It’s Master of Malt Islay Festival 2021 Day 6: Bowmore time! Today, we’re taking a look at all the online excitement going on at the distillery while Millie Milliken delves into the dark art of mixing smoke with sherry.
For the sixth day of our Master of Malt Islay Festival 2021, we’re heading to the west coast of the island to visit Bowmore, the home of some of Scotland’s most revered whiskies. You can’t be there in person but you can get into the spirit of things by visiting some of the online events below, watching our video from Feis Ile 2019, listening to our Islay memories Spotify playlist and, of course, drinking some tasty Bowmore single malts. And we’ve got Millie Milliken below finding out how distillers balance smoke with sherry casks. What a line-up!
What’s going on today:
Visit the Bowmore Feis Ile page for the full itinerary.
11:30am A Warm Welcome – opening event
12:30pm Bowmore Distillers Art tour – learn how the whisky is made
1:30pm Cook along with Pete McKenna – top Scottish chef shows you how it’s done.
5pm Our Island Home – join the team for a tour of Islay
6pm Malting with the Manager – distillery manager David Turner talks about how malt affects the flavour of the whisky.
7pm Live tasting – panel including master of spirits Iain McCallum, David Turner and others taste and discuss some fine Bowmore malts.
There will also be a festival bottling. Sign up here to enter the ballot for a chance to buy it.
Smoke and sherry 101
What happens when you bring the flavours of smoke and sherry together in a whisky? Turns out, quite a lot. Millie Milliken spoke to the people in the know about how to marry the two together harmoniously.
As far as alliterative double acts in whisky production go, smoke and sherry is an intriguing one. Peat levels, sherry origin, barley strain, ageing time and cask wood all play their parts when it comes to that final liquid – be it Bowmore 15 Year Old, Talisker 2010 Distillers Edition or Ardbeg Uigeadail.
“Most of our expressions are a combination of bourbon and sherry casks,” David Miles, Bowmore’s brand ambassador, tells me. It is the 15 year old though that really stands out when it comes to smoke and sherry. “We do something different there. We do 12 years maturation in bourbon barrels then transfer everything to sherry casks for the final three years.” That final three years, Miles says, transforms the smokiness into something that more resembles cinder toffee.
It ain’t cheap though, he points out, but the reward for the whisky maker of having more opportunity to play around – and the added layer of flavour – make it worth it.
For Jason Clark, Talisker brand ambassador, he sees the addition of aging in sherry casks as “a subtle seasoning to enhance complexity without dominating our signature distillery character”.
Easier said than done. So, what key elements of the whisky making process do makers need to focus on when it comes to balancing the two?
For peat’s sake
Peat, the source of the smoke, can come in many forms. “Mainland peat does have a more woody quality to it when you burn it, whereas Islay peat is more heather and seaweed,” explains Miles. When it comes to Bowmore, the team combines the two types of peat. They also have the advantage of having their own floor malting meaning they can peat about 30% of their Laureate barley using Islay peat, while what they bring in from the mainland (Concerto barley) will be peated using mainland peat.
Over at Talisker, the team uses a mixture of both peated and non-peated barley. “This means that the smoke is a layer of flavour and aroma amongst many others rather than being the dominant character,” explains Clark.
Get your fill
Sherry cask is, it goes without saying, a key factor too. For Bowmore, it’s nearly always Oloroso sherry casks (with a couple of exceptions) which are sourced from a ‘seasoning bodega’ in Jerez and have been used by the brand for over 20 years.
Talisker tends to use refill casks, “for a gentle maturation process that allows our distillery character to shine through, particularly the savoury salt, the spicy pepper and that classic maritime smoke,” says Clark.
And while the type of sherry, whether its super sweet like a PX or bone dry like an Amontillado, plays its part, so does the wood the barrels are made of. Something Miles is keen to impress: “More often than not, those flavours are probably more to do with the fact that it is European oak being used,” he explains of the dried fruit and spice notes of Bowmore’s sherry cask bottlings. “Lots of sherry casks are made with American oak and that will give you very different flavours. We as an industry just tend to talk about ‘sherry cask’, but we should probably be paying attention to the subspecies of oaks.”
Age is but a number… or is it?
While the time spent in barrel gives flavour, it can also taketh away. Miles points out that around the 16-18 year mark, the peat influence in Bowmore starts to decline. This fact is true for nearly all peated whisky, meaning everything past those years will mainly be coming from the wood.
When it comes to that Bowmore 15 Year Old, then, it is just at that tipping point: “because the smoke has started to decline it allows that sweetness to come through”.
For Clark, while the casks bring those wonderful winter spice and dry nuttiness notes to the liquid, In some instances, the influence of sherry can be overdone. Balance, he says, is key.