I wasn't particularly impressed with Bowmore Black Rock (review coming soon), and if it's a sherry finished Bowmore you're after I'd go for the 15 year old 'Darkest' instead, no question, and it's also much easier to get a hold of without needing to fly overseas. This 'Gold Reef' expression doesn't contain any sherry-matured whisky, but seems to be more focused on first-fill bourbon casks, so the only real frame of reference I have is the very impressive 10-year old cask strength 'Tempest', which isn't really a fair comparison with this non-age statement (NAS), so most likely younger bottling, at 43% ABV. The name in this case is meant to represent the sunlight reflecting off the coral reefs that can be found off Islay's coast, following the same theme as the other travel / duty free exclusive Bowmores, Black Rock and White Sands. Price-wise, this one isn't too bad, at $100 for one litre, and is only $5 more than the 40% Black Rock. It's also (spoiler alert) considerably better, if you ask me.
There seem to be a few brands that focus on this travel retail market more than others, and the two Beam Suntory-owned Islay distilleries are right up there, although to be fair the two travel-exclusive offerings I've tried from Laphroaig, PX and An Cuan Mor, are excellent. I personally wish it wasn't a thing, or at least not so much of a thing, because it basically means you're depriving a good portion of your loyal customer base of the chance to buy those bottlings, at least on a regular basis. Bruichladdich is another example, as much as I love the distillery and their whiskies, making the recent releases of the fantastic '_.2' versions of Octomore and cask strength 'PC_' versions of Port Charlotte travel-exclusive is just plain mean! I understand that the travel retail market is a big one, and that you need to have offerings that stand out, especially when the prospective customers are novices or are buying for gifts, but for Christ's sake please leave some of the good stuff for the rest of us!
"Predominantly matured in first-fill bourbon casks". Chill filtered, artificially coloured.
Colour: Yellow gold.
Nose: Salty & coastal. Waxed citrus & tropical fruit with extra wax, some dusty red apple, salty sea breezes, some wet copper coins. A fresh floral sweetness and hint of honey, and a hint of damp earth.
Texture: Actually not bad. Still light weight, but much improved thanks to that extra 3% ABV.
Taste: Drier than it was on the nose, and there's some peat here now. A dry, earthy peat, quite prominent initially but fades quickly. Some coal dust and slightly bitter oxidised fruit. A salty citrus tang, and lightly bitter burnt toffee.
Finish: Some more bitterness here, but it's cleared up by a little spirit-y heat on the tongue. That fades too, then we have a little salty citrus again, becoming quite creamy, and the soft earthy peat comes back with some dried herbs and more fruit.
Score: 3 out of 5.
Notes: Not bad really, I'm pleasantly surprised to be honest. There's some roughness on the finish, and it's not a particularly complex dram, plus I'm not a fan of that bitterness on the palate and in the finish. A better texture than expected though, that extra 3% definitely makes a difference here. I'd still like a heavier, weightier texture, but I suspect that the majority of potential buyers for this whisky wouldn't feel the same. It does have some serious competition at the same price point, even in the duty free store, but I think you could easily make a worse choice than the Gold Reef. And when you've just stepped a long flight and are staring, bleary eyed, at rows of mysterious bottles of whisky, most likely without the chance or the time to try any of them, that's good to know.
If you're looking for some more peat and some more sweetness though, I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but just head straight for Laphroaig PX! Thanks to the anonymous donor for this sample, much appreciated.