Some claim that Bowmore began distilling in 1779, but there is no evidence of whisky being made here until John Simpson took out a licence in 1816. It wasn’t until 1837 when the Glasgow blending firm, Wm & Jas. Mutter took over that Bowmore really began to gain traction and reputation. In 1841 a cask of Bowmore was even requested by Windsor Castle despite the common belief at the time that the English palate was considered too delicate (or Scotch too bold).
As often happens, the distillery passed through a number of hands before it was bought in 1963, by broker Stanley P. Morrison. The Morrison era saw the start of what is recognised as a legendary period in Bowmore’s history – its mid-1960s bottlings are truly inspiring.
The distillery was substantially modernised with an innovative heat recovery system which not only cut down on fuel bills, but also created sufficient excess hot water to heat the town’s swimming pool. In 1989 the Japanese distiller Suntory bought a stake in the distillery and took full control in 1994, the year after the ground-breaking Black Bowmore was launched. This 100% Sherry-aged release was sold for what at the time was seen as the ludicrously inflated price of £100. In 2014 Suntory bought Jim Beam which, from an Islay perspective, sees two of Islay’s most iconic single malts (Bowmore and Laphroaig) united under the same ownership.
Bowmore’s classic style is smoky, reminiscent of beach bonfires, with a distinctly saline note, flowers, cereal, citrus and underneath a touch of tropical fruit. It is this character which, when matured in refill casks for a long period of time, becomes the primary aroma, the peat seemingly disappearing completely. A significant percentage of the make is aged in ex-Sherry butts which take Bowmore off in another direction – one of dark fruits, chocolate, coffee, citrus and smoke. The extensive range picks and chooses between these extremes. A significant percentage of the distillery’s whisky is matured on the island, with the distillery’s No.1 Vaults being held to have the most extraordinary microclimate. This chill, damp environment – the vault is below the level of Loch Indaal and one wall makes up the town’s sea wall – is seen as ideal for long-term maturation.