That Was Not The Whisky Bubble Popping

Recently I discussed the pre-Sputnik Bowmore 1957, limited to a handful of bottles. With a positively ancient whisky inside a stunning bottle likely fashioned from narwhal tears and pixie dust, this was expected to fetch £100,000 (or slightly north of $162,000 for those who don’t convert currencies). Yesterday was the auction date for bottle one in Edinburgh, and the bottle… did not sell.

Early reaction on twitter was a mix of surprise and schadenfreude. Some even hoped this was a bellwether event that signaled the end of the whisky bubble and extremely high pricing. It could be, but I’d be willing to bet it’s not. And with that, I find myself with strange bedfellows on my position – the people who are speculating and driving up the value of these things.

I wasn’t in Edinburgh when the auction happened, but I can only surmise that the reason it only made it to £85,000 (USD: $Too Much) was for a relatively benign reason – Mahesh Patel had to run to the bathroom or his paddle fell under the chair in front of him at the critical moment and he couldn’t reach it to make the victorious £100,000 bid… or possibly the anonymous wealthy businessmen who apparently fly through Singapore Changi were still busy working their way through their Dalmores.

Bonhams suggested that “The skill and patience that has gone into the production of this product has not been appreciated by the market” – which is possible. Bowmore themselves noted that the auction remains open for another week, so it’s possible this may sell at the asking price.

We’ll see come October 28th when bottle #2 goes on auction in New York. Perhaps this was a one-time glitch, or perhaps more likely, Bowmore is not a name that has spent a lot of time burnishing its plutocrat-friendly image. Sure, you can go into a fancy liquor store and see that bottle of Black sitting on a shelf, mocking you with its $5000 price tag, but that’s still miles off the $160,000 mark.

And what of this claim of $150,000 being “the most expensive whisky” that was bandied about? Don’t forget that in 2010, a 64 year old Macallan sold for $460,000. Yes, nearly HALF A MILLION DOLLARS. To be fair, that was a 1.5L container, so I guess the adjusted price would be $230,000 – still nearly 50% in excess of the Bowmore mark – and this sum was actually realized.

In a world where a $90 bourbon sells for over $1000 in a single auction, one data point like this doesn’t signal the market giving up. There’s still the chance that the New York auction is the one that realizes the auction reserve price or more. Or, perhaps, this is just a sign that Bowmore cannot command prices that high – yet.

The leaders in high-priced whisky, Macallan and Dalmore, have had occasional hits in the six figures, but the bulk of that market lies below the six-figure range for now (even the most expensive Constellation was only $32,000). Time will tell if this came up short due to pricing ahead of the market, name recognition, or a burst bubble. However, I suspect that a bubble pop will be concurrent with a migration away from whisky as a “cool” thing – either due to changing tastes or fatigue from too many exclusives/rising prices/etc.

While I could be wrong, I think we’ve got a long ways to go still before we see a bubble pop and the inevitable market collapse that would follow.

Enough about whiskies we’ll never drink. Here’s a Bowmore you’ve probably passed up and should take the opportunity to enjoy. Several months back in a LAWS reserves cleanout, I managed to get a little more than half a bottle of Bowmore 15 Darkest. This is part of the standard Bowmore lineup and one I’d never had before. Honestly, it’s the whisky that opened my eyes to the possibility of Bowmore.

At $70, Bowmore Darkest isn’t the cheapest, but it’s not outrageous for a 15 year old whisky, and it’s a sherry casked, fairly lightly peated whisky. That combination of sherry and peat is one of the most sublime tastes to be had in the world of Scotch whisky, and it’s usually something that commands a much higher price.

The nose is a treat. There’s a well-balanced sherry character that has a lot of the expected qualities – dried fruit, a little nutmeg and cinnamon, balanced against iodine and a bit of tar. Plum and cherry, with a little claylike earthiness provides some great depth; it’s all rounded out by a light sweetness and faint maltiness.

The palate has a light to moderate peatiness and a little heat, which is balanced nicely by a cinnamon-spiced apple compote. There’s a little fig and a nice, rich, oily mouthfeel. It all has the hallmark of a strong sherry influence – really enjoyable. I really feel like there’s a shortage of whiskies that have a nice sherry influence like this at a young age.

The finish is momentarily warmer, and the peat comes into center stage initially. It has some nice tongue-numbing spice from cinnamon and pepper; it settles down and the dried fruit notes again come to the front.

All in all, it’s a really enjoyable and highly accessible Bowmore. Maybe if enough people buy the reasonable ones there will be less need for the high-end stunt whiskies.

Probably not.

At a Glance:

Bowmore 15y Darkest – 43% ABV
Nose:  Balanced sherry gives some dried fruit, nutmeg and a touch of cinnamon to iodine, earth and a bit of tar. There’s a touch of plum and cherry; a little bit of clay. Light sweetness and faint malt.
Palate:  Moderate peat and a little heat which is balanced well by a nice cinnamon-spiced apple compote. A touch of fig; nice, rich, oily mouthfeel.
Finish:  Gains heat momentarily and the peat comes to the forefront; a nice gentle tongue numbing spice in the form of some cinnamon and pepper. Settles down and leaves some more dried fruits.
Comment:   A really enjoyable, super-accessible Bowmore.
Rating: B

24 thoughts on “That Was Not The Whisky Bubble Popping”

    1. I don’t know that I’m sold with Bowmore’s line (the 12 and the Legend were not favorites to say the least), but Darkest – as well as my experience with IBs – has me reconsidering. When it’s good it’s sublime, but it can be so very, very bad.

          1. we get the 12yo as low as $32 up our way. at that price it’s a very good entry-level malt, and i don’t think i’d have called my last bottle watery or bland. the legend, however, is best used for imparting mild peat to home blends.

            i’m a big fan of bowmore from the 1990s. am yet to have a bad one. good bourbon cask bowmores in their teens (and even lower–i recently killed a van wees 8 yo bottling that had it in spades) have that tropical fruit cocktail thing that most other distilleries’ whiskies seem to need to get to their 20s to develop.

  1. Tim, I’m a big fan of Bowmore. I haven’t had the 15yo recently, but I suspect it’s similar to the 12yo, based on yours and others’ description. I find their 12yo frankly a bit boring, precisely because of the sherried character. I had the same problem with Lagavulin 16. The sherry quickly overpowers the peat, and you end up with plenty of flavor, but drowned in syrup. (Maybe I shouldn’t drink them during a heat wave!) In contrast, I really liked peat monsters that are only finished in sherry – Laphroaig Triple Wood, Benriach 12yo Heredotus do this very well. Just enough sweetness to mellow down the peat, to round it out, but sherry is the sidekick.

    To me, a bourbon barrel and cask strength are what makes a Bowmore sing. Their Cask Strength OB (no sherry) and a Rattray 14yo I recently had are peaty but in a floral, delicate, and very appetizing, mouthwatering way. Their sweetness blossoms as you drink them, rather than overwhelm you.

    1. I have to agree with you on the 12 and the Legend by extension. Both are pretty dull in my opinion – not bad, but certainly not worth dropping what you were doing to chase down.

      I suspect based on what you’re saying, the 15 is not going to be your thing. It’s got a fairly weighty sherry presence that I’m more accustomed to finding on older, nice cask strength independents. I’ll have to try the Benriach you mention; I’ve never had it.

      My experience with Bowmore in general is fairly limited, and generally hasn’t stacked up favorably – a few good ones (’70s Signatories), some OK ones (12, Legend), and some unspeakably vile (the 21 mentioned elsewhere here, some of the FWP-era bottles). This one stood out for its approachability and character, but if sherry isn’t your thing…

      I’ll hunt down some of the Cask Strength just to give it a whirl. I’m so on the fence with the ADR bottles, I feel like a lot of those tend to be tired casks. (Not all…)

      1. I’ve had a couple of questionable ADR’s – a 9yo Craigellachie that was full of cabbage and sulphury root vegetables, its only redeeming feature being that it was a 375ml bottle; and a quirky, oily but lopsided Royal Lochnagar. But all was forgiven after the Bowmore 14 I mentioned (Bevmo might still have it) and another Bowmore 20 from TotalWine which was at the other extreme, a sherry bomb to destroy all sherry bombs.

        1. Yeah, I also had a weird Craigellachie which was kind of waffle-syrupy and weird from ADR. My other major miscue was a 19 year old Macallan which must have been in an eighty-sixth-refill cask; it had barely any color after nearly two decades and was just painful… I’ve seen that one here and there to this day in LA.

          I’ve got a Glen Scotia that looks to be ultra-sherried, we shall see if that changes my ADR opinion.

          1. Nice! Always glad to hear. The nose was nice and dense in the bottle; haven’t had the opportunity to sit down with any yet. I couldn’t resist 375mL of uber-sherried potential goodness. Sometimes it’s a crapshoot but I’ve had a good run of late. I may just wait for Sku to post his notes on it.

        2. that bevmo 14 (actually, there may have been more than one; mine is 59.1%) is not my favourite of the rattray 90s bowmores, but it is indeed quite good. it’s not the one i’d start with though to change anyone’s mind about bowmore or rattray (who are indeed somewhat unpredictable with their cask selection).

      1. I know. $136,400.00 just sounds better on the tongue. The recent Bowmore Tempest releases might be better examples of the distillery and they are much more affordable for us. Personally I want to see Bowmore and Auchentoshen get the same treatment as their stablemate Glen Garioch which is being bottled at 48% and unchillfiltered.

  2. did you only try the bowmore 15 darkest past the halfway mark? my bottle had a really off-putting nose at first–cloying, almost pukey (no, not the floral characteristics geeks usually like to bag on bowmore for). so much so that i put it away for a while without coming back to it. once it got to the halfway mark though those butyric notes went away and it became a really gorgeous whisky.

    do try the ad rattray 18yo, 1991 sherry cask (2075) if you can find it. i plowed through my first bottle and have so far resisted opening the second. in fact, i don’t think i’ve had a single rattray bowmore from the 1990s that wasn’t at least very good.

    1. No, I actually wound up liking it enough that I bought another bottle – it is just a very agreeably-made whisky for me. Definitely no FWP or violet overdose, and nothing that was butyric or moldy or otherwise off/tainted on the newer bottle. If I were going to compare I’d say it was a little sharper overall and the new bottle seems a touch more malty, but for all I know that’s the difference between new and old. Or, perhaps I got lucky?

      I will say I do prefer to let it sit for 5-10 minutes to settle down a touch, but that for me is more of an alcohol/sharpness issue which gets me on many whiskies (which is why I frequently have a lot on the nose as the more volatile stuff airs out and you get more body).

      Haven’t seen a word of that Rattray… saw an older 20y but it was hideously overpriced, and I haven’t seen where the 14y is that Florin recommends (though I know Bevmo carries it).

      Good to know though. Maybe I’ll jump in.

      1. I really tried to like the Darkest I bought earlier this year. Really. Having plowed through a range of old Bowmores with friends, including the 30 year Seadragon (a gorgeous whisky bursting with tropical fruits), a 21 (not the poopy 1990s distillation, but one from the beginning of that decade), a 25 (80s distillation), and a 17 screen print label (blows away the paper label 17 and the replacement 18), I guess I was set up for failure. This bottle is miles away from the Rattray Bowmores, which are quite good. I should revisit my bottle to see if it has leveled out. Otherwise, I may actually pour it out. Yes, I know that I have been extremely fortunate to have tasted the above mentioned bottles. However, the bad aspect of this is that I now shake my head in disgust at what happened to this excellent producer. I have a 90s Macallan 12 open right now that makes me feel the same way about that whisky house. It’s literally like a Christmas cake (my mother’s comment, actually) and bursts with flavor. I can see why the old 18 was so good. I suppose I shall have to console myself by drinking the last ounces of the 17 screen print label and the delicious Macallan.

        1. Apologies for the slow response, it’s been crazy the last few days.

          I think what we see here is a clear commentary on the polarizing nature of Bowmore. I certainly agree that some of the old ones were good (which I’d had the Seadragon), but I’ve had a few too many of those horrifying perfumey ones. It just hits my nose in a bad way.

          Of course, I could just have utterly pedestrian tastes with my stated like for this bottle, and I’m OK with that. For whatever reason, it just works for me.

          As to Macallan… you’ll get no argument from me. I love their whisky but the 12 continues to feel like it’s adrift. I guess the Gold is their answer to that…

  3. I don’t even pay attention to whisky auctions like this. It’s like trying to make sense of the hot little blonde on the arm of a 70-year-old CEO. It’s someone else’s make believe world and not mine. If that world lands with a thud, like this auction, well, no tears of sympathy here. As for Bowmore I can afford, it’s like my version of Glenrothes for you. I liked a few expressions maybe 10 years ago, but they seemed to have switched things up with that whole Legend, Darkest, etc. I used to love the old 17 year old.

    1. Bowmore is both wildly inconsistent over the last four years and seems to be such a personal taste whisky. I love 15/Darkest, but as elsewhere, the younger ones leave me cold.

      We’ll see about Glenrothes soon. Can’t say it won’t be for lack of trying.

  4. I was quite surprised K&L grabbed one of the 1964 Bowmore bottles (selling for $14,000 which is still too much). The interesting thing David OG (in a rare blog post) brought up the fact Bowmore develops more tropical fruit notes when it gets that old. I’ve only encountered tropical fruits in rum finished whisky like Balvenie 14 so it’s surprising that Bowmore develops this characteristic without needing a rum cask.

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