...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Life of a Whisky Bottle: Bowmore 11 year old 2002 Exclusive Malts (K&L exclusive)

On Monday, I posted about one of bottles from The Cabinet.  Today, I'm writing about another.  It's another peated winter whisky, though one with its own story and fate.

Earlier this year, The Creative Whisky Company (CWC) finally entered the US market with about a half dozen single cask, cask strength "Exclusive Malts".  One of those malts was a Bowmore 2001.  It was very good and very pricey and now very gone.  Not too long after that first batch of Exclusive Malts had mostly sold out, K&L Wines announced they were getting their own exclusive set of single casks from the same company.  (On a side note, there were a bunch of Davids behind this.  David Stirk runs CWC, while K&L's spirits buyers are David Driscoll and David Othenin-Girard.)  I decided to pre-order one of the K&Ls and went with the Bowmore 2002.  Reasoning: I love love love indie Bowmores.

Once the whisky bottles arrived at the K&L warehouse, David Driscoll publicly admitted (here and here) he had noticed that the Bowmore's nose wasn't quite what he'd remembered it to be when he'd sampled the casks in Scotland.  Now it was full of new oak and no peat.  He wasn't sure what the culprit was -- the cask, the shipping, or the bottles -- but with time or oxidation, he said the nose came around.  He and I swapped a couple emails as I wanted to make sure I should still go with this Bowmore or another of their upcoming exclusive Bowmores.  In the end, I stayed with my original choice.

Distillery: Bowmore
Independent Bottler: The Creative Whisky Co. Ltd.
Series: The Exclusive Malts
Retailer: K&L only
Age: March 12, 2002 - 2013 (11 years)
Maturation: "Oak Casks"
Cask number20098
Bottle #:  ??? of 271
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 56.3%
Chillfiltered: No
Colored: No

This bottle's usage:
39% - Swaps and shares
17% - Whisky experiments
8% - Graded tastings
36% - Casual drinking

Before I continue, note the small percentage of the bottle utilized for actual casual drinking.  Please also note, that is no tragedy.  I had difficulty with this whisky.  And I'm sort of hoping those folks to whom I have swapped (or will swap) this Bowmore like it better than I.

Upon opening the bottle, the nose issue that Driscoll had mentioned was somewhat confirmed.  It was not peaty at all.  What David D had sniffed as new oak, read to me as rancid dairy.  It was kinda gross (official terminology).  What made it stranger is that the palate was actually very peaty and held none of the off-putting nose note.

More and more often, I'm finding that at the very top of its bottle, a whisky is not in its best form.  Somewhere in the middle-third, in its interaction with tiny amounts of oxygen, the malt opens up and hits its money spot.  [Or sometimes, if it's a roughie (like Monday's baby Ledaig), the last-third of the bottle shows it best.]  So, putting my faith in that observation and David's comment that time or oxidation helped this Bowmore out, I gave it time.

I set aside a sample from the top of the bottle so I could taste it alongside the whisky at a later date.  Once the bottle drew near the last of its middle-third, I compared the two versions of the same whisky.  Please note, though the first sample was taken on the same day I'd found the rancid dairy note, it was decanted into a small sample bottle and thus may have experienced minor oxidation in the process.

Top of the bottle:

Color - Amber
Nose - Butterscotch, cinnamon, and ginger powder.  Have to really search for peat since this is mostly buttery oak.  Black licorice, cardamom (of course), vanilla beans, and cut wood.  Did I mention butter?  Did I mention oak?
Palate - Barbecued peat with a fresh ginger zing.  Caramel, butter, and red hots candies.  In fact there's a lot of chewy cinnamon candy in here.
Finish - Butter, grass, and cinnamon candies.  Peat becomes more vegetal with just a peep of smoke.

W/WATER (sub 40% ABV)
Nose - More peat revealed.  Much less butter.  Lemon zest.  It's leaner but less all over the place.
Palate - Sweeter and peppery.  Peat is just hanging in there.  Lots of butter, though.  Here's the cardamom and the cinnamon candy.  A little tartness too.
Finish - Lightly bitter, lightly sweet.  Coriander and faint peat echoes.

End of the bottle's middle-third:

Nose - Fruit breads.  Cinnamon on carrot cake.  The butter's still there, but better integrated.  The licorice is more subtle.  Very light peat moss, a little sugared now.  It's actually sort of Christmassy, I suppose.  Oak still blocks out much of the Islay shoreline.
Palate - Cinnamon with a coffee-like bitterness.  Peat is less smoky and a little sweeter.  A hint of citrus juice blends.  The oak rolls along more toasty than charred.  Very dense mouthfeel.  A bit narrow, but tasty in its narrowness.
Finish - Sweet, as in Nutrasweet.  Smoked cinnamon sticks and a hint of bacon.

W/WATER (sub 40% ABV)
Nose - A better (or more classic) Islay peat funk.  Oranges and vanilla.  Very candied.
Palate - Grassy, light on the peat, and light on the butter.  Mild cracked pepper.  A tannic dryness.  Have to be very careful with water because this one's easily broken.
Finish - Brief.  Some vanilla and a little veggie peat.

Conclusion #1: It was better than I'd thought...
Conclusion #2: ...though that may be the result of giving it a lot of focus.  All of my previous less positive experiences came while drinking it casually.
Conclusion #3: Even though it was better than expected, it takes some work to get it into its best shape.  It needs just the right amount of air and time in the bottle, not to mention airing it out in the glass.  And though it does take to water, the drinker has to be very cautious because it drowns quickly.  I like playing with my whisky, but this one requires a hell of a lot of attention, and even after all that tinkering I am left wondering if it was worth it.
Conclusion #4: Oak. "Oak Casks" indeed.
Conclusion #5: It appears as if my whisky experience does not match up with that of the employees of K&L. That's not the first time.  I loved their exclusive Caperdonich, but found it to be quite different than their official notes.  In that case, it was for the better.  I've also heard (hearsay!) similar observations regarding a couple of the other current K&L exclusives -- if I try them and feel the same, I'll let you know.  Yes, tasting notes are all subjective but I'm seeing enough of a gap to make me disregard the official notes going forward and rely on my own actual interest in the whisky.  Which is actually how we should all be buying stuff anyway.
Conclusion #6: In the current whisky market, the price is good.  The official 12 year old -- which is diluted, filtered, and colored -- is much less interesting but not much cheaper.  Also, the most recent official Tempest (er, Dorus Mor) was a 10yo selling for over $100.  Since K&L's inventory lists a hell of a lot of bottles remaining for this Exclusive, I'm wondering if they'll need to price it for clearance next year as they had with the Caperdonich this year......though, I'm not sure how much lower the price can go on this.
Conclusion #7: My expectations were set very high due to my experiences with independently bottled non-FWP American-oak-matured Bowmore.  While with manipulation this one can still be decent (provided the drinker loves lots of oak), this is my least favorite out of the fourteen I've tried over the last two years.  Compared to non-Tempest official bottlings, this whisky would fare well.  But up against Tempest?  Farewell.

Availability - K&L Wines
Pricing - $75.99
Rating - 81