For a New Year dram there is nothing better than a beautifully peated Bowmore Single Malt. This is will be from the oldest working distillery on Islay. Relocating from Bridgend during the 1760s, the present site being developed at the same time as the village. Although the bóth mór (big hut) was standing by 1768, the first record of Bowmore Distillery comes from 1779. An inscribed panel of 1767, on the tower of the circular Parish Church of Kilmarrow (to prevent the Devil possibly hiding in any corners), credits this massive investment in this community to David Campbell, Lord of this island. A later owner of Bowmore, James Mutter, was also vice consul for the Ottoman Empire, Portugal and Brazil. Now it is in the Suntory portfolio.
Things have changed from those early days at Bowmore, the time when David Simpson was the first manager. But not as much as at most Scottish distilleries. Bowmore still has three malting floors on site, the steeped Optic barley laboriously turned by hand, using traditional wooden shovels, as the enzymes within the damp grain convert the stored starch into sugar. The locally cut peat is uniquely crumbled (known as caoran) and moistened before being used for drying the malt. This makes lots more smoke, to leave its mark on the final product. Demand for Bowmore whiskies is now so high that more than half of the required malt is supplied by Border barley, malted by Simpsons of Duns, also in the peated range of 20-25 ppm.
More peat is brought to the party by the water, sourced from the River Laggan some eight miles from the distillery. Bowmore must be really fond of this particular supply. The wash from fermented sugars is distilled through one of two pairs of classic, onion-shaped copper stills, the new spirit going into the casks at 63.5% ABV, that is 111° proof. Every tonne of that well peated malt will have produced 408 litres (85 gallons) of what, after years of careful maturation, become Bowmore whisky. The 27,000 filled casks are bonded on site, one of the two traditional dunnage warehouses actually being below sea-level, but only at high tide. A third warehouse is more modern, the barrels being racked in layers. The Atlantic adds a definite salinity to Bowmore.
Now the oak wood is coming into play. American bourbon barrels, each holding 40 gallons/200 litres, and hogsheads with 55gals/250 litres, account for about 86% of the maturing whisky. Spanish sherry butts (110gals/500 litres) and puncheons (120gals/545 litres) are nurturing the rest. All the outrun from Bowmore is bottled in a sizeable range of single malts, their standard being the tremendous 12 year old, 40% ABV. This is peaty on the nose, with a characteristic tang of iodine and ozone from the sea at Loch Indaal. On the palate, this is really smooth, developing big flavour before drying to sherry and, surprise, surprise, pronounced peat. And the finish is long enough to last you right through to 2010. Slainte.