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Monday, July 20, 2015

Single Malt Report: Bowmore 12 year old 2001 Hepburn's Choice (K&L exclusive)

Today's generalization: With two exceptions, every independently bottled non-FWP Bowmore I've had has been very good.  Now, let me clear away all of the qualifiers in the previous sentence: Independently bottled Bowmores are very reliable.

(Those two mentioned exceptions were reviewed here and here.  Though they were both by David Stirk's Exclusive Malts/Casks, that same company also released an excellent Bowmore when Stirk first brought his whiskies to The States.)

Over the past few years, K&L Wine Merchants have gotten into the indie Bowmore game by picking five or six single casks to sell exclusively through their stores.  Though my previous run-in with one of those exclusive Bowmores wasn't entirely positive, I was still willing to give the others a try.  Luckily two of my whisky pals gave me samples from their bottles of current K&L exclusive Bowmores.

Despite having the same age, vintage, cask size, and price, these two Bowmores are very different from each other.  I'll be reviewing the first one today, the second one tomorrow.

Distillery: Bowmore
Independent Bottler: Hunter Laing
Retailer: K&L Wines
Age: at least 12 years (2001-2014)
Maturation: ex-bourbon refill hogshead
Cask number: ?
Bottle #:  ??? of 266
Region: Islay, Scotland
Alcohol by Volume: 58.4%
Chillfiltered? No
Colored? No
(Thanks to SmokyPeat for the sample!)

Hepburn's Choice is one of Hunter Laing's smaller brands, one that they don't tout on their site.  Their releases are often bottled at 46%abv, uncolored and unchillfiltered.  But the single casks that K&L picked up are bottled at full strength.

Its color is Five Beer Piss, my favorite whisky color!  The nose begins with young, though buttery, malt.  There's vinyl, peat (bog as opposed to smoke), lemons, and fruity Ceylon cinnamon.  Give it some time and find some VapoRub-style menthol.  Then comes an herbal note somewhere between rosemary and thyme.  Perhaps a hint of elephant cage.  The palate is hot and raw, but in a good way.  Lots of smoldering peat; the PPMs feel much larger here than in the nose.  Vanilla, cinnamon, brown sugar, salt, and peppercorns.  It finishes with burnt leaves, burnt pages, and the nose's menthol note.  It gradually picks up some sweetness, salt, very green grassiness, and hint of bitterness.

WITH WATER (~46%abv)
This pretties the nose up a little.  More lemons, some orange blossoms and mint.  Less menthol, though the peat bog stays strong.  The palate is softer though saltier.  Still smoky, still sweet.  Gets sweeter with time.  A nice wormwood bitterness floats below.  The finish gets sugarier.  The bitterness and smoke mellow a bit.

More Katherine than Audrey Hepburn, this one.  Though K&L says this was a second-fill hogshead, it feels like a fourth or fifth-fill hoggie.  It seems half its age.  I mean we're almost in Talisker "Speakeasy" territory here.  But like the Speakeasy, it's really solid strong spirit.  One could reasonably argue that it's one-note, but a good note it is.  I'm going to score it a couple points higher than the Speakeasy because it's less of a novelty and more of a whisky one would want to consume on multiple occasions.

I'd say this was a brave pick by the Davids because it isn't exactly a crowd pleaser.  But peatheads should find that it delivers.  As is the case with many indie Bowmores, this one's peat levels feel far larger than those of the official bottlings.  In fact this one's peat strength is reminiscent of the Islay distilleries to the south.  This could be due, again, to the cask's restraint.  The whisky swims very well, so if you find it too booming at full strength, watering it down will help.  But it'll read as a young bold Bowmore no matter what.

Availability - K&L Wines only
Pricing - $79.99
Rating - 86


  1. I think a lot of the indie Bowmores we're seeing these days are casks that don't fit their distillery profile and were passed on to maintain consistency. That's good for us, since it's a nice way to experience Bowmore peat at full blast.

    1. That is probably the case and yeah we all benefit from that. People keep buying official Bowmores so the company isn't weeping over coughing up these casks. Though, I'm somewhat surprised they haven't done an NAS "heavily-peated" release. Yet.

    2. I'm not even sure what the Bowmore 'distillery profile' is. Their OBs (12/15/18) are terrible as far as I am concerned, yet the indies puts Bowmore in top 3 distilleries for me. I don't think there's something different about the barrels they give away, I just think they have a messed-up recipe for the OBs, which then they drown in water for good measure (40% abv for a 18yo? really?). I'm sure I'm in minority since it sells and they keep doing it.

      I used to think - and still do - that ex-bourbon Bowmore is where it's at. But I've had great ex-sherry Bowmores, in a wide range of profiles (including prominently the two you're reviewing this week!), that convinced me it's a wonderful whisky regardless of the livery.

    3. But their OBs sell. They actually stopped selling casks to blenders back around 2005 because demand for their single malts was so high. I agree that the OBs are kind of muddy and ill-defined, but they don't have much incentive to change what is, for them, a winning formula.

      The IB Bowmores I've tried have just had much dirtier peat than I've gotten even from their batch strength releases like Tempest or Devil's Casks. I like it a lot. And some of the sherry cask IBs have blown me away, though it's hard to find them at reasonable prices.

    4. I'll leave space for Monsignor MAO to speak well of the OBs, but I think the 18 is okay at 43%. And the 10yo Tempest is where it's at for the whole range. But I do find a wide gulf between the OBs and IBs. Perhaps some of us (named Diving for Pearls) hoped that when Rachel Barrie came aboard she'd perform some alchemy and deliver some gilded goods, but as Jordan states nothing motivates them to change since they're apparently selling very well. So it goes. We can stick to the IBs.

    5. Yes, I was wrong about the ABV - it's 43% for the 15yo and 18yo. (I never found enough reason to shell out the asking price for a bottle of either, and the samples I've had did not convince me.) The 12yo is definitely weak at 40%. Incidentally, the Legend gets a pass, since at $20-30 it's a good, unpretentious and undemanding whisky for 'just drinking'. The OB series as a whole seems to be inspired by Pepsi - or by JW Black - neither of them a drink of choice for me. I do have high expectations of their CS offerings - Tempest & co - but didn't open one yet. It's scary to think that there'll be no indies after 2005 production year - did not know that either -, all the more reason to appreciate the ones out there now! Looking forward to see what you thought of the Signatory.

    6. I don't know if the fact that they stopped selling to blenders means that there won't be any IBs - they may still sell casks that they don't think fit the profiles that they're trying to build, but the supply is likely to be tighter unless the whisky market crashes.

    7. Funny I should mention Bowmore Legend on this post. I opened recently a bottle, first time in 4 1/2 years. I was very happily surprised! In fact, it reminded me of this same Hepburn's Choice, more than anything else! The dominant note was mineral Bowmore (licking smooth stones - no giggling in the back!), with some light, easy-going peat and a tad of sweetness. It's not winning awards - not at 40% - but I would love to have one on hand at all times, or at least during the cold months.

    8. I hate to say this, but I think the Small Batch has completely replaced Legend in California. I kinda liked it too, at the sub $30 range.

    9. I saw that, but I hesitate to try the Small Batch. Based on the specs and people's reviews it emphasizes the new oak elements rather than, well, everything else that actually interests me in a Bowmore. I'm eyeing some Legend from a cheesy midwestern store.

  2. Thanks for scaring people away with those "Speakeasy" comments. I'm still bidding my time to buy my bottle/s. If memory serves, the night you took the hand selfie at the top this was my go-to whisky (together with your K&L Bunnahabhain). Which is to say - I loved it! Surprising profile, though still very much Bowmore at the core. Not much sherry velvet, and just the right amount of rough and coastal (which is where you were going with the Speakeasy analogy, I believe). I was not bothered for one moment by the youth - I can't say the same about the Speakeasy. Lovely, lovely bottle!

    1. Hey, I liked the Speakeasy. And I know I'm not alone on that one. I don't think the youth worked against this Bowmore at all. Anyone looking for oak and smooth will be disappointed. Anyone looking for a peat boot in the mouth will not leave disappointed.

    2. Oh, am I in love with this whisky! That mentholated mineral peat is its guiding light, on different nights various facets show up but this leading note is always there! Tonight it's sweeter and well-rounded - it never makes me think 'young whisky' - with exotic aromas, somewhere in-between my go-to sushi place (seaweed and malty soy sauce? some wasabi?) and an Indian grocery (I'm thinking cardamom, not turmeric). 25 bottles left, two of them will be mine!