Hello, my name’s Mike.
If you remember me at all, you’ll probably know me as the chap who wrote tasting notes and things, and used the word “soupcon” too much. If you work at Master of Malt, you may know me as “the bloke that did that thing at the Christmas Party” or “the terrible man who did that other thing in Sales Director Ben’s office which Ben still hasn’t found out about”.
Regardless of whether or not you know me, you better learn something, punk: I’m back from Africa, I’ve just tasted a £16,000 bottle of whisky and now I’m going to tell you all about it.
And it’s not just any old run-of-the-mill £16,000 bottle of whisky either. Oh no, this ground-breaking 50 year old will be the oldest publicly available single malt Islay has ever seen. (We’re not counting the 12 bottles of 54 year old Bowmore launched last year, because they were available only through auction or from the distillery itself.)
To taste this astonishing whisky, we were seated in the plush surrounds of the Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows bar on the Park Lane Hilton’s 28th floor. Over the course of the evening, as if gripped by some terrible curse, I became gradually more and more obsessed with pilfering the Bowmore 50 year old. It was within easy reach. It was asking for it, all lit up like a Christmas tree.
I leered at the thing, sipping back a marvellous cocktail made with Bowmore Small Batch, sherry and picon, cask-matured and served with a vanilla-bourbon hydrosol. Kudos to the bar, this was one of the best Scotch cocktails I’d ever tried.
With cocktail in hand, Bowmore Manager Eddie MacAffer took to the stage and told us the story of how Bowmore 50 year old came to be.
It all began on a cold day in December 1961. I know it was cold because I’ve read the marketing booklet they gave me, and it includes the word “cold” on more or less every page. I can tell you it was definitely very cold.
In those days, things were slightly different. The stills were coal-fired, and the stillman sat by the spirit safe with a pipe in his mouth (and no doubt an air of sagacity). He’d yell instructions at the stokers, who would add or remove more coal according to the temperature in the still. Now, said Eddie, elf and safety decrees “you can’t even use a flash camera in the stillhouse”, no doubt lest the gallons upon gallons of highly flammable liquid go up like the seventh circle of hell.
On that very, very cold day (the 22nd December 1961), 500 litres of new make were filled into a pair of American oak bourbon hogsheads. After 50 long years in Bowmore’s famous No. 1 Vaults, just 180 litres remain thanks to the angels’ share, and no doubt one or two thirsty excisemen, Eddie joked. This had the effect of creating a kind of Bowmore concentrate: the condensed essence of what the distillery is all about. My mouth was already watering at the prospect of a delicious mix of Bowmore’s trademark smoky, maritime character.
First on the agenda, however, was a little appetiser. Before us was set a plate of oysters on ice, and a glass of Bowmore 12. We were invited to nose the dram, taking in those lovely bourbon notes: the rich scent of toasty oak and crackling cinder toffee sweetness... Perhaps it’s been a while since I last sampled this one, but the palate seemed sweeter than I remembered – thick and creamy, with plenty of heather honey and smoke.
A further flavour experiment followed when we were told to pour a drop of the whisky into the newly emptied oyster shell. Very interesting indeed; not as bad as one might expect.
I kept eyeing up the bottle of ancient 50 year old Bowmore just yards away. Could I grab it and make a break for it? No! The Scottish people will get you, Mike, I thought to myself. They have knives in their tartan socks!
I pulled my gaze away from the thing, and over to Brodie Nairn and Nichola Burns, two of Scotland’s foremost glass artists from the company Glasstorm. With ancient, archaic tools more or less unchanged since Roman times, they created the fabulous decanters which hold the Bowmore 50 year old. The glass was engraved with an illustration of Bowmore’s No. 1 Vaults, which looked marvellous when held up to the light. Brodie walked around the room, proudly holding the now-filled decanter. As he ventured within inches of me I managed, somehow, to restrain myself from lifting the thing from his hands and legging it, hoping his sporran would hinder any progress should he follow.
After Nichola and Brodie left the stage, they were followed by acclaimed “woodsmith” Peter Toaig, creator of the cabinet for the decanter. During his introduction, he looked visibly pained when some heathen used the word “carpenter”. Apparently he’s not one of those.
His creation was hewn from the finest Scottish Burr Elm – one of just 14 species of tree native to Scotland – increasingly hard to get hold of, blighted as the tree is by Dutch elm disease. The 150-year-old elm was used to create a smart, simple case with a little rustic detailing on the front. To my untrained eyes it looked like it might have arrived flat-packed, and named Henriksblok or Bjurstan. It wasn’t though.
As a final and very handsome detail, the decanter is topped with a solid silver neck collar and stopper, fashioned by sixth generation silversmith, Thomas Fattorini.
Our hosts turned away for a brief moment whilst we cleansed our palates with iced cucumber water. The Bowmore 50 was briefly unwatched. Now’s my chance, I thought to myself, stretching my calves for a speedy exit. But dammit, too late! A Scottish person went over to the bottle, blocking my path.
All that remained was to taste the rare and valuable whisky, a small sample worth hundreds of pounds. Without further ado (there’s been plenty of ado already, I realise):
Tasting Note for Bowmore 50 Year Old 1961
Nose: Dry and intensely sweet, this can’t be fifty years old! Slivers of desiccated pineapple and sweet yoghurt at the fore, with beautifully vanilla-rich bourbon notes. The toasty white oak meets fizzy cola bottle sweet... Old Bowmore so frequently seems to be a marvellous cocktail of old-fashioned sweets, conjuring up images of Public School tuck shops, and fagging (which, if you’re reading from across the Pond, isn’t what you’d think). The nose appears so young, so perfumed. After time in the glass it becomes distinctly maritime, like a carpenter’s (or woodsmith’s?) workshop by the sea. Marzipan develops, with something slightly mushroom-like. Delicious!
Palate: Incredible sweetness to the fore, perfumed and floral. The pineapple remains, but this time there’s berry compote, with lashings of blackcurrant cordial. Then Fishermen’s Friend, sea salt, violet petals and white pepper. As the whisky develops on the palate, there is just a hint of dried porcini mushroom, a touch of cardamom and sugared peel. The palate is youthful and spritely, supremely balanced with soft, refined notes of Bowmore’s trademark muscular smoke.
Finish: The finish is long, very long in fact, thanks to tannic, puckering oak and uniquely fruity acidity. It concludes with a soupcon of potpourri and cherry eau-de-vie.
Overall: The nose on this one is absolutely sublime, one of the richest, most deftly balanced whisky noses I’ve ever tried in fact. The youth and character is just astounding; one would simply never guess it had spent more than half a century in oak. And, thanks to my debilitating fear of Scottish people, the bottle remains safely in Bowmore’s hands.
Finally, as a special treat for you, gentle readers, we’ll be giving away a pair of smart Bowmore whisky nosing glasses made by legendary blowers (haha), Glasstorm...
All you have to do to win is make the standard “chortle chortle let’s mix it with Coke” joke in the comments section below. You know, the joke some prat makes every time we post literally anything about an expensive product. Any genuinely funny jokes will be placed in a hat, and we’ll pick a lucky winner at random and notify you in an upcoming blog post.
We’ll have the Bowmore 50 up on our site soon. We’ll be the proud stockists of one of just five bottles available to the UK market, so keep watching our Twitter feed and New Arrivals page for more details!
Day one back on the job: jolly good. Nice to drink 50 year old whisky, if anything.