glenmorangies.

Though most of my Reports will be on that region, I'm going to make an effort cover the other regions as well since some spectacular and unique flavors are found in their single malts.

Today, I'll start with a distillery from the Islay region.  The Islay island sits at the far southwest corner of Scotland, just north of Northern Ireland.

Islay (pronounced eye-lay) single malts are often known for their peaty palates.  Peat, partially decayed vegetal turf, can be found in bogs all over the world, but especially in Scotland and Ireland.  Many distilleries use peat fires to dry their barley at the start of the whisky making process which is where that flavor often sneaks in.  And not all peat patches are equal.  In Islay, specifically, the heavy sea air and coastal seaweed gives the peat salty, menthol, and iodine flavors.  It's those sorts of strong aromas and tastes that turn off many scotch drinkers (and their significant others).

But, dear friends, don't let that scare you away from the Islays.  They may take some time to warm up to, but those peat flavors provide a nice counter volley to the barley and wood elements in your drink.  Whisky guides claim that more that 80 aroma compounds have been found within peat, plus it's full of antioxidants!

Bowmore.  Sitting in the mouth of Laggan Bay, Islay's capital Bowmore is a little village of about 860 folks.  Its distillery produces some of the most popular of the island's whiskies.  Bowmore peats its barley malts for a lesser time than most of the other Islay distilleries.  As a result, their bottlings have less of the intense medicinal phenol flavor that hits Lagavulin, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig.  Bowmore also tends to smoke the barley rather than heavily heat it which also results in different flavors than those distilleries to the south.

Normally, I report on one whisky at a time.  But this past August I attended a free tasting at The Daily Pint, which provided the opportunity to sample three Bowmore whiskies.  The atmosphere around these tastings can get a bit intense.  There's six people per tasting shift, and about a dozen shifts.  So while one is trying focus on the free delights in a LOUD dark bar, 50+ people are waiting impatiently all around.  I'm not knocking the process.  I'll never gripe about free whisky.  The atmosphere just slightly compromises one's sensory skills, especially if one is a relative newbie.  Amongst the hubbub of happy whisky fans, I tried the following:

First tasting:

Distillery: Bowmore
Age: 12 years
Finish: unknown
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 40%

Mild.  Mild in everything.  Color, nose, alcohol content, texture, flavor, finish.  When in the aforementioned whisky tasting situation, sussing out subtleties is a struggle when given a 0.5oz pour.  And this one was a challenge.

The color was a medium brass-like tone, the lightest shade of the three.  Mild peat (more smoke than wet seaweed) on the nose and the palate.  Otherwise, a little bit of lemon.  Sweetens up at the very end which is a nice counter to the smoke.

Frankly, it was the least interesting of the three.  But at the same time, the least peaty.  So it's a safe way to ease into the Islays and it's one of Bowmore's cheaper bottlings.  The prices are all over the place for this, as noted:

Pricing - Good at $35, Acceptable at $50
Rating - 77

Second tasting:

Distillery: Bowmore
Age: 15 years
Name:  Bowmore Darkest
Finish: Oloroso Sherry Casks
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

Darkest indeed.  Looks like maple syrup!  It's been said that Sherry casks can impart the deep shades but this is so dark that I wonder if they hit it with some carmel coloring just to make sure that it is indeed "Darkest".

Immediate sherry on the nose.  Sweeter aromas than the 12yr.  The palate starts a little peatier than the 12, then sweetness zips in from behind.  The sweetness isn't dried fruits nor caramel.  Maybe toffee?  It finishes with the same peat & sherry dance, though it sustains less than the 12yr.

These dark whiskies are always fun.  They look like candy in a bottle and are often tasty even if the whole package isn't working.  Another good way to introduce oneself to this whisky region, but more expensive than the 12.  The prices are also spread out for this one, as noted:

Pricing - Good at $60, Acceptable at $85
Rating - 80

Third tasting:

Distillery: Bowmore
Age: 10 years
Name:  Bowmore Tempest, Batch 2
Finish: First-fill Bourbon Casks
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 56.5%

Cask-strength!  Always a fan of cask-strength whiskies.  If you check out the ABV, you'll see what I mean.  Cask strength whiskies keep the alcohol content of the product sitting in the final maturation casks.  They vary anywhere from 48%-62%.

The bad news about these hefty bottlings is that the ethanol can overpower all flavors and aromas.  So most whiskies are diluted by the producer to both increase the amount of product and to make it better.

The good news is that you can play with cask-strength whiskies more, adding a little water at a time to find out what happens to the nose and the palate.  Or you can sip them neat, but beware......it can numb your face.  I know this from personal experience.

The Bowmore Tempest was done well.  The alcohol does not overwhelm.  In fact, this is like the 12 but a little hotter and crazier.  It's not sweet like the 15yr.  There's smoke and cinnamon on the nose.  A little vanilla with some smoke in the palate, followed by some citrus.  The peat remains in the background throughout.  The finish is loooooong, warm, and spicy.

Though the emcee of this tasting was prone to exaggeration, he wasn't kidding when he told us that The Tempest was limited and difficult to find.  Production was kept at 2000 cases so I'm not sure how much actually made it to The States.  Dear Scotland, please share!

Pricing - Good at $80-90
Rating - 89