The Bowmore Distillery lies at the heart of the town with which it shares its name, situated roughly in the center of the Isle of Islay. The distillery was opened in 1779, making it one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, established only 9 years after the town itself. Bowmore was purpose-built in an unusual gridiron pattern with an unusually wide main street which travels 4 blocks uphill to the town’s famous round church, Kilarrow Parish.
The church was built in the round, in Celtic Christian fashion, so that there were no corners in which the devil could hide.
The reason the town was built in 1770 is a story worth pausing on for a moment, as it offers a better sense of what life was like for common people in Scotland at that time. The town which preceded Bowmore, known as Kilarrow, was located just across Loch Indaal from where Bowmore is situated now, near the present town of Bridgend. If we are going to be very precise, the town was located between the shore of Loch Indaal and Islay House, the seat of the Laird (Lord) of Islay. It seems the Laird didn’t love the view from his windows, so he did as you could at that time – he had the town moved.
Bowmore’s No.1 Vaults warehouse is believed to be the oldest continuously used building in the Scotch whisky industry. This legendary warehouse with its thick stone walls is something like holy ground to whisky connoisseurs. It has matured many of Bowmore’s most famous whiskies, like the various releases of Black Bowmore, filled in 1964, as well the White and Gold releases which formed part of a trilogy. The warehouse is at high tide, slightly below sea level. During winter storms, it is not unusual for the water to seep in.
Bowmore has had a half dozen owners in its near quarter of a millennia of operations. Today it is a part of the private Japanese drinks giant Beam Suntory, which owns whisky distilleries in Scotland, the United States, Ireland, Japan, and Canada. Bowmore is one of Beam Suntory’s four Scottish distilleries, two of which, including Laphroaig, happen to be on Islay.
Bowmore is one of barely more than a handful of distilleries to continue to malt some of its barley on traditional malting floors. And true to the Islay style, the distillery produces a peated single malt, though by the island’s standards it is only moderately peated. At mature ages the peat fades almost completely, making way for tropical notes in refill casks and rich dark fruits in sherry. The modern profile of Bowmore marries soft smoke with sea salt, and a distinct prominent floral lavender top note. Not everyone is a fan of the lavender, especially when it is dominant, but I happen to love it!
The distillery was way ahead of the curve when it came to sustainability, being one of the pioneering distilleries for energy efficiency and conservation.
The air used to dry the malt in its kilns after the peat run is heated with waste heat from the stills, recovered through heat exchangers. The distillery even converted one of its warehouses to a pool for the town, which it heats with still more recovered energy.
Any trip to Islay is incomplete without a visit to Bowmore Distillery. In fact, it is almost impossible to visit the island without driving right past it at least once. The distillery offers a number of tours, but given the effort required to get to the island, you will want to make sure you are doing one of the experiences which include a cask tasting in the No.1 Vaults Warehouse.
Bowmore’s whiskies are widely available, especially in Canada, which has been one of its biggest markets for more than a decade. The 12- and 15-year-olds are both fine drams, but it is with the 18-year that Bowmore really starts to shine for me. And if you ever get to sample something from 1964, and you can afford it, do it….it will be an experience you will never forget! ~ Story by Andrew Ferguson