Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review: Bowmore 15 year old "Darkest"

Valentine's Day
What is love?  It's about fate.  You met.  You saw her from afar and became mesmerized.  You got closer without trying to look obvious.  Your eyes meet.  You quickly look away.  You look back, and damn!  She caught you!  It's ok because she grants you the slightest, I mean the slightest, of smiles.  That's how it started for me at a luncheon eight years ago in a restaurant.  She's my partner in life today.

It started a few years before that with another passion of my life:  whisky.  Oh, she can be a most cruel mistress.  I still see her regularly.  She can be mesmerizing too.  Sometimes she smiles and we have lots of fun, other times she is in a foul mood.  Her kisses can turn bitter and grainy on a whim.

Bowmore 15 years old "Darkest"
This lady of a malt is very dark in color. Very dark for a 15 year old malt.  Matter of fact, the darkest, think Claudia Cardinale smouldering in the 1966 spaghetti western The Professionals.

While Claudia is sexy, the Jim Morrison-esque gloom of this malt has me worried.

How did it get so dark for a malt that was 'finished' in Oloroso sherry casks?  Many whiskies are finished in them but don't go that dark.  After all the 'finishing' of whisky in such casks is typically one or two years.  Bowmore 15 years spent three years in Oloroso sherry casks.  The previous 12 years were in American bourbon casks.  Any caramel added?  I wonder.

Forget the subdued sultriness of Claudia Cardinale.  I am now fearing the darkness and unpredictability of Courtney Love, Liz Taylor or Judy Garland.  Tremendously beautiful and talented in their day, but lurking just below the surface of their smiles is something not quite right.  You knew they were trouble, but couldn't stay away.

Nose (undiluted)
Coal, lit barbecue briquettes, smoking North Atlantic seaside bonfire.

Palate (undiluted)
Smooth to start.  An odd combination of Islay peat that is mingling with sherry flavors.  So, on the one hand, you taste the peat and iodine of Islay that meets the sherry flavors you normally identify with a Highland malt like Glenfarclas or Oban.  Think a sea surge of peat/smoke meeting crates of chocolate and raisins from a lorry that rolled over into the bay.  Sudden, accidental and unnatural.  It just doesn't work well.  Something seems a bit off.  I taste something close to flower scented soap.  Lilacs.

Finish (unfinished)
Lime slices in ice water with medicinal notes, sea salt and how can it be?  Ginger.

General Impressions
I was expecting a lot more from this Islay single malt.  I reviewed Bowmore 12 year old (click here) a while ago and was impressed.  Me, not being much of a peat and smoke head, did enjoy the Bowmore 12.  It was a gentle treatment of classic Islay flavors that was a great starter malt for those drinkers who want to put their pinkie toe in the Islay sea of malts in the marketplace.  Accordingly, I figured three extra years plus the last two in Oloroso sherry casks should deliver complexity and additional refinement over the 12 year old.  Not so!  I prefer Bowmore 12 years to the 15 any day of the week.

Caramel Added?
As you have probably surmised from my comments above, this malt is seriously dark.  I wonder if E150 caramel coloring has been added.  I am trying to ascertain the answer to that through some contacts I have in the industry, but that will take time.  When I know, you will know.

Now, you may be thinking, what's the big deal about caramel?  Some argue that the addition of caramel in tiny quantities is of no consequence, and just creates uniformity of color that assures the consumer there is no variability of quality.  The trick is not too add too much.  Too much and you may be affecting the flavor profile.  Possibly introducing bitterness.  Mind you others will debate the bitterness in whisky can come from the European wood and youthful whiskies.  Youth is not a factor here.  So maybe the wood management was not the greatest.  Who knows?

Update - - - - In Germany the words "mit farbstoff" appear on the labels of all Bowmores.  The German words basically translate as: colourant added

Non-Chill Filtered?
If Bowmore 15 was non-chill filtered I suspect they would have trumpeted that fact on the packaging.  Alas, no mention of non-chill filtered production.  Again, when a whisky is chill filtered an argument can be raised that the flavor profile is less than what it could be.

Price Point
This single malt was not cheap.  In general terms, it was priced reasonably for 15 year old single malts, but any reasonableness goes out the window when you taste it.  It tastes more like a 12 year old entry level malt.  Where is the complexity of flavors?  Just not happening.

The bloom on this rose is like my first affection for Bowmore 15.  Fading quickly.  Love can be fleeting!


Jason Debly

P.S.  Guys!  Remember texting is not an acceptable manner of delivery of a Valentine!  Nor is emailing an electronic card (an oxymoron if there ever was one!)  Get a card, write a thoughtful note and pick up some flowers.  Make it two dozen red roses!

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.  Please note the photograph of the rose at the top of this post was taken by Waseem-79.  It appears on this blog with his permission.  All rights to the photo belong to Waseem-79.  The second photograph of the rose at the bottom of this post was taken by ..A.C.REB...  His photograph appears here with his permission.  All rights to the photo remain with the photographer.


  1. Hi Jason,

    I have not tasted the Darkest yet but I am sure there's E-150 added. If you can find it try the 18 Years. Very nice balance between peat and sherry. The 12 Year Enigma is more robust. I just bought the 17 Years and am looking forward tasting it!

  2. Yes, I will make an effort to try the 18 at some point. Have fun at Carnival!

  3. Nice review, Jason! I tried this at a bar not too long ago and was somewhat underwhelmed. I'm looking forward to trying it again when I can focus. I also really want to try any the Tempests.

  4. Hi Peter,

    I was really disappointed with this particular Bowmore. Generally, it is hard to be disappointed by a 15 year old single malt. This was a let down. Nevertheless, I think the 12 year old is a fine entry into Islay malts. And, maybe that's the problem. The Bowmore Darkest has a bit of an identity crisis going on. It is caught in a battle between sherry and Islay peat and smoke. Neither opposing forces win and what the drinker is left with is an unsatisfying stalemate.

  5. It's a shame that most of the reviews of this whisky have been negative. It sounds great on paper, but apparently the results are quite lacking. For something in a similar vein, Talisker Distiller's Edition is (at least in this neck of the woods) a lot cheaper and has an excellent balance between peat and sherry flavors.

    1. I did not search the web for reviews of this particular malt as I did not want to be swayed by any 'halo' effect of other reviewer's opinions.

      Bowmore trumpets that this malt won "double gold" at the San Francisco Spirits Competition, an industry event, where it seems, much like kindergarten, everyone is a winner. A while ago, I posted my thoughts about how ridiculous and unreliable such competitions are: http://jason-scotchreviews.blogspot.com/2010/10/scotch-whisky-awards-should-you-pay.html

  6. Hi Jason,

    Have you had the Legend? I think it's a very nice budget Scotch for around $25 here in the US.

    I recently had the Laphroaig triple wood which is essentially the Quarter Cask finished in Oloroso casks. I quite liked it, just a little sweeter than the QC which is my second favorite Scotch next to Lagavulin 16.