Bowmore has a reputation (at least in my mind) for being the tag-along kid brother to the more serious Islay distilleries, which produce much more heavily-peated malts. This is silly, of course, because Bowmore is one of the oldest and most venerable distilleries on Islay (and, in fact, in Scotland). The fact is that people like to talk about Ardbeg and its crazy special releases and over-the-top peat, or Lagavulin and its rarity, or Laphroaig and its intensity. They just don’t talk about Bowmore. They should.
While my experience with the official 12-year was interesting but ultimately not energizing, the ‘Darkest’ is another story. Named for the color instilled by a combination of bourbon and sherry aging followed by three years only in Oloroso sherry casks, the 15 year-old malt is (to me) indistinguishable from its 12 year-old sibling. The sherry is funky in the extreme, and the peat is murky and boggy in all of the ways that Ardbeg is not. You’ll pay for this effect – it’s around $70 – but I haven’t found anything quite like this on the market, with the possible exception of craft distiller Lost Spirits and their oddball Ouroboros bottling. They both have a lot of the same funky, resiny, and composty flavors. If you like Darkest, you should try Ouroboros, and vice-versa. Also, they aren’t kidding about ‘darkest’ – this stuff is downright dark. Not quite bourbon-colored, but bourbon-esque.
Unfortunately, Bowmore 15 is both chill-filtered and caramel colored. I have a hard time letting caramel coloring pass when a whisky is NAMED for its color. For shame, Bowmore! OK, now I can focus on the flavor.
Nose: Wow. Plum sauce, prune juice, and resin. A thick fog of funky, swampy peat, and layers upon layers of fossilized aroma, starting with the tar pits. The fruit is full-bodied but oxidized and, with the peat, comes across as a bubbling ferment of wild, yeasty, compost-y complexity. The aroma is varied and – while not quite muddy – is definitely confused. An intriguing experience. Note that a lengthy rest in the glass – more than 15 minutes – reveals a very intense, meaty caramel note that is worth waiting for.
Palate: On the thin side. Lots of red-wine tannins, and the initial flavors are of red grape skins, and balsamic. Then, the peat takes over and asserts itself over the sherry with flavor of seaweed, mushroom, and soil. Somewhat two-faced, rather than an integrated whole.
Finish: Long. The fruit flavors freshen somewhat, becoming very cranberry-like, while the peat remains boggy and earthy. At no point does this make me think of ‘smoke’, although the unfortunate association (totally in my own head, I assure you) of composting (rotting) fruit keeps occurring to me.
With Water: A few drops of water wake up a little fresh, tart fruit. Cranberries, again. The palate, also, is a little tart-er. The finish is more fully peated, and the peat has more of a vegetal quality. A few drops (only!) aren’t a bad idea.
Overall: When you think about sherry and peat, you generally think about Highland Park, with its light tickle of citrusy Orkney peat and gently sweet, fruity sherry. This is the opposite of both of those aspects. The sherry is resinous and funky, the peat muddy and vegetative. The combination is alchemical, though, with an otherworldly fungalness… fungitude… fungality… funkiness that brings together the most edgy, concentrated, and dark flavors of both peat and sherry and becomes something greater than the parts. While not really an education in peat, or in sherry, it is an education in Darkest.