It's been a while since that devil's cask review, so let's do a quick refresher on Bowmore distillery. It's the oldest distillery on Islay, having officially opened in 1779, although the famous 'No. 1 vaults' dunnage warehouse is the only surviving building from that era. Unlike most distilleries Bowmore still floor-malt a portion of their barley, with the remainder (and majority) of the barley requirements sourced externally. They produce a medium-peated whisky, which is quite different in character to the other Islay distillates, and can be hit-and-miss for me, particularly within their standard line-up of official bottlings.
But I'd say that to my tastes, this expression is the pick of Bowmore's standard range. Bowmore 15 'Darkest' isn't to be confused with the 15-year old 'Laimrig', which was never imported to Australia as far as I'm aware, and is apparently very good. That one is bottled at cask strength and is released in batches, while the 'Darkest' is a permanent addition the Bowmore's range and is down in strength to 43%. 46% & non-chill filtered would've been even better! There is also a travel / duty-free exclusive Bowmore 15-year old 'Mariner', which is the same 43% in strength as the Darkest, but is a marriage of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks of at least 15 years of age, rather than a finishing. Interestingly, Darkest started out as an NAS bottling, which was also slightly younger, but the distillery upped the age a little and added an age statement Great stuff, and an unusual move these days!
Unfortunately, as is the distillery's standard practice, 'Darkest' has been chill filtered and has had artificial colouring added. It's been matured in ex-bourbon casks for 12 years, and finished in Oloroso sherry casks for the final 3 years. That's quite a long finishing really, so you would expect a decent amount of sherry influence here. I just wish they had skipped the added colouring (and subsequently told us about it!), especially when the whisky is named after its colour. Regardless, at $110-130 in Australia, this one is priced quite reasonably, considering its age and the cost of sherry casks these days. Particularly if you manage to get it in the lower part of that price range.
Bowmore 15-year old 'Darkest', 43%. Islay, Scotland.
Matured in ex-bourbon casks for 12 years, finished in ex-Oloroso sherry casks for 3 years. Chill filtered, added artificial colouring.
Colour: Orange-y bronze.
Nose: Cocoa powder / cocoa dust, musty red grapes, berry compote (sweet sauce). Some peppery oak and some sliced oranges. A hint of earthy peat, a mild caramel sweetness, and some dried mushroom.
Texture: Light, but not too fleeting. A little prickly heat initially but dissipates quickly.
Taste: More smoke than on the nose, but still quite soft and in the background. A big pinch of white pepper, some bitter oak. I normally don't like bitterness at all but it's not too bad here, and doesn't last long. Some dried fruit and leather, and a little licorice.
Finish: Short-medium, but not a long going on. Quite peppery, but not in a harsh raw-alcohol way. Something reminiscent of a dark rum, a little of that dried fruit and a hint of smoke.
Score: 3 out of 5.
Notes: Don't take that to be a bad score, it's higher than I'd place most of the standard Bowmores (the only exception being the 12 yo). There are some notes I don't completely love, but this one's very drinkable and very pleasant overall. None of that off-putting and often unpleasant floral / violet note that older Bowmores are known and renowned for, which is good news. I can't help but wish it was a little more naturally presented, by losing the chill filtration and colouring, but I've had whiskies where those practices were far more obvious. This one doesn't suffer too much at all.
Definitely my pick of Bowmore's regular line-up, and very reasonably priced for the age. Certainly better value than the more-expensive 18-year old. But I'm certainly not a fan of that expression, so perhaps take that with a grain of salt! If you're yet to give Bowmore a try, I'd recommend this expression to cut your teeth on. Hopefully we'll see the cask-strength Laimrig in Australia at some point, I suspect that'd be very good indeed. Fingers crossed.
Thanks to Dan Woolley, The Exchange and Beam Suntory for the sample.