Crossing to the Dark Side

Taste Review #51 – Bowmore 15 Darkest

It’s been a while since we had a trip to Islay, and in my sample box, this week’s sample comes from Bowmore. This is a quite attractively packaged wee miniature. It’s been sitting on the shelf in my study for 6 months now, and it has always enticed me to drink it. I even remember when I bought this dram, sitting on the shelf with all its wee miniature buddies, all the Bowmore bottles looked really good. I wanted to do something a bit more than the 12 year old, but not as expensive as the 18 year old, so we plunked for the middle ground. The fact the edition said “Darkest” sold me. I didn’t even bother about the blurb on the back of the box. It turns out I should have. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and it went into the basket of miniatures I was buying so I could have some more up to date drams to review without buying a full size bottle.

Bowmore is a whisky that I have had before, but it has been a long time since I have last tasted it. I went through an Ardbeg phase, then moved onto Laphroaig for my peaty whisky hit from Islay, and I still haven’t moved on. But when you think of the legends of the Black Bowmore, White Bowmore and Gold Bowmore, you think that there should be nothing to fear.


The box that caught my attention

Bowmore was the first distillery on Islay, being operational by 1779, although a licence was not obtained until 1816. I suppose illegal distilling isn’t anything new in Scotland, and being on an island makes it easier to spot the gaugers arriving. The distillery sits on the south east shore of Loch Indaal, a sea loch. While the date of the distillery opening is up for debate, what isn’t up for debate is the fact that presently one of the dunnage warehouses is actually set below sea level and is also claimed to be the oldest dunnage warehouse in the UK.

One of the other things that make this distillery unusual is that it still currently operates a traditional floor maltings, although this is not enough to maintain production, so the vast majority of the barley is malted on the mainland. Where there is a break in the old traditions of whisky making is that the condenser used to cool the still vapours are of a shell and tube design rather than the old fashioned worm tub method.

It was under the ownership of Stanley P Morrison that the Bowmore were producing some really good whisky. The most famous of these would be the Black Bowmore from 1964. First released as a 29 year old in 1993, people scoffed when they were being sold for £100. If you have one hidden in your cupboard, or come across one clearing out a dead relatives house, don’t open it unless you can afford to – you could easily be looking at a five figure sum bottling. These whiskies came from the days when sherry casks were more extensively used, and nowadays at Bowmore, American Oak ex Bourbon Casks are used (86% versus 14% Sherry Casks).

Bowmore owned by Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd, but that is ultimately owned by Beam Suntory. Suntory had become shareholders in 1989, but finally bought the distillery outright in 1994.

It was the ‘Darkest’ Title on the label and the fact sherry casks had been used on this sample that intrigued me to try it, so lets move onto the tasting


The bottle

Region

Islay

Age

15 Years

Strength

43% ABV

Colour

Sunset bronze

Nose

Wood Resin, Oak, wood smoke, slight phenolic smell. Quite complex. Needed a bit of water to open it up, then became softer, a smell of brown sugar, quite sweet. – more then light brown sugar than molasses. Dried fruits in there as well.

Palate

Wood smoke, dry, spicy, almost like a cough mixture when water added. Dried fruits, dates, raisins, slight peat taste, brown sugar, Sherry notes but there is a bit of rubber taste. With water the sulphury taste diminished considerably. This whisky has a disappointing mouthfeel, no strong body to it at all, a bit on the watery side.

Finish

Short, drying bitter notes in the finish. Smoke continues with a spicy, peppery taste, hint of dark chocolate and brine, but it’s back to that taste of sulphur.


The dram

Conclusion

Firstly, let me get the usual rants off my chest. 43% abv, chill filtered and colouring added. Only 1/4 from our buying ABCD. But remember that we have to take chances, and as you have seen in recent reviews, I have enjoyed some whiskies that score 0/4 on that front.

But why on God’s Great Earth would you name a whisky ‘Darkest’ when that colour has not come from the cask? Why did you really think you needed to colour it if it was supposed to be dark? Such a shame, and such a let down to be honest. It wouldn’t have affected my tasting had the colour been a bit lighter, but then I know I have been on the receiving end of some marketing spin. And it sucks.

And let us continue that thought, because not only does that thought pain me, the whisky isn’t that great either. I actually like a peaty or smokey whisky. I also like sherried whisky, but this was a complete let down. Water had to be added to get anything out of it, and at 43% I felt it had been watered down enough already. The only reason that I added water was to try and eliminate the burnt rubber taste at the end, which was quite overpowering to begin with. This reminded me of the 3rd taste review I did of Tomatin Oloroso 18 year old – a dram I so looked forward to but let me down badly with a big sulphur influence, or the result of a substandard cask. To be honest I would hate to think that this is actually the result of the distilling process. I did re-review the Tomatin, and found a funk in the cap of the miniature bottle, and perhaps wrote it off to that. But the 15 year old ‘Darkness’ isn’t fully matured in sherry casks – it is only finished in a sherry cask for 3 years, which is quite a long time for just a finish, I’d expect only 2 years at the most.


Funk in the cap. The source of burnt rubber?

I like sherried whiskies, and I particularly like Oloroso finishes, but this one just wasn’t good. I am really hoping this could be a one off, but it seems that it isn’t as lo and behold, I find that there are similarities between the duff Tomatin and this Bowmore. Not only are they owned by Japanese companies, that is the fact that there seems to be something going on with the seal on the bottle. I’ve also a suspicion that Ben Nevis sometimes suffers from similar problems and I have heard Nikka haven’t been the best at cask management. Perhaps these companies could shell out a bit more for decent sherry casks.

I don’t know if I am just sensitive to sulphur; some people are, but I’ve had whiskies with sulphur notes before, but this one was like a melted Michelin tyre thats been on the wheels of an ASBO-toting delinquent’s Vauxhall Nova after a period of doing donuts in an empty shopping centre car park. Really that bad.

To be fair, the sulphur note died back a fair bit with the addition of water, but I really shouldn’t have to dilute a 43% whisky. And the bad news doesn’t stop there. The finish was pretty non-descript as well. And we will have the chill filtration to thank for that.

You may still be able to track down bottles of 15 year old Darkness on the shelves, but it was re-labelled by removing the Darkness title, and now just goes under the 15 year old age statement. This is a sensible move, as how can you have faith in a statement of its colour when you have added caramel? Seems a bit bonkers.

I paid £7.05 for this whisky miniature (5cl) in the Whisky Shop Dufftown. You can find full size bottles for between £50 and £65 online, but remember to add shipping costs. Bowmore often crops up in supermarkets too so keep an eye out. I personally think the price is in the right bracket for a 15 year old whisky, based on this taste test and the 1/4 ABCD evaluation, I just do not think this malt represents good value for money, and while I will still try other Bowmore whiskies, this will not be one of them. Not for a good while yet anyway.

Update

It’s sometimes nice to be wrong. I did a bit of digging around to see if anybody else had the same issues with this malt, and my first port of call was YouTube. The esteemed vBlogger ralfy.com had reviewed this malt and had said that he initially wasn’t impressed but left the 70cl bottle he had of it open overnight. Since every day is a school day, I thought I’d try the same. Despite only having a miniature, I could only manage the one nip, so I left what was remaining in the open bottle overnight.

The next day it was sampled and it had definitely improved to the point I was able to drink it neat and only a slight hint of sulphur was detectable, but this did not put me off drinking it.

The lesson is my friends that sometimes we need to decant whisky or let it breathe. I’ve never come across this before but now I have finished this blog entry, I come away a little bit wiser from listening to somebody else with more experience.

It doesn’t change my assessment about value for the this whisky, but I’m much more likely to try it again just in case I did have a duff bottle. Perhaps I should kick it up a notch and go for the 18 year old next time.

Slainte Mhath!

Scotty


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Photo credits

All photos authors own.

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