Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Review: Bowmore Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky 10 & 12 years

Novice scotch fans
What do they like? I should know because I used to be one. Usually, someone unfamiliar with scotch whisky or only having a casual acquaintance with it will gravitate toward the sweet, honey and cinnamon malts of the Speyside region. Easy drinking, smooth, kind of like a liquid candy bar. Hence, the popularity of blends like J&B, Bells, Ballantines and others.  Generally, the novice does not like peaty scotch and the peatiest come from Islay.


Islay (pronounced ‘eye-lah’) is an island located off the southern Scottish coast. A land with virtually no trees and plenty of peat. Peat, you will remember, is layers upon layers of decaying plants (grass, underbrush, bushes, etc.) in waterlogged areas like bogs and moors. How peat becomes an integral flavor component of single malt scotch is due to an early step in the distillation process.

After the barley is gathered and submerged in local water for a couple of days (in order to cause germination), it will be spread on the floor of a ‘kiln.’  A fire is started underneath the floor and the fuel for the fire is peat. The smoke travels up through the ventilated floor and adheres to the barley imparting the smoky, tar, medicinal and sea weed flavors we associate principally with Islay and the word ‘peat.’

As soon as you pour an Islay malt the smoke, tar and peat aromas escape the glass and in many cases can fill a room. This is a good thing if you like scotch. Not so great if you do not, which was the case a couple of weeks ago when I visited my friend, George, at his office on a late Friday afternoon. We were having a dram of Bowmore around 4:30pm (I would never leave work!) when the office manager passed in the hallway remarking that she could smell the whisky from outside the boardroom. She was not impressed and promptly left. Her loss . . .

A Stash of Scotch
George is a lawyer (don't hold that against him) and every once in awhile a client is happy with what he has done, and so a gift in the form of a bottle would appear at reception. Over the years, quite a few bottles have accumulated at his office. Strange thing is that he has never gotten around to taking them home or having a drink at the end of a long day. Anytime there was a drink it would be in a bar.

Well, that all changed this winter when I dropped by the office unannounced and discovered how charitable his clients had been. There were bottles in the bookcase, a couple in the kitchen sitting in the cupboards and a few in his desk. They were all covered in dust and unopened! Royal Salute, Glenlivet 12 yrs, Highland Park 12, Glenlivet 18, Johnnie Walker Blue and others. They were obviously old because in many cases the labels were clearly from the 1980’s. George was the only scotch drinker in the office. The other two employees were ladies who had no interest. When I would show up we typically headed to a local bar or pub. Well, a couple of weeks ago that all changed when I suggested we open some of these antique bottles (not really antique but certainly not new). He agreed. The one we tried was a Bowmore 10 year old (700ml) that had been a special bottling for the Opimian Society. By the way, the Opimian Society is a cooperative that buys wine for its members. George was a member at one time. So was I until kids came and I found the wine collecting/drinking habit too expensive.

Anyway, George took a photo of the bottle but has been remiss in emailing it to me so I do not have it in this posting. Will have to badger him on that little task. In any event, the label reads: “Private Selection The Opimian Society Bowmore 10 yrs old 1990 distillation.” (Since the original posting, he has provided the pic.  It's below.)  If it was distilled in 1990 and has an age of 10yrs, then it was bottled in 2000. This corresponds with George’s weak memory. I was quite interested to taste a bottle that sat on a bookcase for ten odd years.  Here’s the tasting note:

Private Selection The Opimian Society Bowmore 10 yrs old 1990 distillation

Peaty.  Charcoal.  Oak.

Peat. Ash. Tar. Restrained for an Islay single malt.

Salt, brine, dries on palate as a plume of pipe smoke takes over.

General Impressions
I was impressed. I am not a huge Islay scotch fan but do enjoy this one. George was not so impressed. He described it as the diet cola of Islay scotch or something to that affect.  He said he could not understand how a peaty scotch could be so light bodied.

Also present for the tasting was Mike, he turned up that Friday afternoon in the course of various building maintenance duties. I hollered down the hall for him to join us and he did. Mike was not a fan. He did not like it at all. But, it should be noted that he is not a novice scotch fan, but rather a scotch virgin and needs to suckle at the breast of blended Speyside scotch whisky before venturing into Islay territory. Mike did have some Highland Park 12 year old on another Friday after work and he was very impressed. We will have to mentor Mike to see the fine attributes of Islay scotch. As for George, a veteran of many empty scotch bottles, well I guess there is no explaining bad taste . . .

. . .

Having tried an old bottling of Bowmore, it made me want to explore Bowmore some more. My friend James had mentioned that he had tried the 12 year old bottling and enjoyed it, and so I decided to try it as a comparison.

Bowmore Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky 12 years

Nose (undiluted)
Delicate smoke, sulphur, and medium peat. This single malt scotch has probably the gentlest of Islay malt aromas. The scent of sulphur is a little off-putting, but don’t worry, it never rears its head in the palate.

Palate (undiluted)
Sweet, 300 thread-count, pillow soft, peat. Lakeside bonfire smoke of fallen tree branches that had been gathered on a windswept, overcast October afternoon.

Finish (undiluted)
Quite long. Drying sea salt, black tea and a little mint, all in a cloud of mild Canadian cigarette smoke. The final taste is ashes. The tail end of a big cigar.

General Impressions
A nice change from Lagavulin 16 years. Sometimes I am not in the mood for Lagavulin 16 years. As great a single malt as it is, it is rather ‘over the top’ and so, does not lend itself to being casually enjoyed while say chatting with friends or watching The Masters. Lagavulin 16yrs commands or rather demands your attention. Naturally, it is not suitable for every occasion.

When you want to just unwind with friends and make small talk, watch the game or just unwind in front of the TV, Bowmore 12 years fits the bill to a “T.”

Ardbeg 10 years Comparison
Ardbeg 10 years is a competitor to Bowmore 12 years. The Ardbeg is coarser. The peat, salt and smoke flavors are more robust and lacking the sophistication of the Bowmore. Certainly, Ardbeg 10 years has its fans, who probably number more than the Bowmore, but I cannot be counted among them. I definitely prefer the Bowmore for its’ restraint. Finally, Ardbeg 10 is more expensive by a considerable margin, which again makes Bowmore 12 more attractive from an economic point of view.

Price Point
In terms of price point, it’s very reasonable. Actually, it is one of the lowest priced 12 year old single malts. By factoring in the price and considering the flavor profile, you soon realize there is value for money here.

Is this for you?
Probably. It’s fairly difficult not to like this single malt. Even if you are a novice scotch fan lacking a deep affection for Islay malts with their classic peat and smoke flavors, this malt probably will reel you in. The main reason for it’s appeal is that none of the Islay flavors are too robust. Everything is gentle, balanced and therefore not likely to offend. Accordingly, it is a great ‘starter’ Islay single malt for those who are unfamiliar with Islay or in the past had decided it was not for them. If you have held such thoughts, Bowmore 12 years may change your mind.

One caveat though.  This is a type of scotch that I cannot sit down several nights in a row and drink.  It's just a bit much in the peat/smoke department.  So, I am happy to have it in the cabinet as a nice change but it is not a regular 'go-to' scotch or whisky like Johnnie Walker Black, Highland Park 12, Jim Beam Black and a few others that I simply never seem to tire of.  An exception to my comment would be if you are a peat and smoke fan of Islay single malts.  I am, at heart, a hardcore Speyside/Highland nut.  Maybe an Islay fan would insist that this could be a daily drinker.  Just not for this guy.


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved.

Photo Credits:  Islay photograph taken by Chris Bazley-Rose
First Bowmore 12 photograph is available as a download at the Bowmore website (http://www.bowmore.co.uk/Default.aspx?page=Images)
Second Bowmore 12 years photograph appearing in garden taken by Jason Debly.
Bowmore 10 yrs Opimian edition - photography by Jason Debly


  1. Love the reviews. I am a novice and just tried the bowmore, loved it although I'm not sure of the age as I didn't see it on the bottle. Delicious scotch, I plan on trying the glenfiddich 15 next. Boy this could be an expensive habit.

  2. The Glenfiddich 15yrs will not disappoint. However, it is quite different from Bowmore. It is sweeter, honeyed but drying on the finish.

    Expensive habit? Oh yeah!

  3. Just visited this slightly older post, Jason. I am still a relatively new malt maniac (which can only, however, be occasionally enjoyed: I'm a relatively broke college student), and seem to have quickly developed a taste for the Islays. I've enjoyed the Lap 10 and Finlaggan Old Reserve (which by the sounds of your Bowmore 12 review, is probably closer to the latter than the former by a considerable margin...) I think I'll have to pick up a bottle of the Bow 12. Keep up the quality reviews!

  4. Hello! You may be a broke college student right now, but that is only temporary. You gotta great journey ahead and that includes discovering many whiskies of the world.

    Since you are on a budget and like the Islay character, you might want to consider Black Bottle, a great Islay infused blended scotch at a reasonable price.

    I am really surprised by the number of college students who email me or post messages on this blog. When I was in college, it was beer, beer and more beer. You guys are far ahead of the game.

    Thanks for commenting!

  5. Hey Jason!

    I just got a chance to buy a new bottle (I also found a bigger liquor store that has more options). I had it narrowed down to the Bowmore 12 (I only had it once at a tasting) but your review here tweaked my interest, Craggenmore 12 (which seems to be your fav and you have recommended to me), and Caol Ila 12 (which I thought you had reviewed as well). All were about the same price-point ($50 US). I also am VERY low on my Highland Park 12 (about 2 drams), but I wanted to try something new.

    I wasn't impressed with Talisker 10, although it did grow on me a bit. The Caol Ila was right next to it so that was worrisome - but the bottle and packaging just kept speaking to me so I broke down and got the Caol Ila 12.

    OK, now I am in love again (which I haven't been since Highland 12). I was feeling a little guilt about my Highland but did a side by side and verified that they are unique and perfect in their very own ways - so this may just be a passing infatuation...will let you know.

    I'm gonna try the Bowmore or Craggenmore next time but I have to say - the Caol Ila 12 is breath-taking and wonderful, nothing like the clunky Talisker 10, which does work well in a whiskey sour (where all the failures end up) - soft and powerful at the same time with non-stop afterglow.

    Coal Ila is an addictive and glorious scotch! I may be an Islay fan...the future will tell.

    I am hiking the Northern Presidential mountains in NH in a few weeks and I think I'll be taking a couple of drams of this as my nightly reward!

  6. Ripley, since you like Caol Ila you may want to give Lagavulin 16yrs a try. Stupendous stuff too!

    After a long hike up a mountain, I cannot think of a better way to celebrate that little victory than to sample a nice dram while enjoying the scenery.


  7. "Is this for you?
    Probably. It’s fairly difficult not to like this single malt. Even if you are a novice scotch fan lacking a deep affection for Islay malts with their classic peat and smoke flavors, this malt probably will reel you in."

    Haha wow I wonder if I should have tried the 10 year first. I got a little overzealous on reading this and said the heck with it and bought a bottle before tasting since it was on special at the local BevMo for $43 compared to 22 for the 10yr. I think this is one that I just need to taste a few more times to get a real opinion. Pretty much all I got so far was an impression of drinking smoke and ash infused alcohol.

    I guess I totally had no idea what to expect from this region. Did you ever try this with a few drops of water? I did notice the smoke/ash seemed to mellow out after it was in the glass for a good hour so maybe part of it was being a newly opened bottle?

  8. This single malt is not for everyone because a lot of scotch drinkers are not fans of the big peat and smoke. You may enjoy this with ice.

    Every whisky is obviously different and some are enhanced by ice/water while others are not. You will have to do some experimenting. If the weather is really hot and humid, I like this with ice.

    Don't write-off this single malt just yet. Leave it for a week and come back to it again.

  9. Well, I'm working through some of it again tonight and have to say I'm enjoying it a lot more tonight. It just seems different. I do use a wine preserver type gas on my whiskies as well but maybe it still "opens up" a little even with that in the bottle. The only other thing I could think of was I had some Thai food about 3-4 hours before I had tasted it, but the food was very mild so I don't think I blew my tastebuds out.

    Of course, the other possibility, and I'm ashamed to admit it lol, is that my first sip the other night I managed to send it down the wrong way (boy that'll light your chest up). So maybe that kinda ruined my experience. I definitely seem to be getting more nuances out of the aroma and flavors tonight though whatever the reason. So I think this is definitely a keeper even if it's something that, like you, I wouldn't necessarily make a daily drink out of.

  10. Many whiskies do open up a bit in the bottle once opened even though there is modest exposure to air. Other whiskies have no discernable change.

    In your case, I suspect the combination of Thai food and swallowing this malt the wrong way would have a devasting affect on taste. Particularly the Thai food. You may not think it was too spicy but compare to every day meals it has a lasting effect on the taste buds, like 7 hours or so.

    Keep sippin'!

  11. So I have definitely become a fan of the 12 year over the last couple months. It took me about 1/2 the bottle to get there. I also learned that I really like it on top of a couple of glasses of red wine. The wine seems to buffer some of the harshness but all of the smoke/etc. still comes through and it's very nice. Any suggestions for other whiskeys in this vein either Islay or other? I also noticed that I now detect the smoke in Scotch a lot easier after having had the Bowmore and had it in my face as to what to look for. I can actually taste the smoke in the Glennlivet 12 year which I never noticed before.

  12. I'm not sure but am I detecting a bit of sherry cask? It reminds me of Balvenie Doublewood a bit.

  13. I am not sure if sherry casks are used in the production of the 12 year old. It is certainly possible. I did not detect it on the palate, but that is not to say you are incorrect.

    What I will do is email Bowmore and see if I can get an answer. I'll post any response that I receive.

  14. I bought a bottle of this today, here in Japan, and shall try it tonight.
    It was reduced from 3800 yen to 3300 yen.
    I love a bargain!
    I've been drinking a basic Japanese whiskey - 950 yen - for ages -(saving money for freedom chips) so this is going to be quite a treat.

    Love your reviews. There's something so feral about whiskey/scotch reviews. I could read them all day long.

  15. "Feral" - I had to look up the meaning in the dictionary. Probably I shouldn't admit to such a lack of vocabulary, but anyway, . . . yeah, I agree feral.

    Hope all is well in Japan!

  16. Jason, Language is indeed a funny thing at times. The words hold such different meanings to so many of us, and so they cast light and shadow on the malts in very different ways depending both upon both writer and reader. I'd say that the Bowmore 12 is light for a peated whiskey, even typically quite thin in the middle palate in most production runs. It's still quite interesting for me. Contrast that with how I find the Arbeg Ten: very fine, vivid and yet almost delicate in structure overall and yet far more very intensely flavored than the Bowmore. For me, it's the Bowmore that is far coarser (undeveloped, simple, without development). The Ardbeg couldn't be further from showing any coarseness to my palate, only showing incredible development and intensity. Visualize the Islay orchestral ensemble: the Ardbeg Ten plays violin parts and the Bowmore, that of the English Horn. Now there's smoky metaphors for you ... JK

    1. Yeah, interesting insights. I always thought of Ardbeg as a peat blast in the face and Bowmore 12 a lot more subtle, delicate.

      The Symphonie Fantastique of them all though is Talisker 10!

    2. Jason, thank you so much for recommending Bowmore 12. In another thread here I mentioned that I recently received a bottle of Lagavulin 16. It's outstanding, but will be more of a special occasion dram for me. I've been searching for a regular rotation Islay. I had a bottle of Laphroaig 10 a while back - it was fine, but after reading your review I thought I'd try Bowmore 12 this time. Bingo! What a lovely Islay dram! I just love it! The other Islay I keep hearing raves about is Ardbeg Uigeadail. Have you tried it?

    3. Hi VTBob,

      I prefer the Bowmore over the Laphroaig 10, but I would be in the minority, as many people like the latter with its more robust flavor.

      I have not tried Ardbeg Uigeadail. The praise on the web is very positive though. Will have to investigate it at some poin.

  17. For those of you on a budget give MacLellan Islay Single Malt a try at C$32 (LCBO). In reality it is a 5 yr old Bowmore! MacLellan own the Bowmore distillery and in turn are I think owned by a Japanese Co!! Maybe a little rough around the edges but still pretty decent stuff and distinctly Islay. I've been drinking it for a while and decided to treat myself to the 12 yr old Bowmore. Worth the difference but on a pension the MacLellan is a drinkable Plan B!

  18. Jason,

    I am wondering if my bottle of Bowmore 12 is flawed. The overwhelming flavor is medicinal/cough syrup -- and it's even worse on the nose. Those flavors are so strong that they nearly cover up the peat. The bottle was like this when opened it 2 months ago, and they actually seem to have gotten worse.

    I have read several reviews of Bowmore 12 (including yours) that mention a medicinal flavor, but none of the positive reviews describe that flavor as strong. However, I have seen a couple reviews that describe the whisky like I do: undrinkable because of an overwhelming medicinal/cough syrup flavor. The night-and-day difference between those reviews and the majority of reviews makes me wonder if the "cough syrup bottles" (including mine) are somehow flawed.

    Unfortunately, it's my first bottle of Bowmore 12, so I have nothing to compare it to. But I have tasted numerous other peaty whiskies and have never encountered this flavor profile.

    Anyway, my question is whether you think that such flavors could be the result of a flaw. I'd appreciate any insight you may have. Thanks.

    - Josh

    1. Josh, you write that you have tried numerous other peated whiskies. I wonder if any of those others are from Islay? Have you tried Lagavulin? I think you have based on previous discussions we had, but I am unsure.

      I guess what I am saying is that if a person is familiar with the peat and smoke flavors of Islay, then Bowmore would be enjoyable.

      As a general rule, medicinal/hospital ointment bandage type flavors are common in Islay and make many malts great. If a person has had peated whisky from say Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, Orkney, but not Islay, they are in for a surprise. What is peated in say Speyside is a lot different than a peated malt from Islay like Bowmore.

      But, let's assume you have had other Islay malts and enjoyed them. If that is the case then there may indeed be something wrong with your particular bottle because Bowmore 12 is totally inoffensive seaside ride of great flavors.

      Bowmore 12 is a gentle Islay. A great introduction to delicate peat and smoke of that island. If you are finding it very offensive, it is one of two things, the bottle is bad or you just dont like Bowmore 12. Maybe visit a bar and have a dram there in the furtherance of this weighty scientific matter.

      Lemme know your thoughts.

    2. Thanks for the reply, Jason.

      I haven't tried many peaty whiskies from Islay. But I have tried Laphroaig 10 and Laphroaig Cask Strength. The latter, in particular, I found to be a bit too rough for my tastes. But my bottle of Bowmore 12 was something totally different. It was cloyingly sweet in a way that tasted artificial. I know I used the word "medicinal" to describe my bottle, but that may be inaccurate. A better description would be "cough syrup made with saccharine."

      You call the flavor profile of Bowmore 12 "delicate" and "gentle," but there was nothing delicate about the flavors I'm describing. (Or trying to describe -- I'm certainly a novice when it comes to tasting notes.)

      In any event, I will try to taste a few more Islay whiskies (especially Lagavulin). If I pick up similar flavors in those whiskeys, I will know that it's me and not my bottle, and that Islays are just not my cup of malt.

      I'll also order a dram of Bowmore 12 the next time I see it at a bar. For science's sake.

      Thanks again.

      - Josh

    3. Bowmore 12 should never taste like cough syrup made with saccharine. You indeed probably do have a bad or off bottle.

      The peat and smoke are bit sweet but turn more dry towards the finish. Clearly not what you are experiencing.

      Try the bar because Bowmore is a nice one.

  19. Super late getting in on this discussion but here I go..... Three years ago I had just gotten into scotch, my first bottle was a GlenLivet 12 which was a good choice in retrospect, then my second purchase was a Bowmore 12. And Wow! That one I was not at all ready for! LOL

    I pretty much swore off buying another Bowmore 12 but over these past three years, I have gotten more experience with Ardbeg 10 and Compass Box Peat Monster, so I think that I'm getting to the point where I am appreciating this style of whisky more.

    This leads me to your point about Bowmore 12 being a good value for money. I have noticed that here in New Brunswick, the Bowmore 12 is just about the cheapest 12 year old single malt scotch whisky on the shelf and even cheaper than a blended scotch such as JW Black Label, $3.00 cheaper in fact.

    Why do you suppose that Bowmore 12 is priced way cheaper than similar scotch whiskies here? Is the quality lower or just lack of advertising buzz?

    I might give Bowmore 12 another go just to see how I rate it now that I've had a bit of experience with peated/smoky whiskies.

  20. I think you, I and most people when they start out trying Scotch, they do not enjoy Islay malts or those of Skye and other islands where peat and smoke are dominant elements of the flavor profile.

    However, as you know, that same novice whisky fan who re-visits Islay malts will be delightfully surprised because the smoke and peat notes are mysterious and intriguing. You have been for the past few years drinking all things Speyside of honey and caramel and a little peat and smoke may just be pleasant!

    Hence. give ol Bowmore another go!

  21. Hello Jason. Always looking for your reviews. They are great. You should post on YouTube. Anyhow, I started my single malt journey a year ago. In a short time I've tried to amass a collection and oh my is it expensive! It adds up quickly. So anyhow my first peated single malt was Laph. Q.C. Wow it was overpowering with medicinal and Iodine. However I have always loved the wood smoke smell and so it grew on me. It mellowed in the next several months to perfection. My second bottle was HP 12. 1st sip I didn't like. As it mellowed the peat was different to Laph. Like smoke on a cold day.
    Since then I've tried Lagavulin 16 & Ardbeg 10. I now enjoy the more potent peat but still appreciate the mild ones. I wonder what I'd like better now, Caol Illa or Bowmore 12 or Benriach Curiositas? I'd like your opinion on those. Thanks for your reviews!!!

    1. Hi! I really think you should aim to try Bowmore 12 and then Lagavulin 16. The Lagavulin 8 is very nice too.

      Welcome to the blog and the world of fine whiskies!

      P.S. I am now on youtube:


  22. There's a saying "If you don't like peated whisky, don't pretend that you do". I just opened a bottle of Bowmore 12 and i can say that i don't like it, i love it! Quite a warm up for the Lagavulin 16 which i'm afraid to open and sits for four months in my cabinet unopened. Bowmore 12 is not just peat. There are citrus notes all over on the nose, honey on the palate and wonderfully long smokey finish. Makes you wanna pour another glass.