I don’t have a very large budget for my whisky consumption. I scrimp, save and work overtime in order to fund the privilege of enjoying a quality dram (or several) on a night off.
Fortunately for me, a large part of the whisky market is made up of quality bottles that are often cited as “beginners whiskies”. These are the high volume bottlings that distilleries need to stack high and sell cheap in order to bring in the reliable bulk of their income. Old Pulteney 12. Glenfiddich 12. Glenmorangie 10. The great all-rounder Highland Park 12. Any beginner would certainly be off to a good start with any of those drams.
They’re usually bottled at 40% with chill filtration and at least a bit of colouring to maintain consistency between batches and cost between £25 and £30. One notable exception is Bunnahabhain 12 which retails at around £30 and comes in a craft presentation with no colour, no chill filtration and an ABV of 46%. If you’re at the start of your whisky journey and want some context of what all the talk of chill filtration and colouring actually means, then try Bunna’ 12.
Any beginner would be well recommended to try any of the bottles mentioned above and they deservedly occupy a spot on the shelf of any self-respecting whisky enthusiast. That said, broadly speaking, whiskies are priced according to their merit.
There is something of a responsibility on the part of distilleries when producing lower priced bottles to guarantee a minimum quality and a good showing of what their stills are capable of producing, irrelevant of price. After all it’s in their interest and that of the wider industry to entice new drinkers in to buy their older and more expensive bottles. The experience they form from the whisky they buy at the start of their journey may well form their opinion of scotch in general. This brings me on to the subject of this review which is Bowmore 12 year old.
It’s 40%, chill filtered and clearly contains a rather large helping of caramel colourant, as the colour is that of varnished mahogany. They’ve sullied your precious bottle of single malt with what is essentially the scrapings from the bottom of an industrial vat of burnt sugar in order to make it appear more like the whisky they drink in the movies, which was probably bourbon anyway.
The label promises perfect balance, sweetness and peat smoke. I’m really not getting much in the way of smokiness from this dram. Maybe there’s a hint but it’s not even at the level of Highland Park 12 with it’s signature whisp of bonfire on the finish. It’s as if Bowmore were worried that any real smokiness would put off more inexperienced palates but decided to keep the phrases “peat smoke” and “Islay Single Malt” proudly emblazoned on the label because it sounds good (I know not all Islays are heavily peated but the implication is there).
What I do get is a little malty sweetness at the arrival, a bit of floral with a body of metallic copper notes, then a handful of sour off notes before a really quite tart finish, the shortness of which is probably a blessing. If you’re in the UK, grab a handful of pennies or two pence pieces and rub them together in your hands, then take a good sniff. Bowmore 12 smells like this to me and it isn’t pleasant.
In this bottle’s defence and for the purpose of objectivity I’ll say that I paid £23 for my bottle as it was on offer, and I will finish the bottle. It’s not undrinkable but the standard asking price of £40 is frankly absurd considering the competition at this price point. Springbank 10. Talisker 10. Ardbeg 10. All whiskies that fit the description of peat smoke with perfectly balanced sweetness that would wipe the floor with Bowmore 12.
My concern is that somebody will choose a bottle of this for their first Single Malt, lay down their cash and receive a mediocre experience and tasting notes that barely relate to the contents of the bottle in return. If I’d have done so it would have sent me scurrying back to my Jim Beam and coke for half the price.
Incidentally the first Single Malt that I purchased for myself was Highland Park 12 (the bottling before the current Viking Honour version, but that’s another story…) and I still recommend that as the perfect first whisky today. It’s £25 and is known as the great all rounder for a good reason. It showed me what a decent single malt should be, and spoke loudly and proudly for scotch whisky in general.