When I first got ‘into’ whisky, I found the peated ones hard to enjoy. It’s one of those things I see with people new to whisky all the time: they’re either peat haters, or peat lovers (as two of my now ‘converted’ girlfriends were) from the start. That often changes as people’s palates do, but generally speaking I find people have a one-camp-or-the-other kind of viewpoint at the outset.
So when I came across the whiskies from Bowmore and found that I really enjoyed them (especially the Small Batch Reserve, initially reviewed in 2012) I was thrilled. The experience felt like a whole new world was opening up for me…in the non-Aladdin sense…there was no flying carpet involved in the making of this realisation.
As such, during my recent trip to Islay (read about my summary in last week’s feature) I was very keen to get along to this oldest of Islay distilleries, which has been based in and named after the largest of Islay’s towns since (at least) 1779.
According to Andrew Jefford’s book Peat, Smoke and Spirit (one of my favourite whisky books and essential reading in regards to this island): “Bowmore was never a sideline; it was a business from the off. It owes its origins to the desire of Islay’s young laird, a cultured man in his twenties who had inherited the island from his vastly wealthy grandfather…he evicted an entire village, moving it off his doorstep…to a suitable site called Bowmore…he gave the pioneers of Bowmore more favourable tenure agreements than those enjoyed elsewhere on the island. There was, in sum, a late eighteenth-century buzz about Bowmore, which may well have been why David Simpson (also spelled Simson) – merchant, farmer, distiller, house-builder, postmaster and mail-packet entrepreneur – undertook to create a distillery there.”
With this in mind, I arrived with excitement on a sunny, Saturday morning in February alongside 10 other visitors who’d made the trek out to this tiny island mid-winter. It was the perfect time for it in my opinion – there was little wait for a tour, but they were still running and it felt less crowded than I’d imagine it would be at other times of the year.
Our tour guide – the affable, informed Catriona – began by taking us along to the floor maltings. Bowmore – alongside Kilchoman, which is a 25-minute drive west and Laphroaig, around 25 minutes south – still uses these, which are more and more of a rarity in the Scotch whisky world. The distillery gets around 40% of its barley needs from its own floor maltings and is currently using the strain called Optic. The remainder comes from the mainland, but our guide said the barley for the in-house maltings comes from 16 local farms.
The barley tends to be turned every four hours in the cooler months and is spread across two large floors.
Next door, we went into the kiln room, which was not running because of it being the weekend. There, the barley is dried over fire containing peat for 16 hours, before being dried for a further 40 hours using just hot air. This gives the final Bowmore barley a level of peating of around 25ppm (or, about half that of punchier peated malts like Ardbeg). The distillery currently uses around three tonnes of peat a week, which is substantially less than the 18 it used to go through because it is now using peat caff, a powdered form of peat, rather than traditional peat bricks.
Continuing our tour, we headed along to check out the mash tun and wooden wash backs. At Bowmore, around eight tonnes of barley (ground into grist, of course) is used per batch at a ratio of three tonnes of home malted to five tonnes of commercial malt, mixed together. This grist is mixed with 67,000 litres of water to start the process of making wort, the sugary water needed for the next stage of whisky production. This part of the process takes around 8.5 hours to complete and results in around 40,000 litres of wort.
The distillery has six wooden washbacks, which each take 5.5 hours to fill, before a 48 hour fermentation. Bowmore experimented with steel ones a few decades back but moved back to using wooden ones in the 1990s.
The stills at Bowmore are petite with fairly straight lyne arms. The two wash stills hold around 30,000 litres each (but are filled with about 20,000 litres of wash), while the spirit stills hold around 14,500 litres, resulting in around 4,800 litres of heart liquid (the part that goes on to be used in maturation), at an average of 69%ABV.
Finally, we headed off to the damp but inviting warehouses, filled with that wonderful slightly mouldy scent mingled with sleeping whisky. As it was a cool February day, you could really feel the chill inside, especially in the Number 1 Vaults, which is the oldest maturation warehouse in Scotland and the only one below sea level.
Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photos inside of the warehouses. Instead, I took in the comforting smells, listened as the waves hit against the outside of the warehouse and absorbed the fact I’d finally made it to a long-loved whisky distillery.
I did not taste any whisky at the distillery as I was driving, but I’ve posted many reviews on Bowmore on the site in the past. To check out those reviews, head here.