When I told Beam Suntory’s Brand Ambassador Gordon Dundas after his masterclass at BorderShop Whisky Festival that I had a trip to Islay planned, he had but one piece of advice for me: “Go and see Bowmore distillery. All the others are great too, but if you can only visit one distillery, it has to be the oldest!”. While I was thankfully able to pop in on more than one of Islay’s eight operational distilleries during my three-day stay, I happily followed up on Gordon’s recommendation and made Bowmore my first destination. So shortly after my girlfriend and I arrived on the island by plane from Glasgow, we rented bikes, cycled 10 miles from Port Charlotte to Bowmore and participated in the standard distillery tour plus the “Unlock Hidden Depths” tasting.
Located in the center of Bowmore, no two minutes by foot from the town’s only bus stop, Islay’s oldest (and Scotland’s second-oldest) whisky making site is really easy to reach, no matter on which part of the island you are housed – in fact, we ended up visiting Bowmore’s beautiful tasting bar once a day to bridge the wait for a connecting bus with a wee dram. The prices were moderate, the personnel was really nice and the view over Loch Indaal was breathtaking! Oh, and the bottles put on display there – including the distillery’s unaffordable 54yo or the complete Legend collection – drew more than just a quick glimpse from me, too.
But back to our tour. After we had made ourselves comfortable at the bar for a few minutes, our guide Amy, who worked at Glen Garioch before, picked us up and showed us around. We started in the malt barn and ended in the legendary No.1 Vault warehouse. Along the way, Amy not only explained each step of the whisky making procedure in detail, but also let us gain a lot of hands-on experience. Among others, we got to turn the still-damp barley with a rake and throw a chunk of peat into the kiln (luckily, Bowmore was having its twice-a-week “smoking day” when we visited). This was a lot of fun and made the experience really tangible. And that is also why I strongly recommend you to take a distillery tour if you have the chance to do so. While a report like this can give you an idea of what to expect, there are a lot of sensations a text can never convey: burying your hands in the fresh barley, smelling all the different fumes in the mash house, sustaining the heat in the still room and, of course, having all your questions answered on the spot by a guide as friendly and knowledgable as Amy.
Once our tour was over, Amy’s lovely colleague Lauren – an Islay native – took over. In the course of the “Unlock Hidden Depths” tasting, she served us four very nice Bowmore whiskies, namely the 10yo, the No.1, the 15yo and the distillery-exclusive Stillmen’s Selection. Before we eyed, smelled, tasted and discussed each of them, however, we tried three other drinks: Bowmore’s new make, an Oloroso sherry by Alfonso and a bourbon by Jim Beam. Wait!? How the heck did the last two end up in an Islay malt tasting? The answer is simple. They are the liquids that first occupied many of the casks that Bowmore distillery uses to mature its whisky in. So giving us the chance to sip on a sherry and a bourbon on the side was of tremendous help when it came to analyzing how each expression got its unique flavor and character. A fantastic idea that made a great tasting even more unique and memorable!
Name: Bowmore Distillery
Type: Whisky distillery
Address: Bowmore Distillery, School St, Bowmore, Isle Of Islay, PA43 7JS, Scotland
Opening hours: 9.15am till 5pm (Mon to Sat), 12pm till 4pm (Sun)
More info: http://www.bowmore.com/ (Website)