“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” When it comes to whisky branding, I’d argue that this Shakespeare quote still holds true. Naming a whisky as ‘Bowmore Darkest’ generates more powerful associations and connotations around colour, aroma and flavour than if the bottling was simply labelled ‘Bowmore oloroso sherry finish’ – any yet, under the hood the liquid and the drinking experience would still be exactly the same. Whether or not Bowmore Darkest is indeed the darkest Bowmore is irrelevant – the power of the brand name stems from the subtle (and not so subtle) implications its able to convey.
As a marketer, brand names naturally fascinate me – I often marvel at the creative processes which lead to the creation of certain drink brands - a tequila called ‘Donkey Piss’ (which is supposedly a super-premium product), or the Devon-based Tarquin’s 'Cornish Pastis' – one of the cleverest plays on words I’ve seen for a while. Whisky names derive from a variety of sources – an overabundance of largely unpronounced Gaelic (Bunnahabhain I see you) – an obsession with making tired fourth fill casks sound better (Reserve, Select, Choice etc) or simply inventing new words which make an expression naturally sound more luxurious or premium (Ultis, Dominium, Rare Cask etc).
I also see a fourth strand in naming conventions of attempting to label bottlings around suggestions of aroma and flavour – subliminally, or obviously trying to advocate to the customer which aromas and flavours they will experience should they make a purchase. This category is near vast – Storm, Dark Cove, Cigar Malt, Fire and Cane I could go on.
The key to success with any of these so-named products is for the customer to draw a direct association from the brand name to the liquid itself - Peat Chimney certainly needs to be smoky, but it also probably should be ashy and sooty also to fulfil the visual association of a chimney. A failure to link the name through to the liquid is not going to engender long-term sales. Visually-led connotation brand names not only help producers give their products distinctiveness, they also allow them to market particular spirit styles to customers who naturally favour those profiles. There’s power in words.
The first incarnation of Bowmore Darkest was introduced sometime around 2002. Fast-forward to 2007 and the now current version – appending a 15 year old age statement – was released. The popular bottling has been a mainstay of the distillery’s core range ever since. Matured for 12 years in ex-bourbon before being subjected to a decent three year finishing period in oloroso sherry casks – the expression is bottled at 43% ABV. I’ve been watching the price of this expression gradually tick up over the last decade (alas, such is the demand for Islay’s capacity-limited output) – you’re now looking anywhere between £53 - £65 a bottle – quite some variance there. The best price I can find as of writing is via Master of Malt at £52.90.
Nose: Straight off the bat we’re into the world of aromatic swirling tobacco smoke – cherry Cavendish and Latakia – supported by a compote of dark red fruits – cranberries, cherries and plums. Brine is never far away, alongside tarry ropes, burning sage and wood fire embers. In the background, dark chocolate, liquorice sticks , chestnut puree together with a mixture of herbals (parsley and sage – no rosemary, no thyme) and florals – smoked lavender and violets. Reduction here is not really worthwhile – muddying the brighter notes for a general sense of greasiness and seaweed.
Taste: The arrival has a generous vein of oiliness – again with plenty of tobacco leaf and salt water. The sherry finish manifests as an amalgamation of cherries and berries in almost cough syrup form. Development heads into liquefied rubber, chocolate cake and espresso grounds before heading off towards walnuts, moist earth and in the back-palate – well steeped black tea. Again, dilution is ill advised – more bitterness, more oak, and a lot less definition.
Finish: Medium in length an offering a bitumous combination of sweet and sour.
Bowmore Darkest 15 year old provides an agreeable mix of fruits, floralness (never soapy) and dirty tarred sherry. I find it surprisingly idiosyncratic – and potentially not something which will naturally appeal to all lovers of smoky whisky – the style here is both challenging and characterfully unique, without necessarily offering an abundance of depth. ‘Darkest’ will have different connotations based on the individual reader – but, this isn’t sherried to unfathomable depths, nor so packed full of peat smoke as to stand up to the biggest of Islay beasts. It is however well-made, solid and quite distinctively modern Bowmore.