Sometimes you get the chance to taste something really special. It might be an unexpected bottle pulled from a distant relatives dusty liquor cabinet, a sample that cost you more than a decent bottle or, as in this case, a wee dram received due to the generosity of a learned friend. Bowmore whiskies from the 1960s are of course one of whisky’s holy grails, the nature of the spirit with its mix of intensely exotic fruit and inescapable suggestions of the sea has become the stuff of legend, debate and feverish hoarding.
The little rarity featured here was however distilled in 1955, and by no means does that diminish the anticipation, quite the contrary in fact. This is from a very scarce bottle indeed; a run of 100, 37.5cl stone flagons bottled in 1974 to celebrate the opening of the distillery’s visitor centre. Happily, it seems these were distributed amongst the staff at the time, how many of them were left unopened beyond the celebrations though is anyone’s guess.
Bowmore whisky is arguably one of the most interesting and varied of all Scotches, and not always for the reasons one might hope. On one hand this beautiful distillery on the shores of Loch Indaal has given us some of the most spectacular “malt moments” in history with, among others, its gloriously fruity 1964 Trilogy (‘Black’ Bowmore, ‘White’ and ‘Gold’) releases, and yet on the other hand we see the now all but infamous production of the 1980s with its seemingly inexplicable perfumed, soapy notes that many (myself fully included) find anything but desirable. The reason for this stark change of character during the 80s is hard to tie down to one specific factor, though we can be reasonably certain that it did not make itself so apparent in the new make at the time.
There is no question that many things have changed in the industry over the last 40 or so years and this is probably the greatest barrier to pinpointing the reasons behind Bowmore’s split personality. Centralised malting and maturation, new barley varieties, changes in fermentation time in response to demand and radically revised wood policy are just some of the many changes that may have played a part in what is clearly a complex picture. Had Bowmore remained draped in parma violets and lavender soap in its current production, I doubt we would find the situation fascinating so much as a tragedy. Gladly however the 90/00 spirit is as much a departure from that distilled in the 80s, as the 80s spirit was from its 60s and 70s forbears. As a result of this the current spirit is winning people over once more, with releases like the widely acclaimed Bowmore 10 year old Tempest and an array of quality bottlings from the Independents.