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Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Please Sir. Can I have some (Bow)more...?

Last night, we hosted a charity whisky tasting in aid of the Japan Society and their remarkable support for the Japanese Tsunami relief efforts; 5 sensational whiskies, one as a refreshing highball cocktail and the rest as smooth sippin' drams. It was a wonderful evening of music, dancing, great raffle prizes (and a private whisky tasting from us as the booby prize...) and refinement, very much in a vintage style. The venue was the Central London members club Home House, situated in the manicured and well kept Portman Square, just off London's busy Oxford Street.
Leaving post-11pm, the bright lights of the city outshone an almost-full moon. Car after car sped by, headlights shining out but having little effect. London was alive, but an image of a world as far flung from Hebridian island life as one can possibly imagine.

Late last week, we found ourselves on Islay ready to visit one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, whose origins stretch back as far as 1779 - (just don’t tell the folks at Glenturret!) Bowmore.

Landing at Islay Airport is always an experience. The windsock appears to be starched into a horizontal position, pointing the way north to our destination. Like many of its Islay counterparts, Bowmore is a distillery steeped in tradition- and with sensational views across Loch Indaal, it is a wonderful experience to step back from the grind of everyday life and gulp in deep breaths of the salty coastal air, mixed with a heady and gently intoxicating peat smoke, which the distillery is famous for.

Our guide for the day was Eddie MacAffer, Distillery Manager and all-round legend in the world of Islay single malts. Before guiding us on an in-depth tour of the workings of the distillery, part of which you can see in the video included at the bottom of this post, we took a trip out to visit some of Bowmore’s many peat bogs. Trying our hand at a little bit of peat cutting, anyone who has experienced this first hand will get the sense of trepidation we approached the task with; when you’re being scrutinised by none other than ‘Ginger Willie’ (another of Bowmore’s near legendary employees) the idea of cutting a neat slice of peat, majestically tossing it over one’s shoulder, whilst trying not to slip into the bog makes the whole process quite tricky.

At one point, Joel (whose cutting skills left a great deal to be desired) very nearly toppled into the bog... Imagine the shock of finding a preserved Harrison in a couple of thousand years - historians still trying in vain to unlock the purpose of the Oxford United Supporters badge he so proudly wears.

Once the peat had been cut, it was time to make a trip to Bowmore’s water source. While the distillery is on the coastline, the water source- Laggan River is a long way in land and back in the distillery's distant past a channel was painstakingly cut by hand in 1841. It runs over 7 miles to deliver a plentiful supply and took over a year to cut. Eddie pointed out that the water actually gets less peaty along the journey, which we put to the test, enjoying a dram of Bowmore Darkest with water direct from the source and then another further on towards the distillery. A whisky, out in the open air, diluted with a little splash of slightly earthy water is as close to perfection as you'll get in our book...and Darkest doesn't disappoint; big dried fruits, subtle peat, with a hint of sweetness.

Returning to the distillery, we enjoyed a quick lesson in malt turning, before it was time to experience Warehouse Number One, the oldest continually used warehouse in Scotland and rammed with gems from as far back as 1957. (Oh how we’d like a night alone with those casks...)

The specific reason for this visit was to try the new 1982 Vintage Release. Limited to just 501 bottles, the release sits well between last year's 1981 release and the 1983 vintage - a very limited bottling, which is going to be released at next month’s Feis Ile. (Get ready for the openday queue folks...)

But beforehand, a few mouthfuls of some other gems from the burgeoning Bowmore cabinet.

First up: Bowmore's 'distillery only' bottling:

Bowmore - The Craftsman's Collection -Maltman's Selection - 3000 bottles - 54.6%

Nose: Big burnt caramel, notes of roasted meat, followed by swathes of smoke and juicy seville oranges.

Palate: More roast meat, sweet peat (with a hint of medicinal) and soft fruits, leading into drying oak. Moreish, but very direct.

Finish: Lingering notes of sweet peat and drying sherrywood.

Overall: If you happen to be passing by, be sure to try a sample of this in the Bowmore bar- it certainly hits home and won't to be to everyone's tastes, but if you like your peat and sherrywood in 3D, you'll absolutely adore it.

Bowmore - 1983 vintage - 501 bottles - 47%

Nose: Initial notes of highly aromatic fresh mint, dark toffee, gooseberries, watermelon sweets and daffodils.

Palate: PARMA VIOLETS. Yes - very much in CAPITALS. Enormously fruity/floral and perfumed, leading into clean malt, heather honey notes, soft, very gentle wood smoke and a slightly tropical note. A really eloquent and open palate, absolutely superb.

Finish: Baked banana, lingering vanillas and a dash of tangerine juice.

Overall: Unbelieveably fruity, but with a rich seam of sweet peat. The early 1980's seem to be a superb era for vintage Bowmore casks and this one sits right up there with the best of them.