October 02, 2012

Bowmore Distillery - a warm place for a wee dram!

In 1966, Eddie MacAffer was hired at Bowmore Distillery to dig drains. 46 years later, Whisky Magazine has named Eddie 'Whisky Distillery Manager of the Year", an honour he shares with John McLellan of Kilchoman. In September, I had the pleasure of spending a morning with Eddie, and it was a special morning filled with tales and reminiscences, a good look around a well run distillery, the sharing of career highlights and some fine tastings. 
Following a fortnight's hard work digging drains, Eddie worked his way through every area at Bowmore - the warehouse, the malt barn, the stillhouse and the mash house until, in the 1990's, Jim McEwan, now production director at Bruichladdich and another industry icon, made him head maltman, followed by brewer, head distiller and eventually Distillery Manager. Eddie has been involved in running the distillery for the last 20 years or so.
He is enormously proud of the Bowmore range of whiskies - a range that is substantial by any measure and includes Legend, 12, 15, 18, Surf, Enigma 12, Mariner 15, 17, Tempest 10, Laimrig 15, as well as some rare whiskies and Islay festival special bottlings. I asked Eddie what his absolute favourite whisky was and he shared with me his proudest moment at Bowmore.
In 1964, two years before young Eddie joined Bowmore, some whisky went into ex-sherry casks and some into ex-bourbon casks for maturation. That in itself was not particularly unique except for the fact that the whisky was left to mature for over 40 years. The Black (ex-sherry) was bottled at 42 years, the White (ex-bourbon) at 43 and, in 2009 in San Francisco and New York, the distillery released a very limited edition lot of  the Gold (a marriage of the two). Eddie proclaimed the Gold to be the best whisky he had ever tasted in his entire life. Post release, the trilogy auctioned at Christie's for $21,600.
Not all old whisky is wonderful. High among many contributory factors to a fantastic old whisky is the quality of the maturation casks and, according to Eddie, Bowmore pays particular attention to cask selection and quality.
Later in the morning, after an in-depth tour of the distillery, Eddie took me into Bowmore's famous vault #1, a damp, cold and dark dunnage warehouse, the oldest in Scotland, the only one below sea level and a place perfect for maturation. In the deepest part of the vault, the sea can clearly be heard rolling around overhead. In other parts of the vault, the distillery ghost (apparently a  benign phantom) can sometimes, purportedly, be seen or heard.
From the grand selection of casks, quietly maturing some of Bowmore's finest whisky, Eddie selected a bourbon cask and an older sherry cask for me to try. Both were outstanding - wonderful expressions of two lovely Bowmore whiskies, differentiated by age and the cask. We created our own version of Gold by doing a little blending of the two. Outstanding!
Prior to reaching the vault, we had a leisurely and informative stroll around the distillery, starting with the floor maltings, where Eddie demonstrated the technique for turning the malt. Only a handful of distilleries in Scotland still carry out any of their own floor maltings. Most, for reasons of economics and demand, obtain their malt, prepared to individual specifications, from malting works. Of the few that malt some or all of their barley in house, three are on Islay - Bowmore, Laphroaig and Kilchoman - another reason to visit this wonderful west coast island.
Bowmore's ultimate owner is Suntory, a company that Eddie greatly respects. Its demand for quality and tradition is evident throughout the distillery, from the retention of the traditional malting works to the beautiful 100 year old copper tanks, the mash tun and the stills, all of which look as if they've been hand polished.
From the malting floor, we visited the kilns, where peat is burned for 15 hours to imbue wonderful smoky character into the green and drying barley, prior to 45 hours further drying with hot air. Standing inside the kiln and breathing in all the hot air and barley and peat aromas was a truly delightful experience. I felt like snuggling down in a warm corner with a wee dram.
Each of the six washbacks has a name above it - reflecting the different ownership throughout the years. Eddie had a story to tell about each one, finishing with the Morrison family, who took over ownership in 1963.
Near the end of our walkabout, I noticed a room named the Caboodle room and Eddie explained that, in the 1950's, Edward Atkin, a professorial type of  fellow who liked to dabble with new make spirit and concoct all kinds of different beverages, used to work in that room and talk about all his "kit and caboodle". It's doubtful that much of Edward's mixtures made it into bottles but the name remains. Up until 1974, the Caboodle room was also used for "dramming the men" - the practise of giving a substantial dram of whisky to each of the distillery workers several times a day!
In 1957, presumably one of these well lubricated workers was responsible for filling a particular cask, the contents of which were carefully nurtured for 54 years. Only 12 bottles from this cask will go on sale, making it the oldest Islay malt ever released. Two bottles will be auctioned by Bonhams during October - one in Edinburgh and the other  in New York, each with a reserve bid of approximately $155,000, with all net proceeds being donated to five Scottish charities. How splendid!
In a previous act of community service, Bowmore donated maturation warehouse number three to the town of Bowmore. This building now houses the town swimming pool, which is heated via a pipeline from the distillery - further reason for Eddie MacAffer to be proud of his place of work.
Before heading to the distillery shop to purchase some more modestly priced bottles than the Gold, I chatted with "Ginger" Willie, who started at the distillery 45 years ago, when his hair was ginger. As I shared the same nickname when I was a young lass, I felt a certain affinity with this delightful man with the lilting accent and many island tales to tell.
After fond farewells and a promise to return, I headed to the pier to snap a few last photos of the distillery. While I battled against a vicious wind producing impressive waves that lashed over the breakwater, I marvelled at the fact that I had just met two fine folk whose time at Bowmore totalled 91 years!
This is a giddy year for Morrison Bowmore on the Icons of Whisky arena. In addition to Eddie's award, other accolades include Whisky Distiller of the Year and Whisky Ambassador of the Year, awarded to Iain McCallum, marketing services manager. In addition to Bowmore distillery, Morrison Bowmore own Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch. Whisky Magazine awarded the company Whisky Distiller of the Year for a number of reasons including some fine releases from all three brands. Even if you don't pick up a bottle of Bowmore Gold or bid on a bottle of the 1957, chances are there's a fine bottle of Bowmore out there to whet your whisky palate.
Next up - Lagavulin.