I wish you'd hold me when I turn my back.
Time to tuck in the kids, light some soft candles, break out the chocolate fondue, and cuddle up on the couch for some get-to-know you time. This whisky's for the adults in the room, with a maturity, a complexity, and a flavor profile to match. At its heart, it is a story of reconciliation, the passage of time, and our human desire for connection. In other words, a real love story.
I saw this bottle on the shelf, and at first I had my doubts. All around it were what I recognized as Bowmore's signature and specialist offerings: Legend, 12yo, Darkest, 18yo, 25yo (good Lord that is some beautiful stuff), 1st and 2nd small batch releases. That right there is enough to give any devoted collector something to chew on for a bit. Then, slightly off to the side, I saw this. A limited edition Bowmore (18,000 bottles), distilled in 1991, bottled in 2007, aged full term in casks previously used to hold port wine. The packaging certainly didn't stand out amidst the newer bottlings. In fact, it seemed sort of unwanted, as if the dozen or so bottles had long since lost hope that anyone would choose them from the row of celebrities beside them. Like a toy that sits unused in the closet, waiting to realize its fullest potential in the eyes of an unassuming young child. Like an instrument that sits upon the shelf, waiting for a master to come and make it sing again. Like a beauty who is continuously passed over for younger, more photogenic women and wonders if someone will ever bother to look at her heart again.
I knew there was a deeper story behind this whisky. After walking around the store for an hour, picking it up, putting it down again, I finally took the leap and brought it up to the register. Upon arriving home I set the box upon the kitchen table and took a long look at it. It seemed to tremble slightly as it stood there, as if it were afraid that it would be judged and found wanting; I placed my hand upon it softly, reassuringly. There was no sound in the room, only the faint sigh of wind and the occasional creak in the wood floors. I waited for the whisky to speak to me, but no sound ever came.
So I reached for the latches, swinging open the hinged lid and beheld that malt resting there, rich as mahogany, pale as silk, demure in all its splendid beauty. When I pulled the bottle out of the box, unwrapped that fragile cork cover, poured the spirit, and tasted, a song as old as time began to fill my soul.
The trick with port maturation is knowing when you've got the result you want. All maturation is, by its very nature, experimental, as each individual cask touches the spirit in unique ways. Glenmorangie's Quinta Ruban was only finished in port pipes, having spent its first 10 years in American white oak. Talisker just this week has announced a permanent addition to its lineup, the Port Ruighe, again finished in port pipes after time in American and European oak. But this spirit... this spirit has spent its full 16 years below sea level with that soft, pleasing wine. The result is that we have something very mature on our hands, knowing much about the world, and much about the nature of hardship and commitment.
On the nose, it's beauty and the beast. Port finishes have never been my absolute favorite, but the influence is undeniable. Dark chocolate and fruits, walks along the beach and making out in the rain. This fragrance gives us a portrait of the spirit's youth, freewheeling and unencumbered. She met a man, a smoky, rugged, handsome type, and she pledged her life and love to him. It's The Notebook in spirit form, but the smoke here is subdued, even for a Bowmore.
A little water opens this up. With port finishes (or any unctuous wine finish) I think just a little water does good (even though this one's at cask strength - whew!). It brings out the floral, fruity notes - but not too much, or it gets a bit waxy. This guy knew how to strike just the right balance. Courtship must have left her head over heels. :-)
The palate is complex and heavy. You get the sense that in 16 years of marriage not everything went right all the time. And if you've ever been married, you know that this is true. We sometimes believe that life and love are like the movies, except the movies always end at the wedding scene and rarely show us the candid moments that come during the "happily ever after". We spend so much time worrying about the wedding, when what we should be investing in is every day that comes after. This spirit may not have always had the right tools, but faith, hope, and love prevailed to give us this remarkable dram.
Some fights and tiffs spring out of the glass here, mostly as the smokiness and sweetness contrast. The nature of the port pipes is a brooding one; this isn't a bourbon-finish, southern belle sweetness or a soft french oak vanilla, it's a woman who knows how to speak her mind. The very dark chocolate entry gives way to playful, creamy cordial cherries. I get the feeling there was a lot of fighting and making up here - fun!
The Bowmore malt, and its accompanying warm smokiness, are the strong vessel here, the master of the house and the spiritual head of the dram. He's the one who loves her when she's spiteful, comforts her when she's lost, and asks for forgiveness when he's brash or insensitive. He's the well-respected man about town, doing the best things with confidence and imperfection. As the flavors fade on the palate, the lasting impression is largely that of sweetness; he even lets her have the last word :-) Together, they make quite a team.
What seems experimental turns out to have been divine provenance. Only 24 casks of this spirit were ever made, and in that 16 years it never lost that signature Bowmore balance. Although it's been a crazy ride, neither the malt nor its finish ever once went back on their word. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, they love and honor each other. If you can get your hands on this incredible expression / love story, it's well worth the cost.
Tasting is a synesthetic experience. In this blog, every whisky gets a song - one that describes, suits, and evokes. I review any whisky that suits my fancy, and some that don't. I don't give scores. You'll know whether it's a winner or loser when we peel back its mysteries and start putting pen to paper.