...where distraction is the main attraction.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Is all FWP-era Bowmore whisky bad?

I was trying to figure out how to start this three-part Bowmore mini-series yesterday morning when I came upon David Driscoll's recent What Do You Make Time For? post.  In it, he writes this:
...I'm not even sure there is such a thing as bad and good, but rather simply what one likes and what one doesn't like...
Well, since the question tilts philosophic, let's get philosophical.  Since David's sentence frames "good" and "bad" as words we assign to experiences using personal criterion, then we're dealing with judgment being applied to the subjective.  Since consciousness is experienced through the prism of our personal perception which is constantly being shaped via our sensory experiences which determine the aforementioned criterion, might reality be subjective?  And if, in a subjective reality, one consumes something that is made to be consumed yet it makes one want to stop consuming it, can that "something" not be judged a failure within one's reality?  I'll get back to this in a sec, hopefully using fewer words.

How about the objective experience?  The brain utilizes our five senses for protection.  Our ears hear the screech of fire clarions and bombing sirens.  Our eyes see Godzilla approaching (you seem him too, right?).  At the same time, our nose and mouth can pick out qualities that trigger a defensive response against poison or sickness.  On the other side of things, those same senses are utilized to take in experiences that release our pleasure hormones.  Because we are not identical creatures, different things release those happy hormones.

Whisky is a liquid made to be consumed by consenting humans.  It's also mostly poison......but we drink it for pleasure.  If a whisky contains scents and flavors that provide instantaneous pleasure, is it not successful?  If a whisky contains scents and flavors that cause us to gag, wince, fear our drinking choice, or immediately produce negative feelings, isn't it a failure?  Yes, it is a personal experience.  But it is something we register on a vast negative-to-positive spectrum, often resulting in either a second glass or a spill down the sink.  Again, success and failure.  Good and bad.  Since each of us lives in his or her own realities, there is thus A LOT of good and bad whisky out there.

Okay, let's try a different objective approach.  Let's say there's a distillery in Scotland (just imagine that for a second).  After changes are made in the mash, yeast, washtubs, and/or distillation processes, the character of that distillery's malt whisky changes.  The very scents and flavors created by this process change lowers the distillery's entire reputation from being one of the best in the business to one of the worst.  The whisky alone does this, not bad marketing nor poor packaging nor corporate social ills.  The whisky annihilates brand's reputation on its own.  Would that not be bad whisky?

The good gents of PLOWED coined the term "FWP" (or "French Whore Perfume") for specific characteristics found in a stretch of what many connoisseurs consider to be terrible quality Bowmore single malt, distilled somewhere between the early eighties and the early nineties.  Many whisky fans who have had the pleasure (either by being born at the right time or compiling enough income) to drink Bowmore from the fifties through the seventies, proclaim its magnificence.  Imagine the disconcerting experience when changes made to Bowmore's processes led to an abrupt shift in the whisky's characteristics.  Gone were gorgeous tropical fruits, in their place came waves of flowery soap and inexpensive manufactured fragrance.  As you can imagine, there was some concern.

The actual FWP dates are fuzzy.  They seem to have started with whisky distilled near 1982 and ended at some point during the early nineties.  Part of the issue regarding the uncertain conclusion of this period is the fact that the lavender note found in FWP-era whisky can sometimes still be found, though more faintly, in the Bowmore malts distilled in the decade following.

Here are a bunch of fun links regarding FWP Bowmore:
--http://www.whiskywhiskywhisky.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=41556 - These first two links are online forum discussions about FWP.
--http://www.myannoyingopinions.com/2013/04/18/bowmore-from-the-edge-of-the-danger-zone/ - Here's a link to M.A.O. doing some further questioning of FWP.
--http://whiskyscience.blogspot.com/2011/06/lavender-in-whisky-conspiracy-of-french.html - Whisky Science explores the possible scientific reasons behind the lavender notes.
--http://www.guidscotchdrink.com/2010/02/say-what_2894.html - Jason Johnstone-Yellin interviews --Serge Valentin on his thoughts about FWP Bowmore.
--(There's also a great Malt Maniac e-pistle from David Broom about this, but the link is dead.  Please let me know if there's an updated link and I'll add it here.)

Do I think FWP is an actual thing?  While the power of suggestion (courtesy of reading articles like these) can greatly influence a person's whisky experience, it's tough to disagree that there's something curious going on in the FWP-era Bowmores.  Also, people with much much MUCH more whisky experience than I embrace the FWP designation and find that period to be Bowmore's worst.  So, I'm game so far...

But is it all "bad"?  Or is it "consistent"?  The latter term is observational, the former judgemental.  I tend to think whisky is rarely consistent, which is part of what makes it fun.  Even within a single bottle, the whisky at the top often tastes different than the stuff at the bottom due to oxidation.  Bottles within one release can differ due to the numerous casks in the mix.  And I'm beginning to consider that storage conditions will affect a bottle's nose and palate.  Thus there's bound to be many differences between vintages, casks, warehouses, ages, and bottlers of the FWP-era Bowmore.

As far as the FWP characteristics go, I'm not grossed out by lavender, violets, or geranium notes.  But soap notes are a concern.  There's a reason your Mom washed your mouth out with soap after you called the lunch lady a ----.  And there's a reason why we don't leave a nice coating of soap on the dishes after a wash.  I'm not crazy about soap notes.  And while they're not a deal breaker, they don't leave good sense memories behind.

My experience with FWP-era Bowmores has been limited compared to folks like Jim Murray and Serge Valentin.  (Serge has tons of Bowmore reviews here.  While I do enjoy the schadenfreude in reviews like these, Serge does find some of the 80s Bowmores to be very good.)  This year I took notes on four very different Bowmores distilled during the suspect period.  Two of them will get their posts later this week.  Two of them I'm listing below:

These two whiskies were sampled at a much larger tasting hosted by the SCWC earlier this year.  Because the atmosphere was casual and not suited for a full report, the notes are limited and official ratings not included.

Bowmore 28 years old March 1984, D&M Aficionados Club (Lorne Mackillop's Cask) - Cask No. 59068 - 50% ABV

Color - Very light amber
Nose - Three very obvious notes: 1.) The mothball, menthol, eucalyptus realm. 2.) OFF bug repellant roll-on stick, also from the '80s. 3.) Cheap deodorant.
Palate - Very little oak and mild peat.  Mostly acrid perfumed soap.
Finish - Boatloads of the perfumy soap, and maybe some generic dish soap too.

There was at least two "Oh, that is disgusting" remarks by other folks at the tasting.  Normally, I would offer to relieve someone of a problem whisky, but frankly I had enough of this one after a half ounce. Interestingly, there wasn't much of a floral character to this one. The "perfumy" part was very artificial and chemically rather than musty or floral.  But the actual soap note was unmistakable.  This was a very educational dram.

Bowmore 16 years old 1989/2005, Official Bottling
Bourbon casks - 51.8% ABV

Color - Light amber
Nose - Lots of buttery creamy American oak looms in the forefront. Very light peat, barely a wisp of smoke too. After a few minutes, some lawn manure.
Palate - Lots of charred American oak gives it a surprisingly bourbon-ish character at first.  Then after a couple minutes, some wood embers.  Then some mild Dove soap.  Then things get bitter.  Time is not on its side.
Finish - Not much at first, sort of a palate echo.  Then comes the bitterness and soap.

This one pulled the switcheroo on me.  I liked the nose quite a bit.  The palate was quirky, going from okay (oaky) to weird.  The finish went from quiet to unpleasant.  But it was a full step up from the '84.  But again, very little to no lavender...

So, were these "good" or "bad"?  I never want to drink the '84 again.  To my nose and palate, and my sensory reality, it was not a successful whisky.  Thus "bad", but consistent!  The '89, while fun to nose, ain't that enjoyable for drinking.  I would not recommend it to anyone outside of the more adventurous types.  So it falls more on the negative side of the spectrum.

Stay tuned for two entirely different FWP-era Bowmores, as I'm able to dig a little deeper into the whisky with a Taste Off at home.


  1. I think Ralfy has commented on FWP in his Bowmore Tempest review. At least I think it was a reference to FWP. Specifically he noted that '80s Bowmore had a characteristic that was "like getting beaten up by the bouncer at the Moulin Rouge."

    I've been tasting my 1992 Bordeaux finished Bowmore (which is around the tail end of Bowmore's FWP issues) and I don't notice a thing. Granted that wine finish, while tasty, obscures a lot of the Bowmore character except for the peat.

    1. Oh, the French. What did they ever do to deserve their reputation? Everything.

      Your Bordeaux finish bottle does make one wonder, did they give it a wine finish in order to correct for FWP quirks. Or perhaps that particular batch was already okay.

    2. Bowmore released a bunch of 1992 wine finished Limited Editions at 16 years of age (so around 2008-2009). I've read that there was, at least, one sherry cask finished edition (from one of Dominic Roskrow's books) which DR enjoyed and recommended. This Bordeaux finish is probably the last to sell out (Beltramo's still has bottles) because people are skeptical about that wine finish.

      All I can say about my bottle is that if there were FWP issues, it's been effectively masked by the cask finish. Of course, now the whisky reminds me of Lagavulin 16 rather than Bowmore.

    3. While it's curious they released a whole bunch of wine finishes for the same year -- did they have casks that went flat? -- I've found that when done well, wine and peat can play nicely together. When done poorly, yuck. I wish I knew what the difference in approach was between the two. The version you have sounds good. And in even better news, I'm now thinking they straightened out the FWP problem(s) by 1992.

    4. Hmm, after checking the Whisky Exchange, it seems Bowmore occasionally releases 16 year old limited editions but it isn't an annual thing. There's a 1990 vintage that was aged entirely in sherry casks as well. The Bordeaux casks were provided by Suntory owned wineries hence the unusual finish.

      One more thing, the Bordeaux finish is actually closer to double maturation. The whisky spent 8 years in ex-bourbon wood, then 8 years in the Bordeaux casks. Make of that what you will.

    5. I do like the idea of the double maturation better than the finish approach, but mostly because Springbank and Longrow do well with that approach. That way, both sets of casks are (or can be) integrated, as opposed to a float of sherry/port/sauternes sitting on top, separate.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out. That Bowmore 1989 seems to be the second one I reviewed in the post you linked to and it looks like we had much the same reaction to it. Far from great, but nothing worth getting very worked up about. Like you, I don't doubt that FWP exists, I just suspect that some significant fraction of those who talk about it talk about it mostly because it is something to talk about. And yeah, I've not had any problematic Bowmores from as early as 1990--though, of course, my experience also pales in comparison to the Serges of the world (though I don't believe Serge talks about the problems lingering into the 90s either).

    And to be fair, I must say that I've had a Duncan Taylor from 1982 that was actively nasty on the soap front (not particularly perfumed though).

    1. I'm noticing a difference between those with soapy notes and those with perfume notes. Though there's definitely an instance in one of these with a perfumy soap note. I've found soap notes in non-Bowmores as well. And, yeah, I think that 1989 is the same one you reviewed.

      I agree that FWP has become sort of a whisky geek meme, often utilized more than it needs to by folks who want to feel like they're adding to the discussion. I'm hoping these posts don't add me into that category, as I'm trying to explore rather than regurgitate.

      Originally, PLOWED and the Maniacs got embittered about FWP when Bowmore got really snippy with them -- according to Malt Madness, the company even threatened legal action. The distillery management has long since changed, but that generation of whisky geeks may like to throw that term around even more as sort of a punky "F You".

      I just went through Serge's reviews after reading your comment. He does say that he thinks Bowmore made much better whisky from the early-1990s on in one review and then "This kind of profile disappeared at Bowmore in the early 1990's as far as I can tell" in another. Almost all of his '89 reviews reference the perfume or soap, while maybe 1/10th or 1/20th of the '90/'91 reviews reference the same. Then it's completely gone from the '92s. I had been wondering if the stop came in '93 when the ownership started changed, but it does look as if (per Serge) it stopped a few years before that. But with all of Bowmore's denials about changes in their whisky, it does look like there was a process change around 1990.

  3. On a related Bowmore matter, I find it really interesting that Bowmore is the one notable distillery to change character in the last fifty years (granted all distilleries probably tasted different in that time frame too). Serge notes on his site that 70's and earlier Bowmore have more of a tropical fruit character that have definitely gone away if you try their more recent whisky One wonders how much of that change was due to production changes or some other factor like a change in barley species.

    1. Only Monsieur Jim McEwan knows the truth, though the tale most told is that there were a number of changes in the fermentation and distillation cuts that were made for the sake of trying to crank out more spirit. IF that is true, then I hope it serves as a lesson to the current distilleries who are changing their processes to raise production levels. But I wouldn't be surprised if they also attempted to find a more productive barley strain to help achieve the same purposes.

      Clynelish kinda sorta changed its character as it went through the Brora/Clynelish peated/unpeated phase(s). Some Ardbeg geeks think that Ardbeg's qualities shifted noticeably as it went through ownership changes (Hiram Walker to Allied to GlenMo) and closings. Diving for Pearls would be more than happy to prove or disprove these theories with the appropriate samples!

    2. Indeed, I think Serge calls Old Clynelish/Brora a chameleon malt because of the flavor changes over different decades.

      I bring this up because tropical fruit notes sounds very appealing to me and it seems Bowmore should have kept this aspect rather than mess with a good thing.

    3. Yeah, I totally agree. Damn shame they changed it. I wonder if they can or will bring it back...

  4. Dave Broom "Lavender Lament" link: https://web.archive.org/web/20070715184101/http://www.maltmaniacs.org/ADHD/mm16.html#16-01