The venerable Islay distillery of Bowmore has the somewhat unique distinction of being simultaneously revered and reviled. Older bottles from the 1960s–particularly the famous (and now fantastically expensive) Black, Gold and White releases from the 1964 vintage–are among the most praised whiskies released in the modern era, and the reputation of their whisky released or distilled before the 1980s is consistently high. However, their distillate through most of the 1980s has a rather poor reputation. Starting around 1982, but not consistently, a mild to strong soapy note is prominent, especially on the palate. This, I have experienced for myself and found quite unpleasant in whiskies that were otherwise very pleasant on the nose–a 1982 cask released by Duncan Taylor comes to mind. A lot of whisky geeks also object very strongly to a highly perfumed aroma and flavour said to be prevalent in much of the 1980s distillate. This, I have not experienced, but that’s only because I have avoided spending money on bottles that were so described. I don’t, however, doubt the phenomenon, both because so very many people have reported it and also because some very trustworthy people have. So far, so uncontroversial.
The problem, I think, is that this reputation of much of the 1980s distillate had become, and to some extent still is a bit of a meme among whisky geeks. On the one hand, there are people who genuinely don’t like the somewhat unique lavender’ish note of Bowmore’s whisky (a note not dissimilar to what is described as “muscatel” in fine Darjeeling tea); on the other, it is not always clear if other people can tell the difference between this note and what had for a while become popular to decry as Bowmore’s flawed perfumey note. Whisky geeks refer to this latter note as FWP (French Whore’s Perfume) and it often seemed to me that this was tossed around as often to signal membership in the whisky geek club as to refer to something that was really there (and I would say the same about the more recent frenzy about sulphur in sherried whisky and also some of the claims of acute sensitivity to presence of spirit caramel in many distillery bottlings). I say this because for a while the term would come up in reference to Bowmores from the 1990s as well, and those I have had a fair number of, and have had no off-putting experiences with. From my limited experience, it would appear that the problem–which even at its most prevalent does not seem to have been pervasive–began to taper off in the late 1980s and was all but gone by the beginning of the 1990s.
I have enjoyed, in particular, a number of releases from the independent bottler A.D. Rattray, who are currently owned by Tim Morrison, who in turn is of the Morrisons in the name Morrison Bowmore Distillers (now part of the Japanese Suntory group). This connection may explain the number of high quality single cask releases of 1990s Bowmore that Rattray has released in recent years; happily, many of them in the US. Tonight I am tasting a Rattray 20 yo single ex-bourbon cask from 1990, and comparing it with a distillery bottled 16 yo from 1989 (also from bourbon casks)–the Rattray I have tried many times before (as you may be able to tell from the photo alongside) and it is unimpeachable; will the 1989 16 yo be my first encounter with a truly offensively perfumey Bowmore?
Travel with me, if you will, to the edge of the danger zone and beyond!
Bowmore 20, 1990 (A.D. Rattray, 54%, Bourbon cask #271; from my own bottle)
Nose: Mild, sweet peat and smoke; slight notes of paraffin and diesel. With a bit of time, turns minerally and a sweet fruitiness emerges as well and begins to take over: musky, over-ripe stone fruit of some kind; sweet but acidic too. The mineral/stony character is always in evidence. With more time, the peat and smoke all but disappear from the nose and what remains is a blend of those mineral/paraffin/fruit notes and just a hint of brine. Water makes the nose a little lemony as well and also sharpens the mineral note. Ten minutes or more later, the nose is distinctly buttery/creamy: some kind of fruit tart coming out of the oven.
Palate: Gentle peat at first, and that stony note (imagine putting small pebbles from a clear mountain stream into your mouth), and then as I swallow, a lovely expanding fruitiness, along with that trademark Bowmore floral note. The mildest lick of ashy smoke to accentuate the fruit. Lovely stuff. With time, lemon appears in the first wave of the fruit, which then turns increasingly tropical. Very, very drinkable without water, but let’s add some and see if anything new happens. No, nothing new, and frankly, I prefer it without water.
Finish: Not as long as you might expect, and no new development: just that lovely range of flavours slowly fading on the palate. The finish gets a little longer and a tad bit fruitier, and less ashy with the water. Ten minutes later I note: actually, let’s not be too hasty: the finish actually gets quite a bit longer, and there’s a subtle but perceptible ashiness on my tongue long after my last swallow.
Comments: Really classy stuff. If you can find a bottle, buy it.
Rating: 90 points.
After a 20 minute break:
Bowmore 16, 1989 (51.8%, Limited Edition, bourbon casks; from a sample received in a swap)
Nose: Not terribly different from the Rattray 1990 at first: opening with mild peat and smoke, and an acidic mineral note. The fruit takes longer to arrive and is much more restrained when it does. This one doesn’t need water to get lemony–quite a lot of acidic citrus here; and oddly, it doesn’t need water or time to get a little buttery as well. It’s like someone took the nose of the first one, took a few things out and jumbled up the order of the rest. I am getting a very faint soapy note after a while–hope this doesn’t bode ill for the palate. Water expands the lemon and gets rid of the soap–let’s see what it does for the palate.
Palate: Okay, nothing offensive here, but nothing very interesting either. Much thinner mouthfeel (it feels much weaker than 51.8%) and no fruit explosion. No perfume or flowers either. There’s some lemon and something vaguely minerally, but that’s it. After a while there is some soapiness but nothing to get exercised about. I don’t know whether to be disappointed that it’s not as expressive as on the nose or happy that it didn’t turn out to be actively nasty. Let’s see if time and water do anything. No, water does not improve this. If anything it does the opposite of what it does for the nose and expands the soapy note.
Finish: Long and kind of blah. The faint soapy note from the palate hangs around a while.
Comments: It’s possible that the sample is not representative of the bottle at its best/most typical. The flatness of the palate (and the fact that it really doesn’t feel like a >50% abv whisky) might indicate that. The nose is quite nice, but the palate and finish are boring. This was apparently from a vatting of 134 or 138 casks (I’m not clear if these were all or mostly bourbon casks); it’s possible that there was some averaging here of stellar and duff casks. Looking at Serge’s notes on Whiskyfun, I see that he notes that “it’s very, very perfumy” on the palate. Well, I don’t get those notes–maybe this was a different batch (I gather there were different releases in different markets), or maybe I somehow just don’t pick those notes up; or, again, the sample may not be expressing them the way a fresh bottle might. At any rate, I don’t like it very much more than he did. I tasted this one second as I didn’t want any possible offensive soapy/perfumey notes to linger on my palate and mar the other; as it turns out it was relatively innocuous and now I wish I’d had the far better one second. Oh well.
Rating: 82 points.