In 1964, after its purchase by Glasgow spirits brokering firm Stanley P. Morrison, the Bowmore Distillery converted its boilers from fire to steam and stocked its cellars with casks that once contained bourbon, fino sherry, and oloroso sherry. That fall, the Islay-based distillery filled its new barrels with whisky, and now, more than 40 years later, it has released the results.
Founded in 1779, Bowmore is the oldest surviving distillery on Islay. The property abuts Loch Indaal on the inner curve of the wild, crescent-shaped island, and Indaal—which is not actually a lake but a moody, tempestuous inlet—is a constant influence on Bowmore’s whiskies. A portion of the distillery’s cellars sits below sea level, and as much as 5 feet of water lash the walls at high tide, a process that contributes to the Scotch’s sea-wrack and brine flavors. Still, Islay’s west-facing shore is less exposed to the ocean than the southern shore—the source for the island’s famously pungent and assertive whiskies Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg—and Bowmore is distinct among Islay malts for its understated character and refinement.
Morrison Bowmore Distillers, the umbrella entity that also operates the Highland producer Glen Garioch and the Lowland single-malt distillery Auchentoshan, recently delved into its resting stores of 1964 Islay whiskies. The three exquisite malts that Bowmore has bottled—Bourbon Cask, Fino Cask, and Oloroso Cask—come from a select few barrels. The original sherry butts Bowmore purchased were larger than the whisky makers wanted to work with, so Scottish coopers halved them in size to hogsheads holding about 52 imperial gallons. The distillery’s Fino Cask bottling consists of only two hogsheads’ worth of whisky, and the Bourbon Cask comes from just five barrels obtained from the makers of Old Crow. The limited number of casks has translated to a production of only 300 bottles of each whisky, and just 40 of each have been allotted to the United States.
Bowmore’s three malts have mellowed and evolved over the four decades they have spent in their respective woods, and the differences between the spirits are subtle yet instructive. The dense, fleshy Bourbon Cask is rich with smoke and spice and includes distinct notes of pepper, licorice, and leather. The Fino Cask is more elegant and crisp on the tongue than the bourbon variety, delivering tastes of Islay peat and crème caramel in an ethereal cloud of wood smoke. The sublime Oloroso Cask goes straight for the floral and honey part of the palate, opening in the mouth with richly articulated spice, smoke, and toast components resulting from its aging in refilled sherry casks that had been used once previously for Scotch whisky.
For those in search of an education in Scotch, Bowmore’s bourbon, fino, and oloroso bottlings offer a rare lesson on the effects of differing wood regimens on single-malt whiskies. Tuition is $2,000 per bottle.