Bowmore: Distillery Tour

Sunday, October 21, 2012

So we've finally reached Bowmore after working our way around the various distilleries that Islay has to offer. A nice piece of symmetry here, as this was also my final tour on the island and one I had been looking forward to greatly. Bowmore is a malt that I'm keen to discover more about and rather than go for just the standard distillery tour, I splashed out £45 for the Craftsman's Tour which runs Monday-Thursday and is best to book in advance.
More than any other distillery, Bowmore is the central focus of a small village whereas most of the others are out on their own. Parking can be an issue at times as it is a thriving wee place with the local bank, petrol station etc just a stones throw away from the distillery. I'd also recommend checking out Spirited Soaps across the road, who do a nice line of malt themed soaps from across Islay. Laphroaig works really well as a soap believe it or not!
Bowmore is clustered around the waterfront of its namesake and the main reason for booking this type of tour was to see the stages in-depth and have the chance to quiz the guide in detail. Working your way around Islay you do realise tours can be busy affairs and you can become lost in the scrum at times, often seeing the same folk again and again. The advantage of the Craftsman's is you have that bit longer and in this case I was on my own for the duration of the tour. Heather my guide, was fantastic. She really knew her whisky, Bowmore and across the 2 hour tour she took great care of me. 
The tour can only begin with the maltings and Bowmore is one of a handful that still do this process. After hearing all about the way the malt was prepared, to actually see this first at Laphroaig then Kilchoman was tremendous. The special tour here at Bowmore, I had to be coaxed to actually walk across the neatly laid out floor before grasping some of the traditional tools and being put to work for a brief moment! A first in my whisky journey!
We weren't done with the process as we moved into the room to see where it is dried by the peat kiln fire - making sure mechanical turner was switched off! Sitting in the room, ankle deep in this important resource and seeing, smelling and touching the process was a marvellous moment. Again, another benefit to this particular tour. A much needed shake down was required when we departed this room!
We were fortunate during the tour to see the delivery of the mechanically cut local peat. The guys would then shovel this into the kiln. As part of the tour we actually went into the back of the kiln and to see the process and how the smoke was distributed thereafter. Then we moved onto the lavish mashing area but before this we went behind the distillery to see where the water source gushes into Bowmore. This stream was originally hand built and goes out (I think) 7 miles and still does the job today. From the photo you can see the colour of the water.
 

The mashing area is very impressive, a towering structure while the washbacks are named after each of the previous owners, although they've run out of room for the current Japanese owners. 

Needless to say I've taken a whole load of pictures as these are encouraged on the tour. The only area where photos may be an issue is the mill if this was in operation, but during my visit it was static and we could take in another example of these wonderfully durable pieces of engineering. As always my photographs are available here for anyone wanting to see the distillery in greater detail. 

The still room was equally as impressive and the theme of access continued. The final stop on the tour before moving back to the visitor centre is arguably the highlight of any tour to Bowmore, the famous No1 Warehouse. 

The normal tour allows you to enter the warehouse and view the barrels from within an enclosed area. Now the Craftsman's Tour goes beyond the screen as the door is unlocked and you walk into the warehouse. This is a moment I will never forget. Casks from the 1950's around one side and some new arrivals with Japanese casks filled with aged Bowmore as an experiment, and signed by what I can only guess are the Japanese owners.  What these casks will provide one day, who knows? There are experiments and treasures in this warehouse.
Photos are not permitted outside of the viewing room yet these would not catch the aromas and sounds of the waves crashing against the sea wall beyond. You read about such places and to be allowed within it was a VIP moment, something I will truly treasure and recommend to any whisky enthusiast. As part of this journey into legends, Heather took me deep into the warehouse where I was able to use a thief tool to take samples from a sherry cask and a bourbon cask. My technique was a little rusty for the sherry cask with a little spillage, but much improved for the 2nd attempt. Then I was able to saviour both before coming up with our own version of a Bowmore blend. For the record I prefer the bourbon cask yet combining both offered something new before tossing the remnants against a particular section of the wall, rich with mould. Sadly, I was driving later that evening so had to watch my intake.
The funny thing about the photograph above is that we had to close and lock the warehouse with a tour inside - who much have been wondering what we were up to outside! What a place and walking down the outside of the barrels along the sea facing wall, with those sounds rebounding; my favourite whisky moment ever. The tour then returns to the well stocked gift shop and the upstairs seating area where a bar is available and as part of the Craftsman Tour, Heather took note of my tastes from the warehouse experience and recommended some samples of Bowmore to further my appreciation.
So this is the most expensive whisky tour I've taken but easily the best. A fantastic way to end my Islay trip and one I hope to repeat one day. All of the photographs are available here and I certainly took loads during the tour! For 2012 that's probably almost all the tours I have planned, there is a good chance I will be visiting Deanston, to experience their £625,000 visit centre investment which is open all year round and I met some of the team (once again) at the recent BBC Good Food Show. It is a small world when you live in Scotland and enjoy whisky.

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