Modern Bowmore 12-year old is a pleasant enough light-to-medium peated dram, but I have the rare chance to try an older version, bottled around 2006. This'll be interesting!
While Bowmore's core range of official bottlings these days tend to be a middle-of-the-road take on Islay malt, the older bottlings were known to be lighter and very fruity whiskies that still have a very large following from collectors and high-roller buyers. The famous Black Bowmore from 1993, for example, now commands astronomical prices and is becoming very difficult to find, and the same goes for the follow-up versions. But Bowmores from around the same era, particularly those bottled in the mid-late 1990s through to the early 2000s, were notorious for something less appealing: FWP. That's not a technical distillation technique or an old-school malting process, it's actually a tasting note, coined by some American malt fans. It stands for "French Whore Perfume"!
FWP refers to the strong floral lavender / violet notes that can be found in many Bowmores that were distilled towards the late 1980s to early 1990s. I've only encountered something akin to this in an older bottle of Bowmore 18, and it was certainly off-putting, reminiscent of cheap strongly floral soap, but it was not undrinkable, but that may have been a mild case. The flavour has also been likened to the English confectionery Parma Violets, which I've also had the misfortune of tasting. Not good! There's nothing wrong with floral notes in a whisky, nor mildly-soapy notes, but the combination of strong notes of both can be unpleasant to some (most) tasters.
Obviously the vast majority of Bowmores that we come across today will be free of this unpleasantness, since the problem seems to have been solved in the bottled product towards the early 2000s. I've only experienced it the once, and even then I can't be certain because it's such a subjective thing, which makes it quite hard to judge. What we can be sure of is that Bowmore do make some excellent whiskies, particularly at cask strength like the Tempest (Dorus Mor for those in the U.S.) and Devil's Cask series, and of course the hand-filled bottlings available at the distillery (I've been lucky enough to review one here), and the 15-year old 'Darkest' is a great beginner's introduction to peated & sherried whiskies.
So why am I talking about the apparent problems in some of the older bottlings? Because I have a sample from an older bottling to review! Specifically a Bowmore 12-year old that was bottled around 2006 according to the owner's research, which means it was distilled around 1994. So it could possibly still have a little of those lavender floral notes, but it's unlikely to have any of the overwhelming FWP notes that have unfortunately put some people off Bowmore. Bowmore's core bottlings from this era, which ran from the early 90s to the early-mid 2000s, are known as "screen print label" bottlings after their pretty labels. I can't find any major differences in production processes or methods between then and now, but the key difference here is that this older version of the 12-year old was bottled at 43%, whereas the modern / current version of the 12-year old is down to 40% ABV. That will certainly make a difference, although both bottlings have added colouring and are chill filtered. Let's go back in time...
Bottled circa 2006, known as "screen print label" bottling. Chill filtered, added colouring.
Colour: Amber. There's still some E150a, but it does seem lighter than the modern version.
Nose: Light & soft, a little closed off at first but relaxes with some warmth. Coal dust / chimney soot, some dusty stewed fruits with some lighter tropical fruit in the mix, and a little of the dried sweetened grapefruit that I get from some ex-bourbon Bowmores, but it comes & goes in this case. There's a very light floral soapy-ness (but that could be partly mental as well), a little earth and a metallic note with more time in the glass.
Texture: Light weight, lightly oily. A touch of heat, but not unpleasant by any means.
Taste: Light & sweet, more of that coal dust / chimney soot, and more of that lovely sweet dried grapefruit. This does remind me of a (very) toned down Bowmore Tempest actually. There's a little metallic bitterness further on, plus some apple and a light floral sweetness.
Finish: Short. Spicy and quite astringent to start with, then some dried citrus, more metallic bitterness and a little cocoa powder. Oxidised (browned) red apples and some dusty cinnamon powder, and a little gristy malt at the end.
Score: 3 out of 5.
Notes: It's quite a light and subtle dram this, maybe even fragile, and it's certainly less peaty and less barley-forward than I find the modern Bowmore 12 to be. The copper / metallic bitterness is toned down as well, which is nice. It'd make for a pleasant summer's day dram, with enough slightly unusual notes to keep things interesting. I definitely do prefer this older bottling to the current Bowmore 12. It's less peaty, but also sweeter and much more fruity, without the copper flavour that I find in the modern version. In fact it reminds me of a (very) toned down Tempest (Dorus Mor in the USA) 10-year old expression, which is cask strength, and is a very different whisky from the current 12 year old.
There's no question that the extra 3% ABV has helped hide a few off-notes and turn the volume up a little, although it doesn't seem to have helped the texture or the finish too much. Perhaps there was also a higher portion of the floor-malted barley going into these older bottlings as well? Or, my guess is that there might have been a few more first-fill ex-bourbon casks in the mix in those days, when distilleries had far less pressure on their output than they do know, and single malts weren't as prevalent. But that's only a guess. It's certainly one to try if you come across a bottle somewhere.