Whilst whisky’s steeped history and long, slumbering maturation periods may give the impression of monolithic regularity – times do in fact change – and we’re not just talking about prices, but about the character of the make itself. Sometimes change is in slow incremental steps, sometimes it’s sweeping and dramatic – such as following a change in ownership or production methods. Distillate produced 10…20…or even 30 years ago almost always has a different profile to that which is produced today. Some for the better (consistency is arguably more consistent nowadays), and some for the worse. Distillery’s go through periods where they can seemingly do no wrong (read current Springbank), but equally years where things appear to have gone rather awry. Case in point - Bowmore.
Islay’s oldest (but only fourth largest - behind Caol Ila, Laphroaig, Lagavulin) distillery went through a period during the late 80s and 90s when its whiskies presented with distinctively floral notes – anything from fresh lavender, through palma violets and Dove soap, all the way to the truly unappealing extreme of Daz washing powder. Not nice. If you’ve tried any of these older Bowmore’s you’ll fully understand where the enthusiast moniker of French Whore Perfume (FWP) came from.
It's largely unknown (or at least uncommented publically) what the production variable(s) was/were which resulted in the overly floral spirit during this period. The distillery has, by and large, always denied that any significant changes in methods or equipment taking place. And yet you don’t have to dig too far into an online auction to find and older bottlings from Bowmore which is unmistakably soapy. Indeed, I’d suggest that it’s a risk. However, it’s also important to note that FWP has not been readily identified in *every* bottle of Bowmore produced during this period – or even in a majority. Whilst enthusiasts are wary of particularly time horizons (I’d guess roughly 1982-1994), it seems to me all rather hit and miss whether a bottling is compromised or not. The same cannot (and should not) be said of the distillery’s current spirit – anything produced since the turn of the millennium has, in my opinion, been very high quality. Whatever it was, it’s been fixed/altered.
This brings us neatly onto Bowmore 18 year old. I distinctively remember an early incarnation being the bottling which I had my first experience of FWP with. I one of those deviants who rather enjoy palma violet sweets. That said, I’d really prefer that they remain in the confectionary section and not in my whisky!
Bowmore 18 year old was first introduced back in 2007 as a replacement for the previous 17 year old – which if memory serves correctly was a mainstay offering in the mid-90s (on one of the older style ‘direct to glass’ printed labels). The bottling is composed of a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks and is delivered at 43% ABV. There’s also a travel retail version available – 18 year old Deep and Complex - which adds some PX into the recipe, and seems fairly well received – especially for the niche which is usually packed to the rafters with over-priced and over-produced NAS fare. The ‘standard’ 18 year old is commonly available worldwide and here in the UK will set you back £77.90 from Master of Malt. Our review bottling is a 2018 edition.
Nose: Smokey Terry’s Chocolate Orange alongside ripe berry fruits – raspberry and blackcurrant. Burnt pan sugars and over-reduced toffee sit with chamois leather and waxed jackets, whilst golden tobacco leaves are joined by a light rubberiness and deck sealant. Given a little resting time, under ripe pineapple is presented together with salty sea water. Reduction further emphasises the coast – salt-baked cod with ozone whilst adding a herbal note of pine needles.
Taste: A gentle arrival, but not unassuming. Chocolate orange again, with smoked toffee and caramel joined by fireplace hearth ash. Silky berry fruits reduced down to a jus move into 1960’s leather sofas before heading towards ashy dry smoke conjoined with rock pool salinity. The addition of water should be undertaken careful – this thins exceedingly quickly at 43%. A few drops exhibits oiled wood, hot chocolate and smoked almonds.
Finish: Medium to long. Again on orange, with ashy, puffy smoke plumes sitting alongside fading berries and salt water.
Bowmore 18 year old offers good balance and fruit-forward smoke and sugars, whilst remaining completely civilised and unchallenging. The smoke is more apparent than in other core Bowmore offerings, but retains its place as a harmonious component rather than a lead soloist – the wood levels are very in check (perhaps too much for 18 years of age?!) and likewise support rather than detract. I'd still prefer it at a higher ABV and without chill-filtering, but nevertheless, this is a marked difference in quality to earlier bottlings – there’s no FWP or saccharine soapiness on display nowadays. Solid.