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Wednesday, 8 September 2010


Next week I'm off to Islay and to be honest, I'm not really looking forward to it.

Of course, that statement is a whopping great lie. I'm really looking forward to it. As a country boy, I love getting out London, I love going to Scotland and I love, in particular, Islay; a totally magical place.

But what I'm NOT looking forward to is the flight. I'm a pretty nervous flyer at the best of times, but once you get to Glasgow Airport you have to board the worlds smallest plane for a twenty minute flight, all the while having Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valence and the Big Bopper playing a medley in the back of your head...

So imagine my delight when I received an email informing me that Bowmore were to "bring Islay to London". No flying, no turbulance, just a thirty min bus journey to the National Geographic Store on Regent Street. Not even Bob Crow* could stop me going.

Bowmore is in the process of building a relationship with National Geographic Magazine which kinda makes perfect sense. One of the great things about distilleries is the artisanal nature of the process. Yes, it's a manufacturing process. But it's so much more than that. You don't get people taking special trips to visit vodka distilleries or crisp factories. But you do with whisky. And to partner with a magazine that highlights the worlds natural wonders makes a lot of sense.

Along with highlighting this new relationship, the event was also in aid of two new limited edition expressions of Bowmore; a 1981 limited to 402 bottles and their posh new 40 Year Old which comes in a hand blown bottle with a whopping price tag of £6,500. At that price, I'll take all 53 bottles, please...!

The prelude to the 1981 and the 40 Year Old was a journey through some of the standard Bowmore expressions, starting with the excellent Tempest (previous review here) which was matched with chocolate covered orange peel, the 12 year old with Oysters and the 15 Year Old with Scottish venison. All of this within a 30 min ride on the number 3 bus? Oh, yes!

Having made our way through the lower reaches of the core expressions, it was time to meet the new boys. After an introduction from Eddie MacAffer, the incredibly experienced Distillery Manager who has spent his entire life working at Bowmore, it was time to dig in to the 1981. This is the first in a new range for Bowmore which is going to be called The Vintage Series and this is retailing at what seems a very reasonable £270 (or have I lost a grip of reality entirely? That may be a possibility...) for one of just 402 bottles. But the price and the rarity means nothing if the liquid in the bottle doesn't stand up, so let's find out:

Bowmore - Vintage Series - 1981 - 28 Years Old - 402 Bottles - 49.6% vol - 700ml

Nose: Clear honey and licorice mix with light blackcurrant and parma violets backed up by light peat smoke, some salt and lemon zest. Some capers and a hint of juniper too. Remarkably fresh for a 28 Year Old whisky.

Palate: Vanilla Ice Cream is the dominant flavour as peat smoke swirls around. Hints of delicate wood spice come through with time on the palate, white flowers, violets and a delicate wave of baked apple at the death.

Finish: Lemons and limes, more smoke, which this time is a touch more prominent than on the palate. Dry vanilla wood spices. The strength gives it enough oomph for a medium length.

Overall: I've got to be honest and say that this is how I like my whisky. Lightly smoked with vanillas, sweet spices and white florals and apples. Anyone want to lend me £270...?! Go on... please?!

Onward now to the 40 Year Old. Just two key facts here:

1. This is £6,500 a bottle

2. There are 53 bottles available in, what has to be said, is a beautiful hand blown glass bottle on a plinth made out of Islay slate. The whole thing really is quite stunning.

Needless to say, this isn't going to make our "reasonably priced dram of the week", unless inflation continues in the current vein, when I'll be able to afford a bottle of this with the change I get from buying some eggs and bread down the local Costcutter.

It's almost pointless writing a review on this whisky. Firstly because it's bloody excellent; of course it is. Bowmore have a cracking track record of putting out first class old whisky. One only has to look at the Black Bowmore series to see that. But secondly, it's over Six Thousand Pounds a bottle.

Six. Thousand. Pounds.

In summary, all you really need to know is that it smells of dark chocolate, peat and oak. It tastes of black cherries, licorice and mandarin. On the finish you get an explosion of classic old Bowmore exotic fruits, mangos and sweet satsuma with dying peat embers to keep the whole thing alive. But if you are thinking of buying a bottle and really want to know the full details, then read on...

Bowmore - 40 Years Old - Cask No. 2162 - Bourbon Cask - 44.8% vol - 700ml

Nose: Delicate peat smoke, high coco content dark chocolate, figs, dry oak, old leather and lanolin. Rich and deep as you would expect from a 40 Year Old whisky.

Palate: Black cherry, rich oak, leather, cigar tobacco, sweet dark sugars muddle with a fruit juices and orange bitters.

Finish: That explosion of exptc fruits and peat that you would expect from a good old Bowmore.

Overall: A great whisky which is very, very rich and like good dark chocolate can't be taken too much at one time. It's a bottle to savour and enjoy. And at this price, it bloody better be!

As I made my way back out to Regent Street, to the hustle and bustle of every day London life, I realised that, no matter how hard you try, you can not bring Islay to London. You might bring the people, you might bring pictures and videos. You might even bring the whisky. But the only true way to experience Islay is to visit. It's not a world away from London. It's a different world altogether. And a better one for it.

For the time being however, I'll sit with a small glass of Bowmore 15, draw the curtains, burn a peat cone, my own "postcard" of Islay and dream of stepping of the little plane at the Airport to a magical world of whisky and nature.