Displaying items by tag: Scotch whisky
Some Spirits Reviews
TASTE News Service, June 26, 2017 - At Taste publications we’ve always run wine reviews and in recent years have added beer reviews.
Bowmore’s $7000 Bottle
By Dan Clarke
Spending $7000 for a bottle of whisky seemed preposterous to me. Accepting an invitation to taste from that bottle was a different matter.
Some years ago I joined a small group of wine and food writers and restaurateurs to sample a number of single-malt Scotch whiskies, among them a 40-year-old Bowmore which was indeed retailing for $7,000. That its bottle was cut-glass and came in its own handsome wooden cabinetry (with brass lock), mitigates the price somewhat. Oh, and the purchaser received an invitation for an overnight stay at the distillery. However, the product was incredibly expensive by any standard.
Single malts are where the action is. Though only four percent of Scotland’s whisky exports by volume, their U.S. sales had been growing at 15 to 20 percent a year for the past decade. Paul Pacult, writing in Kindred Spirits, described single malt whiskies as ranging “from the most feral and lusty of whiskies to the most serenely elegant.” Who could resist exploring such a category?
Traditionally, Scotland is divided into four whisky-producing regions: the Lowlands, the Highlands, Islay and Campbelltown. Islay (pronounced eye-lah) is a small island in the Hebrides lying due west of Glasgow. Its whiskies have the reputation of being especially robust—peaty, pungent and even a little briny. Bowmore is the most significant of seven distillers on the island and is, in fact, one of the most prestigious of all single malts. Pacult declared it among the finest malt whisky distilleries, one of his top six of nearly 100 rated.
We gathered in a narrow private room at San Francisco’s Postrio restaurant late in the morning. At each place setting there were a number of empty wine glasses. We had done this drill before—perhaps hundreds of times. But today we were to taste whiskies, not wines.
Jim McEwan, Bowmore’s distillery manager, introduces us to the first of seven whiskies that we were to taste. He advises us to add a little water to our samples which tends to release whisky’s flavors. This is especially evident when tasting their Cask Strength, a very full-bodied whisky bottled at 56 percent alcohol (112 proof). It is approximately 15 years old and was matured in former American Bourbon barrels. Next we taste the Bowmore Darkest, a whisky of similar age that was transferred from Bourbon barrels to former Oloroso Sherry barrels for the final three years of maturation. These “specialty products” as the distillery refers to them provide us with a good introduction to the role that wood plays in the development of character and flavor in Scotch whisky.
We continute the sampling, proceding through the Bowmore 12-year old, the 17, the 21, the 25, the 30 and two from afiliated distilleries—the Auchentoshan 31-year old and Glen Garoch 29-year old. Retail pricing of these 750ml bottles ranges from $30-35 to over $200. The peaty character is present in all, but not overpowering in any. The breadth and diversity of flavors is startling. We need to use the vocabularies otherwise reserved for describing the complexities of wine and begin talking in winespeak, that flowery—if sometimes fatuous—way writers describe flavors, “ . . . vanilla . . . hints of pear . . . a little sweetness on the finish . . . somewhat chocolatey . . . peppery” and so on. Perhaps the only descriptor we haven’t applied to wine is briny or salty which actually is a subtle characteristic that some Bowmore whiskies have. Long storage in oak barrels in a warehouse next to the sea can do that.
Jim McEwan has regaled us with Robert Burns' poetry, Islay whisky lore and anecdotes of his own experiences as he moved from apprentice cooper to general manager of Bowmore. He's a great story teller and he is credible.
We've learned about single malts. Our tasting has ascended through several different and distinct Bowmore products. We are ready. Bring on the 40-year old!
It is sublime.
The nose is both subtle and complex. How does a beverage distilled from grain acquire these fruit aromas? The peatiness is there, but it's almost delicate. On the palate there is layer upon layer of fruit flavors, but the finish is unmistakably Scotch. The transition is seamless. The experience is almost ethereal. The finest Cognac wearing tartan.
McEwan calls the Bowmore 40-Year Old a chance happening. Originally laid down in a Sherry cask in November of 1955, it was transferred to a Bourbon cask when the Sherry butt sprang a leak twenty years later. (Normal procedure would have been to continue in Sherry cooperage, but none was available at the moment the leak was discovered. Better to have whiskey in any barrel than on the floor.)
Something of a hybrid thereafter, this whisky didn't readily fit into normal categories for inventory purposes and was overlooked for much of the next couple of decades. However it evolved, this is an extraordinary spirit. The cask yielded only 294 bottles of the 84-proof treasure, 60 of which were destined for sale in the U.S.
After we've concluded a magnificent lunch prepared by chef Mitch Rosenthal, Jim McEwan teaches a Highland toast. This is properly done, he assures us, by standing on a chair and placing your right foot on the table. After putting our napkins over Postrio's upholstered chairs we ascend.
“Sues e Suas e Suas e” we begin as we raise our glasses of $7,000 Scotch above our heads.
We're speaking in tongues while walking on the furniture in one of the country's finer restaurants.
Nobody falls. Nothing breaks. We're not asked to leave.
It's a magical moment, one I'll look to repeat. If I'm a little short the next time, The Bowmore 40 Year Old may not be on the menu, but I'll carry on the best I can.
Editor's Note:This most unusual tasting was held about ten years ago. The author has seen Jim McEwan just twice since then. On his return visit to San Francisco a year later he provided me the opportunity to take a test given to prospective Scotch whisky professionals and the occasional journalist. Tasting was not involved, but identifying 15 or 20 different aromas was required. These included camphor and butterscotch and so many others seldom included in a wine writer's vocabulary. I struggled, but Jim said I passed. A couple of years later I ran into him in Bordeaux at Vinexpo, the bi-annual wine show. He'd just left Bowmore and was representing Bruichladdich, a recently resurrected Islay distillery, in the spirits section of the event. As of the fall of 2013 he is still Bruichladdich's Master Distiller.