Bowmore and More Bowmore

Given the title, you may think this is a late post on the Black Bowmore tasting LAWS had recently (and that Adam wrote up yesterday). Alas: I was not at that tasting, I did not have the Black Bowmore, and I remain individually bereft. The glorious nectar which aged in a cask  kissed by angels, silently bearing witness to many important events of the 20th century, such as the launch of Billy Beer, has simply not touched my lips.

At least that’s how I think you’re supposed to write about it. I’ll just assume it was not meant to be this time, and at some point, it will. Or it won’t.

All that silliness aside, this is a much more practical and affordable pair of whiskies in the glass. If you need rarity and exclusivity and so on to punch up the cachet of the whisky review, you might find this depressing. Instead – let’s fire up the transmarketifier and really drum these up.

Whisky number one is a Faultline bottling of Bowmore. This whisky was aged 15 years, from June 23, 1997, distilled weeks after the breakup of Soundgarden, and bottled on February 16th, 2013, weeks after Soundgarden reunited and released King Animal. This whisky was placed into casks by Scotsmen who mourned one of the most vital bands of the Seattle scene, who stood above the “grunge” label and had a foot comfortably planted in hard rock and metal. The cask had been hand-coopered sometime previous, and lovingly restored and prepared to receive new spirit. “If Soundgarden’s calling it quits at the peak of their creativity,” it was heard frequently in the warehouse, “then we’d best be careful and tighten our belt. I suspect that we may be only eleven and a half years from a major economic downturn. ” The cask was laid into one of Bowmore’s famed warehouses and forgotten, much as many forgot the unique riffs of Kim Thayil. Days turned into weeks and months; years passed as well.

A young man named David Driscoll couldn’t be bothered to care when this cask went into wood; he was dreaming of the college years ahead, and certain that he could con his professors into accepting his proposed Critical Studies Of Professional Wrestling major. In time, Driscoll too would learn the sting of disappointment as this proposed course of study was not approved.

The sands of time had accumulated, and this cask was nearly obscured in a dark corner of the Bowmore warehouses. Perhaps this would be lost forever. David Driscoll confidently walked through the warehouse, guided by providence, some say. Lesser spirits reps taste barrels, smell and hug them, and try to intuit some greater reality. That morning, Driscoll felt the lofty hand of providence guiding him down to a barrel, tugging impatiently like a toddler. He turned to his right, and time and space vanished. This cask was The One.

The cask was dumped into bottles, filled gently and with unerring precision by a bottling machine that had been serviced hours previously. A Palm Tree label had been affixed to all the bottles, in a style that was strongly reminiscent of old Samaroli labels. At the top, the name: FAULTLINE. This spirit had travelled half a world, and would now only be sold within the exclusive and hallowed halls of K&L in California, as well as via their website, available to any state with permissive alcohol consumption laws, particularly with regards to shipping.

Unfortunately, it’s sold out. That is to say, it is all gone, as unavailable at retail as the Black Bowmore, and you can only find it via the secondary market or a friend who happens to have a bottle.

The second bottle is a newer Faultline bottle of Bowmore. This is a 16 year old, distilled in 1996 and bottled in 2013. It was aged in a refill sherry cask, and is still available. It doesn’t have a clever backstory. However, and don’t let the terrorists know this, the bottle can be repurposed into a “dirty bomb” by simply ▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓  ▓▓▓   ▓▓▓▓▓▓▓  ▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓   ▓▓▓▓▓▓▓  ▓▓▓  ▓▓▓.

Obviously that affects the value (and prestige) greatly.

I actually grabbed both of these whiskies within the last few months. I’ve continued to orbit around Bowmore after receiving some feedback from commenters Florin and Mongo, as well as discussing it with my friend Steffen a little over a year ago. Consensus among them and some others were that Bowmore of the late 1990s had the potential to be above average. I figured these two were worth the risk, since they weren’t hideously overpriced. After all, it’s not five years ago, and you can either gnash your teeth and curse the fact, or you can get your liver on the case and try to find the next great things.

The first one I had was the Palm Tree release. This Bowmore is a lighter one, and at 60.1%, I was fearing the worst: A mostly inert cask resulting in a strong new make note and a waterlogged oaky presence with no spice to help it along.

At first approach, it’s got a strong prickle to the nose — hey, it’s 60% — with some malty sweetness behind it. There’s champagne mango, banana, and a touch of coconut. There’s also something that struck me as being sort of like riesling. It’s got a nice, relatively moderated smokiness that isn’t acrid – just rich and full but not overpowering. Classic Bowmore.

The palate has a nice smooth mouthfeel; some gentle spice and heat are there, but it’s relatively controlled given the strength. There’s some smoke, more of the fruitiness from the nose, and some banana richness (it’s not really a banana note per se, it’s just that kind of quasi-dry/creamy impression I get from bananas), some pineapple and a bit of gentle wood and white pepper.

The finish leads with smoke and has a nice body. It’s got a quick bit of fruit, and then it’s got a delicious, briny nori-esque note. It’s not out-and-out fishy though. Long, lightly sweet, and a generous but not overbearing dab of fruit. In short, it’s a really nice whisky, a good balance of fruit and peat, without being too much of either or even walking in the direction of “cloying”.

On the other side of the fence is the newer Bowmore, #90069, also a K&L Faultline exclusive and aged in refill sherry. This one comes in at 52%; it has a darker hue which says the cask did something (unless someone knocked a strawberry pop-tart in and everyone pretended not to notice).

The nose on this Bowmore is initially a little sharp and slightly sour. It’s got some light wood presence and smells turpentine-y and underdeveloped. The peat presence is almost chemical. Even after letting this bottle air out substantially, I find it tamps down the sharper notes, but there’s still a weird artificial tang to the peat notes.

The palate is sweet peat, with malt and more sugary than sherry-influenced. It’s got cinnamon and pepper, and a lightly sour, underdeveloped note again. With plenty of air, I still haven’t found this one to change a lot.

The finish is quite warm, with a vague iodine quality on the peat. On the whole it’s more organic than the artificial tang it had, and dominates the finish over a light chili heat. Unsurprisingly from these notes (and multiple tasting sessions, and allowing various amount of air), this whisky just didn’t do it for me.  I probably have poured as much down the sink as I’ve tasted. I’d love to love it, but I don’t.

So there you have it. One good, one not so good. The hunt continues, but paler, teenage Bowmore from the mid-to-late 1990s may, in fact, be worth keeping an eye on.

At a glance:

Bowmore 15y d:1997 b:2013, Faultline “Palm Tree”, 60.1% ABV
Nose:  Strong prickle initially (hey, it’s 60%!), followed close by some malty sweetness; some champagne mango, some banana; a little and a touch of coconut. Maybe a faint hint of riesling? A nice, relatively moderated smokiness that doesn’t feel acrid, just rich without being overpowering.
Palate:  Nice, smooth mouthfeel. A little gentle spice and heat but quite controlled given the strength. Some smoke; more of the lighter fruity quality; a bit of banana richness (in the background); a touch of pineapple, a little gentle wood and white pepper.
Finish:   Leads with smoke, some really nice body to it. There’s a quick flirtation of the fruit that’s been with this, but then you get this kind of delicious savory and slightly briny note like some nori. It’s not out-and-out-fishy. Long, lightly sweet, with a generous but not overbearing dab of fruit.
Comment:  Really nice. A great balance of gentle sweetness and peat, without being too much of either.
Rating: B+

Bowmore 16y d:1996 b:2013 Faultline (no clever name) 52.0% ABV
Nose:  A little sharp, with a slight hint of sourness. A little woody. Smells kind of turpentine-y and underdeveloped. Peat is there but smells almost chemical.
Palate:  Slightly sweet peat; malt and more sugary than sherry-influenced. Some cinnamon and pepper. Again with that lightly sour, underdeveloped note.
Finish:  Heat, the peat has a slightly iodine-y, more organic character and dominates the finish over the light chili heat.
Comment:  The nose doesn’t work for me at all. The palate has moments of being highly questionable.
Rating: C

Shaking Frustration With Discipline

It’s been pretty clear here and elsewhere that there are rumblings of discontent in the whisky blog nerd space (a whopping 100 or so people, truly a horde indicative of broader societal change). We’re in a time with embarrassing riches: companies are listening; sometimes they even release things that reveal proof of it. There’s any number of whiskies available at any number of ages from virtually any distillery out there; in any number of cask pedigrees. Want something finished in a high-end Bordeaux? No problem. Barolo? Done. Dessert wine? Sure. Herring finish? Been done.

Despite all this choice, there’s any number of negative reactions. For those who think the industry does no wrong, there’s the fear of missing out on something. This gets even harder when there’s some oddball one-off or batched releases or overseas/travel exclusives.

There’s the contrary view: quality is declining, price is increasing, and times aren’t what they were. This speaks for itself: a sense of loss compared to a perceived time of plenty – really, missing that time before things got more popular, and the attendant shifts that come out of necessity for physical goods when popularity arrives.

There’s all kinds of other things to complain about: Packaging; wooden corks; screw caps (though you’d be wrong in this case); various personalities; breathless retailers; jerkface bloggers; secret clubs; not so secret clubs; exotic tastings; blogs covering the same shit as everyone else; blogs talking about irrelevant shit like pancakes or carnitas; Europeans; Americans; Serge’s connections; etc. etc. etc.

There’s really no shortage of stuff to be pissed off about. So what the heck do you do to counteract that? Find new avenues to appreciate, advocate, and then fall out of love with? It seems like that cycle has burned through most of the facets that exist in whisky appreciation. You’re forced to ask yourself at some point, “Do I still enjoy this? Do I enjoy this in the same way as I did a while ago?”

A while back I started looking for things to replace the holes in my blog reading after I stopped following the majority of the whisky writing out there. It’s way too easy to become hyper-insular when all you do is read, digest and discuss the same content as everyone else in a small subculture. It’s even worse if you’re prone to obsession or geekdom. Suddenly, references, thoughts, and ideas outside  the narrowly constructed box become a point of contention. “Why does Sku write about stupid Los Angeles restaurants? Why does Driscoll always talk about pro wrestling? Why does Serge always have some aside about music?”

The obsessed mind loses context. A picture, generally speaking, needs a frame. It sets the contents apart from the gallery walls that surround it, but tacitly acknowledges the space the picture is displayed in. It provides the boundaries for the work which invite you in further to ask questions – for instance, in the photography of Garry Winogrand or Henri Cartier-Bresson: what was just out of frame? What was happening around what I see? What happened just before and just after?

At a minimum, these things help provide context and information about the person writing. You can’t hardly throw a stone without reading a review of Buffalo Trace bourbon, for instance, but it’s just tasting notes and a score. There’s no sense of the who or what of the review. Is the person a bottom-shelf drinker? Are they attracted to flashy labels or packaging? Do they thrive on novelty? Do they have the underdeveloped palate of a two year old? If I have an objection to scores, it’s this. I don’t know anything about who’s writing, their experiences, or where it comes from.

But context is important than that. It’s  a speed bump to keep you from going too far in. They help remind you that there’s more to life than some controversy about whatever the latest scuttlebutt is about Pappy or what some tour guide at a Diageo distillery said. It’s a reminder that, hey, maybe you should get out. Live life. Give yourself the space necessary to determine what is worthy of your time, because not everything is worth it.

I spent a lot of time away from whiskey. I’m unplugged and clueless about the latest news, aside from the occasional smartass quip on twitter. I lost myself in other interests I’d set aside and cultivated new ones. And it’s brought a lot of perspective.

One of my ongoing projects I’ve discussed here is paring down my possessions. Initially, this was a response to a feeling of wastefulness and overconsumption. Then there was a self-reinforcing sense of accomplishment as things started to dwindle. Now it’s reached a new and very interesting thing: as some of these sub-projects wind to their logical conclusion, there are new perceived gaps and purchases. It’s not a need to re-buy everything in the closet after throwing 70% of it out, it’s realizing there’s a missing middle-ground in shoes, for instance. It’s not buying another snare drum because, hey, a cool one came out, it’s the one you’ve been chasing for years on end has finally surfaced and it’s exactly what you were looking for. And perhaps there’s an element of understanding that even this moment of need will pass and the “need” will no longer exist. And you’ll get rid of the thing: either by selling it, tossing it, consuming it, or wearing it out.

I learned about a great idea/practice in my non-whisky-blog reading of the last few months and I think it’s applicable back to this long winter of discontent in some whisky circles, especially if you’re in the “everything is great” camp or the “everything sucks” camp.

The French Wardrobe

What in the hell? What’s this got to do with anything?

Read enough about clothing, wardrobe selection, etc. and this will pop up sooner or later. It’s a really great idea and one I’ve been trying to apply to my interests in particular but my life in general.

The basic idea is that in any given fashion season (of which there are two: Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer), you limit yourself to five purchases maximum to keep your wardrobe fresh and current. Shoes count, accessories don’t (if they’re inexpensive), and basics (underwear, etc) are exempted as they’re assumed to be a necessary baseline. You’re encouraged to buy for quality and longer life than just the season as well. Some have even advocated taking this down to five purchases a year instead of per-season.

Certainly if you’re more or less set and you’re content to wear underwear until it turns into vapor, this won’t seem like a challenge. But the idea is applicable beyond clothes and towards your passions in general. What if you limited yourself to two nicer bottles in one year, during exclusive season? What would you do with that? Obviously you’ve got your existing stash to drink against, and let’s say you have a $30 per bottle limit the rest of the year. Is it uncomfortable? Suddenly you can get creative. What if you buy one bottle of, say, BTAC, and another friend buys another and you do an enjoyably social thing and have a tasting or sample swap with a few other like-minded friends?

What if you pick the dream bottle to celebrate a milestone?

What if you stopped worrying about keeping up with everything coming out because your consumption changed in such a way to tacitly acknowledge that you won’t even try, and you won’t get bent out of shape?

It’s a good balm for the fear of missing out. It also forces you to re-appraise what you’ve got, which for many people is more than they realize. I spent time going through my cabinet, giving bottles away and purging, and emerged with a much smaller subset of bottles I’m excited to open, enjoy and share. What do you get for the whisky enthusiast who has everything? You challenge them to focus and choose.

I think this was reinforced for me by my plan of avoiding the hunt for exclusives this last fall. I managed to find a bottle of the Four Roses exclusive just by sheer luck, but beyond that, no BTAC, no Woodford, nothing. And I didn’t mind a bit. I instead tried to find my “core” whiskies, as it were. And I’ve managed to find a few that I can happily return to and aren’t obscenely priced. Sure, there’s variety here and there, but I’m not feeling any pressure to get ever more exotic.

If you’re looking for something new to try, maybe restraint is the ticket, both in purchasing as well as content consumption. I’ve discovered blogs I love, but I’m finding it more fun when they go off-script and you see real passion shine through. Don’t lose sight of that!