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

15 thoughts on “Bowmore and More Bowmore”

    1. On one hand, you wonder if it’s personal tastes.

      On the other hand: are the prices from the independents to bottle these so far out of whack that they don’t want to do, say, a $220 18y Bowmore and have it sit on shelves? (Numbers pulled out of thin air)

      We may never know, I guess.

  1. I hope you own the bottle for the good one. In my experience they tend to get better with every drink. As Jordan noted, K&L had another dud Bowmore (although all three negative reviews I know, including mine, are based on Michael K’s bottle), so that may be more of a sign of where the market is at, rather than a fair evaluation of the distillery.

    1. I certainly do own the Palm Tree, but it has zero chance of making it past the weekend.

      The XM stuff, as I commented below (I’m catching up on comments and working from the bottom up) just continues to be a head-scratcher. I’d love to see another great bottler, but so far they have one great Longmorn and an OK Clynelish, and then a bunch of so-so stuff that really didn’t work for me.

      1. Before the negative publicity for XM (and K&L) gets out of hand, I should say that the sold-out XM Fettercairn from 2013 is really good. The young Island/Ledaig does not disappoint either.

        1. It’s a combination of all the things you’re all talking about. First off, there are zero casks available for purchase in Scotland for independents without filling contracts, so you’ve gotta make due with what you’ve got as a bottler. If all the casks you have access to post-Longmorn 20 aren’t as good as the Longmorn 20, what are you going to do? Not buy them? Go out of business? How are you going to make money as a bottler if everything available isn’t as good as it used to be (and more expensive)? You have to do the best you can with the selections you can get.

          The other side of the coin is access. If someone who has never shopped at K&L came in and asked me for a bottle of Pappy, the answer would not only be “no,” it would be “no, and never” unless you start putting in your time. There’s not a business out there that wants to work with cherry pickers. Therefore, if you want access to the cherries, you need to prove your loyalty a bit. Look at Bordeaux wine as an example. If you only buy wine from the Bordelais in good vintages, consider that vintage your last — they won’t be returning your calls after that.

          I can promise you all that the LEAST important part of being a spirits buyer is having good taste (am I not living proof?). It’s not a matter of heading over to the local independent cask store and picking the good ones over the bad ones, trust me. There are so many other variables that go into making deals happen. And there are so many other people out there who enjoy whisky besides those of us in the online community. For every shit score we’ve received on a rating site, I’ll have another ten customers tell me how much they enjoyed those supposedly mediocre whiskies. So does that mean we shouldn’t have bought them? Some of the most beloved whiskies we’ve ever sold are casks I didn’t personally love. But I knew that other people would, so I bought them.

          These are just a few of the things that go into decision making with barrels.

  2. Unfortunately, I also own this 1996 Faultline and the 2002 Exclusive Malts from K&L. I haven’t opened either yet, but I won’t be very happy if both taste as bad to me as others have found.

    1. As Driscoll said in a comment this morning, customer sentiment is in favor of the sherry cask. It could just be my palate. Who knows. All I know is that I don’t like this one.

      Exclusive Malts really knocked it out of the park with the 20y Longmorn and I honestly haven’t had much since then that’s been particularly compelling. Their Clynelish from last year (Or, perish the thought, was it 2012?) was about the best I’d had since then, but not particularly amazing against the average Clynelish. I’m hoping they have a couple great bottles again soon, but it felt like a big splash and then some less compelling stuff.

      Of course, I’ve been accused of having it in for independent bottlers, which makes me laugh. I want them to succeed as much as they do. I just want it to be with whisky that’s generally enjoyable.

    2. As I have said to others privately, the Bowmore 2002 we tasted in Scotland versus the one we currently have in the bottle do not match up. My notes and memories versus the final product are far apart. I wouldn’t plan on much EM action in the near future at K&L. Alex, if you want to swap out before you open let me know.

  3. HA! I wish that’s how we found that cask! That’s much better than the truth (David OG poaching it off of an importer that didn’t know what to do with it).

    It’s always interesting to see who different people react to whisky. I’ve had far more complaints from consumers about the Palm Tree than the sherry cask (even though I think the Palm Tree is better). One guy just bought six of the sherry cask yesterday after finishing his initial bottle.

    I’d say customer feedback has been the reverse — better for the sherry than the lighter peated.

    1. Well, consider my services the next time you need a good backstory for a label. I mean, if everyone’s making shit up, might as well make it a fun read versus the usual highland winds and salty ocean breezes.

      I’ve come back to the sherry cask over several sittings and it just doesn’t work for me. As much as it doesn’t work, the Palm Tree does. I guess this is just another case of subjectivity of the palate.

      That said: I notice you didn’t acknowledge or even comment on the nefarious terrorism-related repurposing of the sherry cask bottle. I can only assume that’s an endorsement of the use. I will begin a nine-part blog series and blow the roof off this scandal of the week.

  4. Hmmm, in a comment above David D. implies that there was a big discrepancy between the Exclusive Malts Bowmore 2002 they tasted and bought in Scotland and what showed us:

    “As I have said to others privately, the Bowmore 2002 we tasted in Scotland versus the one we currently have in the bottle do not match up. My notes and memories versus the final product are far apart. I wouldn’t plan on much EM action in the near future at K&L.”

    But a recent email blast suggests there’s going to be continuing EM action at K&L:

    “Come and meet one of the most important partners to the K&L single barrel program: Mr. David Stirk — the owner of the Creative Whisky Company and the man behind the Exclusive Malt whiskies. We’ve been working with David and his Glasgow-based label for more than three years now, and his warehouse is always one of the most important stops of our trip.”

    What changed?

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