In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Bowmore distillery on the island of Islay.
1966 was a pivotal year in history: The first episodes of Star Trek and Batman aired on U.S. television, the Beatles played their last concert at Candlestick Park, and the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds. The first pictures from the moon were transmitted back to earth, and a certain wonkish cocktail aficionado was born in Fort Worth, Texas. And on a tiny island in the North Atlantic, eighteen-year-old Eddie MacAffer worked his first shift at the Bowmore distillery after having no luck finding other work during a seaman’s strike.
Quite literally starting at the bottom of the ranks, performing backbreaking work such as moving 500-pound barrels in the warehouse and turning over ton after ton of wet malt with a wooden shovel, Eddie worked his way up the ranks at Bowmore. Along the way he’s performed nearly every job at the distillery, so it’s only fitting that after all those years he became the distillery manager. These days he’s claiming he’ll retire soon, so we were extra lucky to have Eddie entirely to ourselves during a two-plus hour tour of Bowmore.
Bowmore is one of the oldest currently operating Scotch whisky distilleries, starting in 1779 on Islay. During World War II, the distillery’s strategic position on Islay led to a temporary takeover by the RAF Coastal Command for military operations, including anti-submarine warfare. As with nearly every Scottish distillery, it’s changed ownership hands over its hundreds of years in existence. For our story, the first important change happens in 1963, when a certain Stanley Morrison and James Howat purchase Bowmore, eventually changing the name to Morrison Bowmore Distillers, Ltd.
In the intervening years, Morrison Bowmore purchased the Glen Garioch distillery in 1970 and Auchentoshan in 1984, both on the Scottish mainland. In 1994 Japanese company Suntory purchased Morrison Bowmore. After the 2014 Suntory acquisition of Jim Beam, Bowmore became part of Beam Suntory, making it a sister distillery to Laphroaig, just down the coast on Islay. The Bowmore core range today extends from a NAS (no age statement) whisky priced at around $30 U.S. up through the Bowmore 25, priced at approximately $400 U.S. They also offer a large range of limited editions and travel retail exclusives.
Arriving at the Bowmore distillery relatively early on a blustery, overcast January day, it appears almost deserted. No other cars in the small parking lot or telltale signs life. Inside the visitor’s center, we say our hello to a lonely receptionist who seems rather glad to see us. She’s expecting us, signs us in and hands us lanyards that lasso a small Bowmore branded Glencairn glass—handy for tasting and walking. A few minutes later, Eddie seemingly pops out of nowhere and introduces himself, in his lilting Scottish brogue. Mrs. Wonk and I are both instantly smitten.
We depart the visitor’s center, crossing the parking lot and adjoining street. Eddie and I both tug down on our hats to make them extra snug. The wind is seriously howling today, the build up to a major North Atlantic storm, personified as Gertrude, which will blow through Scotland the next day. Across the street we step into a long, narrow grassy field, bordered on both side by modest houses, and with a tiny garden in between. Running along one side is a small ditch, no more than three feet wide. Eddie explains that this is Bowmore’s water source, which originates from the river Laggan, in the higher lands of Islay. By the looks of it, the ditch doesn’t seem large enough to supply the adjacent houses, much less the operations of a world class distillery such as Bowmore. Although we hadn’t noticed it on the way over, the water passes under the road to enter the distillery grounds.
Following the flowing water back to the distillery, it enters the complex near a grain storage building, and flows through a stone channel before dropping down a man-made waterfall which plunges underground. I ask Eddie if the water source ever dries up or becomes insufficient. He answers in the affirmative, and explains that sometimes the distillery ceases production, although this is relatively rare. There’s a lot of money at stake, so the distillery uses modern practices to minimize water use and to reuse as much water as possible.
A few feet away sits Bowmore’s malt barn. They’re one of the few Scottish distilleries that still make a portion of the malt they use. The majority of the malt is purchased from elsewhere, possibly including Port Ellen Maltings on the southern tip of the island, or from the Scottish mainland. Eddie tells us that the typical ratio is three parts of Bowmore malt to five parts imported malt, both targeting 25 PPM of peat. While malting your own barley is more expensive than buying it from a specialist like Port Ellen Maltings, it helps keep the craft alive, as well as preserving the ability to keep production going on a limited scale if your outside supplier can’t deliver.
The malt barn has three floors, each capable of holding 14 tons of germinating barley. Standing in the ground level floor, Eddie grabs a handful of sprouting barley to show us the small tendrils emerging from each husk. Pressing a kernel between his fingertips, he separates the grain to show us the various components like the starch and husks. He then grabs a flat, wooden shovel off its proper place on the wall, marches into the middle of the malt, and starts shoveling and explaining the technique needed to turn the malt properly. Do it wrong and you’ll tire out quickly and injure yourself, he says—knowledge borne of years working this same room. He summons Mrs. Wonk over, hands her the shovel and has her give it a try, with my turn following. It’s more than a little intimidating to have your malt turning technique supervised by a whisky legend!
At this point in the visit, I’m convinced that it can’t get any better, but I am quite mistaken. Climbing several flights of stairs, we arrive at the drying room. Here, warm peaty smoke rises through slots in the floor, drying and infusing the wet malt spread across every inch, with the smell of burning peat. Yesterday at Laphroaig, we’d peeked into their drying room very quickly to see the smoke. Here at Bowmore, the drying cycle recently finished so there’s no visible smoke, but the air is pungent with peat smell.
Eddie tells us to step into the room. Wait, what? You want us to walk out into the middle of this freshly dried barley, shoes and all? Yes, go ahead, he says. Wait, really? Well, then. Mrs. Wonk isn’t so sure how deep it is, so she steps in tentatively and sinks a foot or so into the grain. (All those memories of 1970s era TV heroines stuck in quicksand have a lasting power, apparently.) Having seen it’s safe, I follow behind. Eddie doesn’t join us, but stands by the entrance, describing what we’re seeing. We slowly wander about taking pictures -– it’s hard to walk in all that barley! (Sort of like first footsteps after a shin-deep snowstorm.) On one side is a horizontal spindle spanning the full width of the room, with paddles attached. Pulled the length of the room, it churns the drying barley as it travels. Overhead a fan draws the smoky air out through the building’s pagoda-style roof. It’s hard not to laugh–it seems so patently absurd that we’re doing this, shuffling around in a peat kiln on Islay. We’re literally at ground zero of peaty Scotch whisky. You can’t get any closer than this!
After expunging the barley from our shoes and clothes downstairs, we walk to the front of the peat furnace. A big pile of cut peat chunks sits off to one side. Peering into the fire box, it’s all very familiar after yesterday’s visit to Laphroaig. At the moment, there’s no peat burning, providing a special opportunity that we didn’t get at Laphroaig. Walking around to the side of the kiln, Eddie opens a door and we step directly into the kiln, underneath the drying room. (Not an experience for the claustrophobic—Mrs. Wonk among them.) It’s incredibly dark, but a flashlight helps us see that we’re actually now on the other side of the fire box, which is made of bricks and has no top. Thus, it’s more accurately a fire pit at the bottom of a huge chimney.
Pressing on in our private tour, we reach the giant grains bins that feed the nearby Porteus malt mill. These mills are known for being nearly indestructible and lasting forever. (It’s said that Porteus made such good machinery that they went out of business because nobody ever needed to replace one.) The ground barley (“grist”), having passed through the mill, then makes its way to the mash room, where it rests in a large circular bin. It stays put until the next batch of mash, whereupon the grist falls through a funnel into the mash tun below.
Bowmore’s copper-topped mash tun and water tanks are unusual – typical tanks at other distilleries are fabricated of stainless steel. Into the tun goes eight tons of milled barley (“grist”) and 40,000 liters of hot water at 65 degrees C. After cooking for a bit, this sugary water (“wort”) drains through slots in the tun floor, and the tun is refilled with hotter water at 85 degrees C. This batch is also drained, and the two worts are combined in the washbacks. A final rinse is made at 100 degrees C, but rather than joining earlier rounds in the washbacks, it goes into a copper storage tank, later to become part of the initial fill for the next batch of mash. Standing on a walkway high above the room, we couldn’t get up close and personal with the mash tun. However, since it was empty, we got a good view of its slotted floor where the wort drains through.
The washbacks reside in a long room adjoining the mash tun area, the room’s large pivot windows overlooking the sweeping harbor. It’s hard to imagine a more fairytale Scotch whisky setting: Rows of old-fashioned wooden tanks, filled with bubbling liquid, mere yards from the roiling, salty sea just beyond.
The six wooden washbacks are crafted of Oregon pine, each holding 40,000 liters, or just over 10,000 gallons, for you imperial types. Each has an agitator motor mounted on a post centered on the lid. Atop each post is a small brass plaque with the name of a former distillery owner and their years of ownership, starting with John Simpson in 1779. Once the washbacks are filled with wort, the distiller adds 100 kilos of yeast to start the fermentation process, which culminates in a wash (or distiller’s beer) at around eight percent ABV.
Emerging from the far end of the washback room, we’re greeted by a glorious site just below us – the copper stills. It honestly made my heart skip a beat as we entered the room, seeing all four magnificent vessels in profile. Bowmore has two wash stills, each holding 30,940 liters, and two spirits stills at 14,750 liters each– relatively larges stills in the single malt whisky world. To put things in perspective, each Bowmore still is roughly three times as large as a corresponding still at Laphroaig. The stills are so large that one of the condenser columns doesn’t fit in the still house, so the lyne arm passes through a wall to connect to the condenser outside.
As is typical, the stills are steam-fired using coils inside the still base. In a stroke of good fortune, one of the wash stills was empty, having recently been cleaned. Using my camera flash, I was able to get a good photo of the steam coil inside. Resembling a rocket motor more than a steam coil, it’s far more elaborate than I would have imagined. I couldn’t find any photos of comparable pot still heating coils online, so behold, a (sort-of) Cocktail Wonk exclusive!
At the far end of the still house, the spirits safe beckons us to admire it. Since we’re in no rush, I ask Eddie about the “two keys” story for the spirits safe. As the tale goes, in times past, it took two keys to open a distillery’s spirit safe–one held by the distiller, the other by the government excise man. Neither could open it themselves to steal the new-make spirit, thus robbing the government of its taxes or the distillery of its product. Eddie laughs and says that the two-key system is simply not practical to do these days. The safe still has a lock, but there’s no full time tax-man employed round the clock. In the event of an emergency, the distillery employee can open the spirit safe, but copious documentation must be provided to the government. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Reluctantly saying goodbye to the stills, we adjourn to the legendary Bowmore No. 1 Vaults, the dunnage warehouse where some of Bowmore’s most valuable whiskies slumber away for decades. We enter into a room with a cutaway barrel and other artifacts used by tour guides to explain the aging process to visitors. Through a large glass window we see barrels of various sizes, stacked on their sides, no more than two barrels high. A sturdy, locked door prevents the riff raff from getting too close.
To our surprise, Eddie pulls out a key, unlocks the door, and ushers us in to the dim, damp whisky Valhalla. The walls and ceiling are crusted with a century or more of fungal growth—pure gold to the aging process. He leads us over to a collection of barrels, grabs a mallet, and pops the bung on one dated 1999. Our lanyard-mounted Glencairn glass comes in handy– the whisky is predictably fantastic. For a spirits wonk like me, it just doesn’t get any more perfect than this.
We retire to the visitor’s center, where Eddie informs us that Bowmore has a couple of surprises for me. First is a bottle of Hand-Filled Bowmore, not available in any store, filled by valinch in the No. 1 Vault we’d just stepped from. The attached card indicates it’s an 11-year-old, distilled in 2004. I of course ask Eddie to sign my bottle, and he modestly obliges.
My second surprise was upstairs in the tasting room. At the top of the stairs sits a standalone display case, prominently lit, with a single bottle inside. This is no ordinary bottle, however. It’s a 1957 Bowmore, one of ten in the world, aged for 54 years. The bottle has the iconic Bowmore bottle shape, hand blown by famed glass artists to include splashing ocean waves and adorned with a platinum neck collar You can pick one up of these bottles for around $150,000 U.S., if you’re looking for souvenirs to bring home. As you might imagine, this wasn’t the surprise intended for me, sadly, although it was a treat just to see it up close.
At the tasting counter, the visitor’s center receptionist brought out a small chocolate birthday cake. An absolutely surprise! My birthday was technically the day before, but who am I to argue with cake after finishing the most insanely awesome distillery visit I’ve ever had? Our visit was magical, and I can’t express enough gratitude to the fine folks at Bowmore, Eddie MacAffer, Beam Suntory, and my friend Dave Kearns at Beam Suntory for making this truly an experience of a lifetime.