The central town of Islay is home to the oldest distillery of the island. Many people call Laphroaig the love it or hate it distillery, but for me this label fits even better to Bowmore. Most lovers of peated whiskies also like Laphroaig, but time and time again I heard of peat lovers who find it difficult to enjoy Bowmore. This malt has a very distinctive fruity and floral flavour profile that seems to repel quite a few peatheads.
My effort of getting an appointment with someone from the distillery staff resulted in the recommendation to book Bowmore’s Craftman’s Tour for £40 that would be led by a senior distillery employee who could then answer my questions. Oh well… Needless to say that I decided to go for the regular tour instead.
Centrally located, the distillery buildings are fully integrated into the town, with their back sides looking at the shore of Loch Indaal. Bowmore even offers accomodation in their cottages on the site which is something quite unique among distilleries.
As one of only a few distilleries in Scotland Bowmore still produces some (45%) of its malted barley on their own malting floor where it is then peat-smoked to a medium level of 25 ppm phenols and dried by hot air. One ton of peat is suffcient for one week of smoking. The visitors on the tour were offered a taste of their peated malt which actually makes a very nice snack. By the way, I had been lucky enough to witness a delivery of fresh peat that was just brought in shortly before the tour. A thing Bowmore are quite proud of is an efficient heat exchange system that supposedly helps to cut down energy requirement by a third.
Just like Bunnahabhain, Bowmore uses an old Porteus malt mill, a type that seems to be very popular among distilleries because of its robustness. Mashing and fermentation are done like everywehere else, but the nice old boilers holding the hot water for mashing are a very attractive sight not commonly seen elsewhere. It should be noted though that Bowmore had made a switch from wooden to stainless steel washbacks that was reverted because they didn’t like the result. No dates were given by the tour guide, but this makes me wonder if this might be the answer to the notorious FWP effect that older Bowmore expressions tend to have.
Distillation is monitored by a computer but all still operations are still carried out manually. A curious fact is that the condensor of one of the spirit stills is placed on the outside of the stillhouse. This was obviously done to save space which is a wee bit limited in the stillhouse.
It was a bit disappointing that the warehouse that was shown on the tour was specially prepared for visitors an cut off from access by glass. The tour guide was eager to point out that all spirit is matured in first fill casks. You could see some old casks from the 1950s, but the guide told that either they were empty or belonged to somone else but the owners could not be tracked down anymore.
The drams for the tour were served in the luxurious tasting room upstairs at the visitors centre where also a nice range of rare Bowmore bottles is on display. First was the regular 12yo, then you had a free choice from their product range right up to the 21yo Port Wood, a generosity that is quite amazing compared to other distilleries.
Throughout my visit it was noticeable that Bowmore is very concerned about their presentation. Everything is neat and tidy, the visitors centre tries to convey a touch of sophistication that sets them apart from its competitors on the island. Bowmore wants to deliver the message that they take extra care in making their whisky to the highest possible standard. This of course also shows on the price tag, but still many of the official Bowmore bottlings offer a reasonably good value for the money.