I must admit to a familiar preference for Islay scotches, over and above the highland or Campbeltown varieties. There's a decided advantage to the Islays among serious dramming enthusiasts, and for very good reason.
Irish whiskies, for instance, have a characteristic lightness and floweriness, so if that's the way your taste tends, you probably will like the best of the Highland scotches. Islay distilleries, on the contrary, traditionally have produced stronger, saltier, peatier whiskies. Islay is a large island to the west of mainland Scotland, and its distilleries are sited right on the shoreline, which is popularly regarded as part of the reason for their characteristic "saltiness"--though their intense flavors have many other familiarly powerful componants. Strength, in speaking of whisky, generally refers to the percentage of alcohol content, but I use the word here in both that sense, as well as in the sense of the overall fullness and intensity of the flavor. If the effect of a liquor were only dependent upon its proof, then the highest proofs would inevitably be the most widely admired, but of course that isn't the case at all. Still, limited "barrel-strength" batches of Single Malt are highly coveted, in part (I think), because they are frequently 6-15% more alcoholic than the standard 43%, which is the usual bottled proof sold on the market.
I have tasted hundreds of single malts, but I have nowhere near the numbers serious malt tasters do, with thousands on their record. But I have a good grounding, and I think I have a clear notion of the kinds of goods that represent each region of production, and have tasted enough of the great batches to know the difference between the good, the great, and the also rans. I have probably tasted a dozen Bowmore bottlings, since it is an Islay scotch, and I like those kinds the best. When it comes to describing what makes a great single malt scotch, words fail me. But I suspect that this is a quite common problem, not just for the uninitiated, but for the experts themselves, who, though they follow a universally accepted panoply of descriptives (terms and familiar shorthand), they often end up with quite different sensations--or is it simply a failure to specify the subtle nuances in the liquor? As a test, I thought I'd print out a sequence of online tasting reports for this malt, and compare them with my own impressions. I wrote down my own description first, without looking at the others, so that I wouldn't be influenced by theirs. I think this is best, though when shopping for liquor, it's quite common to accept the word of "experts" in choosing and estimating the probable quality and experience to come.
Bowmore 18 Year Single Malt 43% alc. vol.
Voted "Best in Show" for Single Malt category of 2007 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
My taste expression:
Nose: charcoal-graphite ripe wheat wood-smoke apple-skin maple-y faint soapy-bleachy shellac-resin
Taste: Toffee-caramel chocolate-vanilla salty/sea-air burnt meringue burnt oats
Finish Candied raisins lingering dry burnt heat sugary bacon-onion
Scotch Hobbyist's Blog expression:
On the nose, I think the 18 offers pretty much the same profile, but it’s stronger, with quite a bit more fruit. I’m not getting that “hot tea” thing as much with this one. Just peat, smoke and mixed fruit.
On the palate, again you can tell this is in the same family as the 12. However, there’s more body. Additionally, there’s some spice in the form of a peppery grip on the tongue. It’s not as strong as a talisker, but it’s there, and I like it.
Beautifully balanced, yet incredibly complex, Bowmore 18 Year displays rich notes of toffee, caramel, and dried fruit accentuated by dark chocolate and a light smokiness. Hints of sea salt and fine sherry appear on the lingering finish.
Nose: Autumn leaves on a damp woodland floor. Heather, woodsmoke, and waxy apple peelings, with a citrus fruitiness becoming more evident with time.
Palate: A broader feel on the mouth than the nose suggested, with more evidence of sherry casks. Intensely floral with more citrus and chocolate.
Finish: A burnt-floral character.
Overall: Complex and very changeable in the glass, this took time to settle but was very satisfying when it did.
Dramming Everything Whisky expression:
Color: Dark amber
Nose: Cherries, blackberries, dark chocolate, a little smoke.
Palate: Mild peat, cherries, cocoa, smooth.
Finish: Medium long, fruity peat.
Overall: The character is not unlike the 15 yo Darkest, but I think the 18yo lacks some of the richness without offering much in return. Especially the finish is a bit on the weak side.
Wardrobe Whisky expression:
This is a complex, enigmatic and interesting Bowmore. One to ponder over at a leisurely "Islay-time" pace, as it won't be rushed and takes a little time to open up and reveal its true quality.
This dram has a white-like color.
Nose: Sweet, peat, sea, citrus freshness, coffee, cocoa.
Taste: Sweet, peat, iodine, coffee, floral, citrus, dates, nuts.
Finish: Peat, iodine, sweet, citrus.
The peat on this truly Islay malt lives together with a delicious citrus freshness altogether with some great notes of cocoa and nuts.
Color: Full gold.
Nose: Peaty, smoky, malty.
Body: Light, dry, nutty, malty, smooth.
Palate: Cookie-like maltiness, ferny, smoky, then the sea air gradually emerges.
Finish: Sweet smoky nuttiness.
[Wine Enthusiast Review] The nose has loads of chocolate covered cherries and orange peel, honey, sherry, s'mores, cocoa, black coffee and dark fudge. All these fragrances are present in the mouth. Ends luscious, sweet and generous.
What Does John Know? expression:
The fruit (orange marmalade, tangerine, fresh pineapple) is nearly as dominant as the leafy smoke. Sweet notes of nutty caramel, honeyed barley, toffee, and nougat round out the palate. Ginger, cinnamon, telicherry pepper, tobacco, and ash play a supporting role. Lingering fruity, smoky finish. For those who like sherried Islay whiskies.
For Peat' Sake expression:
Nose: Smoky, with some peat, nougat and cookie-dough. Slightly briny.
Body: Full, chewy.
Palate: Nougat and caramel are followed by smoke, some salt, a whiff of sherry, chocolate, ripe banana. Definitely some wood as well.
Finish: Long and dry. Salty, peaty and smoky, some nutty flavours (almonds?) and wood.
You could say, reading these reviews, that different people have different taste sensations, but there's also a common thread running through all of them. The words smoky, salty, sherry, chocolate, citrus, nuts recur again and again. Are people who can detect faint variations in different fruit tastes more subtle in their apprehensions? Are the predominant sensations the "correct" ones? Could we say, with justice, that this malt spirit has a smoky, burnt, or charcoal-y quality, without reservation? I think so. Caramel, after all, is nothing more than sugar heated to a melting point ("burnt sugar" or "brown sugar" sensations). No one said "molasses."
Another question on my lips would be: What would a "cask strength" version of this malt taste like? Usually, cask aging results in a higher alcoholic content. This imparts what is sometimes referred to in the trade as a "rough" or "unruly" or "uneven" quality. "Finishing" a whisky often involves nothing more than bringing down the alcoholic content through distilling to a mean 43%+/- level, which is how these spirits are typically sold. But "barrel batches"--small as they may be--often offer the most interesting and powerful flavors. Like wines, the best whiskies may be best constructed of elements which can effectively "balance" a higher (hotter) alcoholic presence. "Bigger" wines, like "bigger" whiskies, may be the result of higher concentrations of separate effects--though, again, stronger spirits as such aren't necessarily better.
Going back to my somewhat amateurish description(s), any suggestion of soap, resin or animal fats in spirit language is definitely frowned on. Yet I think these descriptions are accurate to my own palate. Perhaps I'm just an uneducated dunce who hasn't learned to discriminate hia tastes according to the accepted wisdom of centuries of whisky knowledge! But that kind of haughty condescension belongs in the promotional departments of whisky wholesalers and retailers. As an ordinary bloke following his nose, so to speak, I'm perfectly free to judge according to my own standards of flavor. I can make my own categories of flavor. One of my old single malt friends once said he'd created a separate category of flavor, which he called "smashed bugs"--and, sure enough, the more I thought about it, the more I detected this flavor in malts.
Smashed bugs, anyone?