Editor’s Note: This whisky was provided to us as a review sample by Bowmore. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy link towards the bottom of this review our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.
In 1779, John P. Simson founded a distillery on the Southeastern shore of Loch Indaal which today is owned by Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd, a holding company of the international Beam Suntory brand. Bowmore claims to be the “oldest” distillery on Islay. It produces roughly 1.7 million liters of Scotch per year through the use of two wash and two spirits stills.
Scotch whisky is extremely varied. Within the country of Scotland, which is roughly the size of North Carolina in the U.S., there are five main production regions: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Campbelltown, and Islay. Although the whiskies made in each region are no longer quite as distinct from one another, one of the primary regional variables is the the level of peat that is used in the drying of the malted grain.
Peat is a dense organic material generated from the decomposition of plant matter in ancient bogs. In the world of Scotch production, peat is often burned to produce heat in order to stop the malting process of barley. The smoke of the peat is transferred to the dried grains, and when those grains are later distilled, the resulting earthy flavor of the peat is brought forward.
Not all regions have such intense peat smoke, and not all distilleries use high levels of peat to stop the malting process. For example, whiskies from the Speyside region generally (although not always) have a much lower peat profile than their Islay counterparts. When distilleries desire a high peat flavor, they’ll use direct peat smoke in the drying kilns to heat and dry the malted barley. When a distillery looks to reduce the peat flavor, they simply reduce or eliminate the amount of smoke used in the drying process, opting instead for hot air over peat smoke.
It is this smoky taste that turns some consumers off from Scotch whisky completely, especially Scotch whisky from Islay, which is iconic for its smokey characteristics. Ardbeg, another Islay distillery, sells a box set called “the monsters of smoke,” which is designed specifically to highlight the intense smoky nature of their Islay Scotch whisky. For some, myself included, Islay Scotch whisky is their “Rock of Gibraltar.” The peat smoke simply overwhelms the senses, and no other flavors can be appreciated. This made learning to love Islay scotch a slog, as it felt that exposure therapy was the only way to learn to love it.
It is important to understand not all Islay distilleries are Ardbeg or Lagavulin; seemingly priding themselves in being unassailably smoky. Bowmore, another Islay distillery, is iconic for their fruit and balanced peat profiles, which is helpful for newer whiskey enthusiasts, or even veteran enthusiasts looking to expand their appreciation.
Bowmore’s standard range includes the No. 1 (no age statement), a 12-year, 15-year, 18-year, and 25-year-old. The whiskey I was tasked with reviewing is arguably the introduction to the Bowmore Distillery, the 12-year-old single malt. After my tasting, I will say I was extremely satisfied with this bottle and would strongly recommend it to anyone looking to assail “The Rock” that is Islay Scotch. With that in mind, we turn to the glass.
Tasting Notes: Bowmore 12-Year-Old
Vital Stats: 12 years old, single malt Scotch whisky, bottled at 40% ABV.
Appearance: Yellow gold with thin, even legs.
Nose: Mellow peat smoke, honeydew melon, and lemon grass. Breathing deeply reveals more complete earth tones from the peat.
Palate: Heavy oak char with campfire flavor on the first sip. The low ABV helps to mature the flavors quickly. The front of the mouth tastes lemon citrus with the deep sweetness of clover honey. I found most of the action to be at the front of the tongue and did not get the more traditional whiskey ‘kick’ at the throat or stomach. There is a warming sensation, but it is very smooth and slow.
The finish is some tart citrus -flavor overlaying the residual vanilla sweetness with puffs of campfire smoke. Excellently balanced between the peat smoke iconic to Islay and the sweetness of the barley.
Very mellow and dangerously sip-able. The Bowmore 12 is an excellent introductory Islay Scotch, with enough smoke to stand apart from the other regions while maintaining enough sweetness to keep even exclusive bourbon drinkers engaged. Make no mistake, this is an Islay; there is campfire smoke on the nose and in the glass.
Fans of big Islay smoke will find this underwhelming, but this is a near-perfect bottle to pull out for a friend who likes Scotch and wants to wade into the pool of Islay.
User Review4.5 (2 votes)
Charles Steele is a Portland area attorney, born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. His legal education affords him an analytical approach to understanding whiskey and other aged spirits. Traditionally a legal writer, freelancing for The Whiskey Wash will prove a unique opportunity to flex his writing skills. Although he...