...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.