Bowmore: Islay’s Most Historic Whisky - The Whiskey Wash

Bowmore: Islay’s Most Historic Whisky

The Bowmore distillery is the oldest distillery on Islay and the second oldest in Scotland, dating back officially to 1779. It was also the first Islay distillery to officially obtain a government license. Claims of antiquity on Islay are always suspect, however, since most distillers had illegal precursors going back many decades.

In Gaelic, Bowmore means “great reef.” The original distillery was probably established by John P. Simson, a local merchant and entrepreneur, in 1766. It’s possible that whisky distillation predates that date by a decade or more. Simson may have operated an even earlier distillery for the Laird of Islay at his Bridgend estate.

Like many of the other Islay distilleries, Bowmore was established as a “farming distillery.” Its land grant came with farmland where the barley intended for whisky distillation would be grown. The Kildalton distilleries, (Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg), were all farming distilleries, and retained their associated farmland until well into the 19th century.

Bowmore entered the modern period of its history in 1963, when the distillery was purchased by Stanley P. Morrison Ltd., a Glasgow whisky broker. The number of stills was doubled to four, and the range of expressions offered by Bowmore was expanded. In 1989, the Japanese brewing and distilling giant Suntory purchased a 35 percent interest in the parent company. It acquired the balance in 1994.

Bowmore distillery

image via Bowmore

Bowmore has always had a distinctive style that combines pronounced peat smoke with distinctive saline and marine elements. A range of innovative cask treatments, from rare Japanese oak to a variety of sweet wine casks, has produced a broad range of Bowmore expressions, including many in the “smoky and sweet” style that Islay has become increasingly famous for.

Bowmore produces about two million liters of pure alcohol a year–the equivalent to more than six million bottles of Scotch whisky. It is the second best-selling Islay whisky after Laphroaig. Its core range consists of Bowmore Legend and 12 YO, 15 YO, 17 YO, 21 YO, 25 YO, and 30 YO expressions. A special 50 YO bottling was recently released. Only 159 bottles were produced, and the allocation for the U.S. market was limited to six bottles at a retail price of $25,000.

Bowmore’s water source is the Laggan River. It rises in ancient pre-Cambrian rocks that, at almost two billion years old, are among the oldest in Europe, and flows into Loch Indaal. The water flows over peat, picking up a brown color and about two-ppm phenol; this is not enough, however, to have a discernable impact on the whisky’s taste.

The distillery is one of only seven in Scotland that still operates its own malting floor, although it can only produce around 30 percent of its malt needs. All the malt is peated to an average of 25-ppm phenol. Bowmore’s malting barn has three floors, each of which holds 14 tons of grain. The germinating barley is automatically turned every four hours. Malting typically lasts about seven days.

Kilning takes about 60 hours in total, with peat smoke being applied for the first 18 hours. Bowmore utilizes two separate furnaces for drying the malted barley: a peat furnace to provide peat smoke and a second, oil fired furnace, to provide heated air. During kilning the moisture content of the barley is reduced from around 42 percent to about five percent. Bowmore’s peat comes from the Gartbreck moor, just southwest of the distillery.

The barley is ground to 70 percent grist, 20 percent husks, and 10 percent flour. This is a high percentage of husks, but is a typical grind for peated Islay whiskies. Roughly half of the phenolic compounds absorbed by the barley are in the husk, so the percentage of husk retained has a major impact on the quantity of phenolic compounds that are retained in the wash.

The fermentation room has six, 40,000-liter wooden washbacks made from what the Scots refer to as Oregon pine. Oregon pine is actual the coastal variety of Douglas fir. Historically, the washbacks were of wood, but these were changed to steel in 1964, and then back to wood in 1991. Whether the choice of steel or wood washbacks has an impact of the final taste of the whisky remains a highly debated topic on Islay.

The wash, or “distiller’s beer,” which is produced in the washbacks, clocks in at around seven to eight percent ABV; this is at the low end of the usual range of alcoholic strengths. Fermentation lasts about 48 hours during the weekdays, but can continue for up to 62 hours if it extends into the weekend.

Bowmore casks

Some of the casks at Bowmore (image via Bowmore)

Bowmore has two wash stills and two spirit stills. The wash stills have a capacity of just under 31,000 liters and are usually charged to 65 percent, while the spirit stills have a capacity of 14,750 liters and are charged to 92 percent. The wash stills are extremely large, by comparison they have roughly three times the capacity of the equivalent skills at Laphroaig.

One of the condenser columns had to be placed outside because there was no way to fit it into the still house. The condensers are unique in that they are divided into two distinct parts and operate at different temperatures to better recycles waste heat.

The stills are standard pot stills, somewhat pear shaped. The style is also called a Speyside still. The spirit stills have a gently rising lynn arm, 10 degrees for the Number 1 spirit still and 5 degrees for the Number 2. The stills, including the necks, are about 19-feet high. They lack any constrictions or boil balls where the pot meets the neck of the still. This means that Bowmore’s distillation, unlike say Ardbeg or Bruichladdich, does not produce a great deal of reflux.

The spirit cut is a particularly wide 74% to 61% ABV. The average strength of the new make spirit is 68.8% and it is diluted down to 63.5% ABV using the local tap water. The new make spirit has phenols in the range of eight to ten ppm. Bowmore only uses first fill bourbon casks to age its whiskey; 71 percent are standard American barrels and 15 percent are rebuilt hogsheads. About 14 percent of the casks are first fill sherry butts or puncheons.

The distillery has six warehouses, five of which are the standard “dunnage” type and one that is racked. The legendary Number 1 warehouse, or vault, extends ten feet below the sea level of Loch Indaal. This warehouse is cold and particularly humid and is where the distillery ages its most prized whiskies. Because of this unique environment, evaporation is only about one percent a year. The Number 1 vault is the oldest maturation facility in Scotland and the only part of the distillery that dates to the original 1779 structure.

Among Bowmore’s most unusual expressions was the whisky finished in Japanese oak, which typically imparts flavors of sandalwood and incense to maturing whisky. The whisky was bottled as Mizunara Cask Finish. It carried no age statement and was bottled at an ABV of 53.9%. The whisky was aged in ex-bourbon and sherry barrels and was then finished for three years in casks of Japanese Mizunara oak. Only 2,000 bottles were produced and only 500 bottles made it to North America.

Bowmore is an Islay whisky institution with a range of superlative whiskies and a finely-honed marketing sense of how the Scotch whisky industry is evolving in the 21st century. An integral part of any whisky collection, their bottlings, especially the rarer ones, are truly one of a kind.

About the author

Joe Micallef

Joseph V. Micallef is a historian, best-selling author, keynote speaker and commentator on wine and spirits. He is a member of the National Speakers Association and has also appeared on a variety of broadcast venues including, CNN, Fox News and Fox News Radio. He has frequently spoken on the history of food, wine and spirits. He holds the Diploma in Wine and Spirits and the Professional Certificate in Spirits (with Distinction) from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (London). He is a certified wine judge for the California State Fair Wine Competition and also a judge for the International Wines and Spirits Competition (IWSC) Among his recent books are), Scotch Whisky: Its History, Production and Appreciation (2015). A new book, The Whisky Isles, is forthcoming.