In 2013, a good bunch of folks, led by our revered pied piper, Andrew Ferguson of Kensington Wine Market infamy, stole away to the foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains for a weekend of absolutely next level whisky tastings. The apex event of the weekend was a tasting of some of the most legendary 1964 Bowmores known to man- (and woman-) kind.
In a completely unexpected (though gratefully accepted) bit of generosity, a wee set of samples was brought back for yours truly. Obviously, whiskies like this require pristine conditions in order to really be able to properly assess ’em, so…seven years after these priceless vials landed in my lap, on an afternoon when the palate was clean, my personal desire was sky high, and the interruptions were kept to a bare minimum, I finally sat down with these precious drops of Islay’s greatest distillate and took a bit of a journey. My couch sipping session may have lacked the elegance and atmosphere of the initial event, but the malts are transportive, to say the least.
Listen. I wanted this post to be a poem of such epic proportion Yeats himself would have wept, but there’s simply no way I can throw commonplace nouns and verbs at these malts and have them ring true to just how special they are. Man’s limitations are pretty glaring most times. Fortunately, the whisky gods are verbose and have said all that needs to be said via the glass. I know that doesn’t really help here, but if you’ve ever had the chance to taste these drams, you’ll understand what I mean. And I happen to know that a rather substantial portion of you have actually tasted at least one of these drams. For those that haven’t, bear with me as I do my best to articulate just what these Bowmores are all about.
Before we dive into tasting notes, however, let me just say: tropical, tropical, tropical. Get used to hearing it. I’ll be throwing that word around a lot over the next few paragraphs. When we speak of those legendary vintages – the ones that make whisky folk weak-kneed and starry-eyed – 1964 Bowmore has to be right up at the top of the pyramid. There is something utterly magical about them. And I have to say, they are also some of the very best drams I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste.
Y’already know how I feel about the Black Bowmore (42 y.o.), aye? I think at the time I reviewed it, I scored it at 97 points, the highest mark I’ve ever assigned. I opted not to simply repost those notes and scores, but instead to revisit and reassess even that old favorite. So, without saying any more…let’s just dive in, shall we?
Black Bowmore 1964 42 y.o.
Five oloroso sherry casks. 827 bottles. 40.5% abv. Released 2007.
Nose: Beautiful clean chariness. Five Alive fruit juice infused with the cleanest and most elegant of smoke. Now we’re into a stunning mix of fresh and dried tropical fruits. A bit of peach with all those other to-be-expected notes of guava, mango, passionfruit, pineapple and more. A beautifully dark and rich cherry tang. Black currents. Pink grapefruit. A hint of cold coffee. Vintage sherry. Faint echoes of peat. Old oiled machinery. Ancient polished wood. This just reeks of majesty and age.
Palate: Slightly medicinal. More smoke than either the White or Gold Bowmore, and more earthy peat to boot. Hugely tropical. Sticky, oily dried mango, apricot, pineapple, peach. More orange. More pineapple. Brine and a much more profound Islay-ness than the nose suggests. Seared seafood. Charred grapefruit. Baked ham. Griotines. Cherry cough syrup. Figgy pudding.
Finish: Some decent tannins, but it’s that deep, dark oily, and rather bittering finish that steal the show. Just wow.
Thoughts: Does it get better? Honestly?
White Bowmore 1964 43 y.o.
Six bourbon barrels. 732 bottles. 42.8% abv. Released 2008.
Nose: Tropical heaven. Sweet pineapple. Mango, orange, papaya, grapefruit, passion fruit. Man…the parade of fruits is endless. Dunnage. A touch of marzipan and sugar cookies. Tropical fruit pie. Honey. Marmalade. Fruit flan. White chocolate. Truly stunning cask notes; almost hard to believe wood can do this.
Palate: Oh, dear God. Grapefruit, mango, passionfruit, papaya. Grilled pineapple rings. What a stunning sweet/sour tang. Can’t stop the flood of saliva. Oily. Only faintly smoky, but there’s a definite coastal element to it. This is all fruits, spritzed with citrus juice (lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit). Such clean, but rather indistinguishable, spice tones.
Finish: Those tropical tangy notes linger forever. Maybe longer.
Thoughts: Utterly incomparable.
Gold Bowmore 1964 44 y.o.
Three bourbon barrels and one oloroso sherry cask. 701 bottles. 42.4% abv. Released 2009.
Nose: Toastier than the White. I can only assume that’s the toasty, nutty influence of the sherry butt. Crème caramel. Still unbelievably tropical, of course. Tame those pineapple and orange notes just a wee notch (though they’re still huge!), and add some kiwi. Vanilla. Warm honey. A hint of fruitcake (made with ancient cognac). And yeah…maybe a hint of old Armagnac. Faint peat.
Palate: Slow to develop, then wham! Cold espresso. Twiglets. Grapefruit. Guava and passion fruit. Mango. Mandarin. A beautiful subtle smokiness. Glazed ham and pineapple. Prosciutto. Raspberry.
Finish: Deeper than the White, but maybe a tick less endearing. Still bittering and tropically tart.
Thoughts: Nose is more muted than expected, but the palate more than makes up for the whispered beginnings.
Black Bowmore 1964 31y.o.
Sherry butts. 1812 bottles. 49% abv. Released 1995.
Nose: Toasted marshmallow. Saville orange. Molasses. More smoke here. Oily and syrupy. The tropical notes are here, but not as monolithic as they appear in the trilogy releases. Polish. Old wet oak. Cherry, raspberry and strawberry with passion fruit, peach, pineapple, guava, etc. Tobacco pouch or snuff bag. Oiled leather.
Palate: Whoa. Syrupy, syrupy, syrupy. More of those reduced dark fruits – like a smoked cherry and raspberry reduction. That sweet/sour balance is incredible. Pink grapefruit. Passion fruit. Mango. Cold espresso. Tobacco. Seared duck. Seaspray. A stronger flinty minerality.
Finish: More tannic than the others, by far. But that bittering finish is, once again, to die for.
Thoughts: Denser, darker, somehow more syrupy than the 42 y.o. Stronger tannins, and less tropical notes. Though I’m sure it goes without saying…utterly stunning.
Bowmore 1964 Fino 46 y.o.
One fino sherry butt. 72 bottles 42.9% abv. Released 2012.
Nose: Candied sweetness. All those tropical notes smash head on in to a confectioner’s shop. Bubble gum. Salt water. More tropical juices (yes, yes…you’re getting sick of the word ‘tropical’). Scones. Heavy cream. Mandarins. Kiwi. Sour cherries. Key lime and blood orange. A hint of fill.
Palate: Oh, wow. Kiwi and guava. Lemon pie. A squeeze of lime. Grapefruit pith. Green curry. Dill. What the hell?! The tropical notes keep expanding as it develops. Love that gorgeous medicinal note that toes up against the tangy fruits. Oily and salty. Mango. Tiramisu. Honey.
Finish: Long and slightly drying. Cherry cordials. Tropical fruit skins.
Thoughts: This one shattered any expectations I had. Simply mindboggling.
That didn’t take too long for you get your notes up on this one. I was lucky enough to attend this Bowmore orgy on the rocks of Alberta which was designed and planned over many years by the Great Lord of Kensington, Andrew Ferguson with help & support from Jamie MacKenzie of Beam Suntory. This tasting still remains as one of favorite tastings ever with the old Bowmore yuge and bigly pre-eighty luscious overripe tropical fruits flowing from them. Sadly we are in a new era of more perfume that fruit and wish for the day they can make alcohol great again and long for the day that we can drink Five Alive whiskey again.
FYI … believe me, I may or may not have helped in the bagging of these malts that you tasted, let that settle in.