The iconic Bowmore distillery was supposedly established in 1779 although records do vary regarding the exact date. Speculation goes back to the 1760’s when the new village of Bowmore was constructed and the distillery buildings are in keeping with the style of the site build. What is clear regardless of the specific date, is that Bowmore is one of Scotland’s oldest working examples still in production and certainly the oldest licensed distillery on Islay, as Lagavulin can only claim earlier dates via illicit stills.
Bowmore is founded by David Simson after he leases land from a Daniel Campbell. The passing of the 1823 Excise Act prompts work at Bowmore to increase production and source a larger water supply, which was again improved in the 1840’s and remains in use today. W. & J. Mutter after inheriting the distillery, enjoy success exporting and raising the profile of Bowmore far beyond Islay and we have the detailed account of Alfred Barnard’s visit to the distillery in the 1880’s. For the period for most Scottish distilleries we only his descriptions to rely on for detail, thankfully Barnard seemed quite taken with Bowmore and after enduring a long coach drive he describes the distillery as occupying 4 acres of ground. Precise details follow but it is the sketches that endure today, with the most remarkable being that of the still house and it’s 4 stills. In particular a low wine still with a double forked head running into 2 worm tubs, accompanied by a statement regarding their still shapes that the firm will not allow any deviation from. Even Barnard commented that he had never a still shaped like it previously and sadly this still and its fate have been lost to time.
Due to economic problems in the 1890’s the firm of W. & J. Mutter goes into liquidation and is taken over by a London based consortium named the Bowmore Distillery Company. Their ownership only endures till 1925, thanks to the problems of wars, economic decline and the effects of the Pattison crash across the whisky industry. Taking over the challenge was Sherriff’s Bowmore Distillery Limited, which was owned by Duncan MacLeod from the Isle of Skye before passing onto Inverness firm William Grigor & Son Limited in 1950. A blending firm with roots going back to Glen Albyn distillery in the Highlands, work was completed on a new warehouse and still room before Morrison Bowmore Distillers takes over in 1963. The distillery survives the difficult period of the 1980’s when whisky demand slumps and the peated style of whisky falls completely out of favour by exporting to Japan. This lifeline ultimately attracts Japanese giant, Suntory, who take a 34% share in the parent company in 1989, before 5 years later taking complete ownership of Morrison Bowmore and its distilleries, which endures today.
The distillery has had a visitor centre since the 1960’s and offers a variety of tours with the Craftsman’s tour particularly recommended. This allows you to venture beyond the viewing room deep into the sanctuary of the legendary three-story No.1 warehouse. On the ground level you are actually standing below sea level, with only the thick outer wall to protect you from the crashing waves that you can hear during stormy weather. It’s just a stunning environment and a must for any whisky enthusiast to experience and helps Bowmore create the coastal flavours it’s famous for. Also included in most tours are the floor maltings that are still in use and help provide a percentage of Bowmore’s daily requirements, with the rest coming via the Port Ellen maltings.
Bowmore should be a mixture of light peat, smoke and fruit which combine to give it an unmistakable character and dynamic nature, with the emphasis on smoke. Unfortunately, due to production changes during the 1980’s it all went terribly wrong with the spirit style changing. This endured into the 90’s but Suntory have sought to address the balance and restore the classic Bowmore character. The bottlings and distillate from this era are fondly named as having an overly pronounced French perfume character with a soapy taste. It’s a legacy that has been addressed with the current range of Bowmore’s showing an improvement.
Today, Bowmore can produce around 2 million litres annually, which goes to support its extensive single malt range and cask for independent bottlers. The range is currently a combination of age statements from 9, 10, 12 and 15 years old, with older expressions available and is in the process of being refined. These and their No Age Statement expressions show the effects of maturation in different types of casks. With the Morrison Bowmore master blender, Rachel Barrie, moving onto Brown-Forman recently, more changes may be incoming, but the legacy of Bowmore and its popularity endures as an iconic distillery.